Image Source: CNN
This article originally appeared on USA Today here
Timothy Piazza’s death exemplifies the pervasive bystander effect in modern culture.
As Timothy Piazza was slowly dying at the Beta Theta Pi’s pledge event on Feb. 2, he was surrounded by people who not only refused to help him but were either unimpressed or entertained by his suffering. They watched as he fell down a flight of stairs and they stepped over him as he lay unconscious on the floor. They tried to slap and punch him awake. Some took videos so they could post his decline on Snapchat.
Medical reports concluded, Piazza suffered from “multiple traumatic brain injuries,” including a fractured skull and a lacerated spleen, which resulted in 80% of his blood supply in his abdominal cavity.
Would anyone who was there that night define their behavior as malicious? It’s doubtful. Inevitably, family and friends (and defense attorneys) will describe them as “good kids” who made terrible mistakes — just like countless people before them after similar tragedies. But what happened at Beta Theta Pi wasn’t a mistake. It was a predictable outcome due to a toxic combination of social dynamics that normalizes dehumanization and sees someone’s vulnerability and pain as entertainment.
But what happened at Beta Theta Pi wasn’t a mistake. It was a predictable outcome due to a toxic combination of social dynamics that normalizes dehumanization and sees someone’s vulnerability and pain as entertainment.
Why wouldn’t they want to help a person who was hurt? Why would someone want to take a video of Timothy? Why did the fraternity brothers dismiss the one young man (and pledge) at the party who wanted to call an ambulance? Why did those same young men wait until mid morning of the next day to get help; when it was too late?
The unfortunate truth is that many of our own children could be in this situation and make similar decisions. Here are the reasons why.
Over two decades of teaching, I have asked the following question countless times to teen boys and young men throughout our country:
At what point do you think you should intervene when something goes wrong?
And their response is almost always the same:
When it’s obvious that someone is about to get hurt or die.
Why do they want to wait until it’s too late?
Part of the explanation is found in the “bystander effect”: when group dynamics prevent individuals from intervening on behalf of another in crisis. But that’s not all that’s happening. Culturally, young men are conditioned to not get “too” upset or emotional. They constantly monitor themselves and each other to never take things “too seriously.” They are conditioned to see everything as funny, and as long as they do, no intervention is required. When someone did speak out at Beta Theta Pi and pleaded to get Timothy medical assistance, he was shoved into a wall and told to leave, as the situation was “under control.” Loyalty to the group equals participating, or at least silently going along with, whatever the group demands. This is the lifeblood and raison d’etre of fraternities, but it is also the powerful undercurrent for many social groups.
Of the many horrifying events that happened that night, the fact that one of the boys watched as Piazza struggled to get off the couch — groaning and falling on his face — and then proceeded to post a video of Timothy laying helpless on the floor, strikes me. In recent focus groups with high school students about their social media use, I asked them if they had the right to post a picture of someone who is drunk and passed out on a couch. My goal was to frame a discussion about consent (i.e. Do you have the right to take a picture of someone who can’t consent to the picture being taken?). But their answers revealed much more. Most had taken or seen other people take pictures and videos of their peers passed out from drugs and alcohol. Their consensus was that taking the picture wasn’t a moral decision. People pass out at parties. When they do, it’s their “fault” and it’s funny, so other people have the right to record it. But these teens also said they took pictures and videos like this to show people that they were cool enough to be at the party; the picture increased or reinforced their social status.
Showing someone else’s vulnerability and potential embarrassment has become normalized behavior for amusement and increasing one’s social status. The moment that happens, the bystander also distances himself from the victim and becomes that much less likely to come to his or her aid. Those bystanders are focused on how this situation is amusing to them — not how dangerous it is for the other person. That’s how people will take a video of a young man who is dangerously drunk, physically injured, step over him, and post that video on Snapchat.
Of course the people who contributed to Timothy’s death should be held accountable. But the challenge for all of us is to admit that we live in the same culture as Beta Theta Pi, and few of us know how to act in the one moment when it makes a difference. We can continue to deny that at our peril, or we can take responsibility for each other by recognizing that inclusion in any group should never mean participating in the humiliation and dehumanization of others.