Turning Awareness Into Action

Lately, I’ve been on a Malcolm Gladwell kick. In the last two months, I’ve listened* to three of his books. In Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, he introduces the “bystander effect” by way of a story about the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. In short, the bystander effect is the assumption that someone else will react and offer aid to a person in need when it is known that another is witness to or aware of the need; the more observers, the stronger the assumption.

My first reaction to hearing about this effect was to think I was above it. But upon further reflection, I realized the opposite was true. My mind went immediately to a time last fall.

With three kids in the backseat, my wife and I were leaving the gym around dinnertime when we witnessed a woman at a bus stop attempt in vain to get a bus to stop and let her on. I have no idea how the driver missed her. She was standing in plain sight. Still, despite the woman’s best attempts to flag him down, the driver did not stop.

As I drove by, my wife said, “Poor girl, we should give her a ride.”

I was not on the same page. I just wanted to get home, unload our children, and prepare dinner. Besides, she could call a friend or wait for the next bus. As I drove past her, I dismissively remarked, “We really don’t have room in the car anyway.”

The truth is we did have room in the car. In fact, we had an entire third row that was folded flat. I’m embarrassed to say I just didn’t want to be bothered with stopping the car, folding up the third row and going out of my way to drive a stranger to her destination. I assumed someone else would help this woman, or that another bus would pick her up shortly.

If presented with the same scenario as a hypothetical, I’d have told you I would have definitely stopped to help—I mean, what kind of person would just drive by?

I’m not proud of my reaction to a visible need, which got me thinking: How do I react to a need I don’t see? How do I—how do we—react to the realization that sexual exploitation and human trafficking is going on all around us? How do we respond when confronted with the fact that an estimated 21 to 30 million people are enslaved around the world today? Do we act or are we too busy to be bothered and presume that someone else will? Do we “like” a post or “retweet” a story about human trafficking, dust off our hands and call it a day?

Awareness of an issue is not enough. Awareness of the plight of the woman at the bus stop did not give her a ride home. Acknowledging that she missed her bus did nothing for her. Awareness must be followed with action.

Likewise, mere awareness does not fight sexual exploitation or human trafficking. Unless and until we turn our awareness into action, we are destined to be bystanders.

What will you do to fight the bystander effect? How will you turn your awareness into action? Start today with a simple action—donate to Freedom 4/24.

*In my work as an attorney, I drive about 300-400 miles per week. Audio books are the only thing that keep me sane. And awake. 

- Post contributed by Tim Spaulding, Freedom 4/24 President