While reading the Commentary section in The Phillipian just before winter term ended, one particular article caught my attention: “Confidence Does Not Equal Courage” by Sarika Rao. The relatability of this article stood out to me because I, too, have experienced many instances of hearing rude or harmful comments on campus that make me uncomfortable. In fact, I truly believe that failing to take action when hearing microaggressions and other negative comments when passing groups of people on the path or in Paresky Commons is all too common. Stuck between wanting to speak out against a person and not wanting to start conflict, people tend to feel guilty afterwards when they do not react. I wholly agree with Rao in that confrontation is not always a symbol of courage, yet I feel there are times when confrontation is needed and action is imperative.
During the last few weeks of Winter Term, I aided in facilitating a discussion on campus as a representative of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, which is a discussion-based program offered on Saturdays to current Lowers that touches on topics of activism, leadership and also focuses on bystander training. In a discussion regarding being an active bystander, one of the students in the group mentioned catcalling and questioned when it would not be a good idea to confront someone or a group of people who have objectified or discriminated against another person.
If you’re walking down the street and a group of men walking by whistle at someone you do not know, is it your ethical duty to stand up for that person? Confronting a perpetrator in a situation like this is more likely to make the situation worse than better, and by stopping them and taking time to explain their wrongdoing to them, it is possible for the situation to spiral into something much worse. As Rao wrote in her article, confrontation does not have to be head-on but can take the form of talking to a specific person later, texting them, and sending them articles containing information that explains why they are in the wrong. In other words, there are more tactful ways to address these issues.
This is not to say, however, that confrontation is never necessary. I believe that it is crucial to step in and be an active bystander when you think that victims of discriminatory language or other harmful acts will benefit from intervention. One should only be an active bystander, however, when it will undoubtedly make the situation better. It takes courage to stand up to one or multiple instigators, but it is imperative that you only choose to take action when you’re intervening will have no negative implications on the person you are trying to protect, especially when that person is yourself.
There are many situations where we find ourselves stumped, contemplating whether we should step in and take action, or if we should simply leave the matter alone. We often think that it is our duty to intervene when we hear something we think to be wrong. Usually, we have been taught that sticking up for what we believe in is always the right thing to do, no matter the situation. Though even with this idea indoctrinated into our minds from a young age, we still hesitate to confront the wrongdoer. It is important to make sure that our intervention does not endanger ourselves or others, but it is not okay to stay silent when you come to the conclusion that taking action can make a positive difference. If you stay silent just because you feel uncomfortable, you are simply perpetuating the situation and deeming it “okay.”
It does not always make you courageous when you confront people, and, depending on the situation, it does not make you cowardly or weak if you keep your distance and mind your own business. It is important, however, that students use their best judgement to choose when they should or should not take action. I implore students to remain mindful of the effects of their interferences in conversations, while also remembering that their voice is capable of making a difference when appropriate.
Caroline Gihlstorf is a New Lower from Chapel Hill, N.C.