street harassment
by Paul Romani (M.Ed.)
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When Silence Speaks Volumes: The Real Reason Behind Our Inaction in Street Harassment

by Paul Romani (M.Ed.)
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In the dimly lit corners of our bustling cities, a silent drama unfolds almost daily.

It’s a scenario many of us have witnessed yet often choose to navigate away from, burying its memory in the depths of our conscience.

A fairly recent video by L’Oréal Canada throws a glaring spotlight on this societal shadow—street harassment.

Unaware participants in the video sheepishly admit their inaction, cloaked under the guise of ‘uncertainty about how to intervene’.

This confession, however, seems to skirt around a more profound, unsettling truth about human nature and the societal norms that bind us in Canada.

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“Didn’t know what to do” or simply Afraid of the consequences to oneself?

Let’s call it what it is—fear.

Not the kind of fear that freezes you in place when you’re faced with a life-threatening danger, but a more insidious kind that gnaws at the edges of your moral compass: the fear for oneself.

It’s a type of fear that, at first glance, seems to shield us but, in reality, erodes the very foundation of communal support and solidarity that human societies are built upon.

The Illusion of Ignorance

The claim of not knowing what to do in situations of street harassment, as suggested by the participants in L’Oréal’s video, strikes me as a convenient facade.

It’s akin to arguing that one needs specialized training to jump into a river to save a drowning child.

Instincts kick in because it’s the right thing to do, not because we have rehearsed the situation in our heads a thousand times.

Similarly, when witnessing harassment, our instincts can guide us to act, if we let them.

Yet, many hold back, trapped in a maze of “what-ifs” and fears of repercussions. This hesitation isn’t about a lack of knowledge but a prioritization of personal safety over communal welfare.

While self-preservation is a natural instinct, it’s crucial to ask ourselves—at what cost does this come?

When did we start measuring the value of our actions solely through the lens of personal risk, rather than the collective good?

Fear = False Expectations Appearing Real

At Pear Tree School, we take a proactive stance against such societal norms by embedding the principles of empathy, courage, and community within our curriculum.

Our students learn not only academic subjects but also the importance of standing up for what is right, even when it’s uncomfortable or risky.

Through our theme-based approach, we regularly practice role-playing, discussions, and community projects intended to encourage our students to think critically about their role in society and how they can contribute to making it more just and compassionate.

Personal Experiences of Intervention in Street Harassment

My own experiences with intervening in situations of street harassment have taught me that acting on behalf of others isn’t about bravery—it’s about humanity.

In Hannover, I stood up for an Asian boy being racially harassed by a German man. He was clearly drunk or on drugs, but I really didn’t care. I was literally infuriated by how he was asking this boy to demonstrate kung fu moves on him.

And, on a bus in Vancouver, I intervened when a man was disrespecting a Korean woman and her son. The rest of the bus looked out of the window, which I shamed them for.

These actions didn’t stem from a place of heroism but from a fundamental belief in doing what’s right, regardless of the consequences.

I’ve done the same thing for dogs that I’ve witnessed being mistreated, including my own dog who was kicked by a Vancouver man inconvenienced by her being in his way as he was walking down West Broadway.

Yes, I’m aware that my martial arts background gives me some ability to protect myself. However, I not naive to think that the person I’m confronting isn’t likely capable of severely injuring or disfiguring me, even if I could come out on top. I’m also not naive enough to trust that the law is going to be favorable to my actions.

Am I willing to take that risk? YES, of course I am! It’s the right thing to do! I value my life and what I offer, but some things just seem to me more important than any of that.

A Call to Action

The issue at hand isn’t just about street harassment—it’s about our collective silence in the face of injustice.

This silence, borne out of fear for personal safety, speaks volumes about the current state of our social fabric. It’s a silence that condones, that allows the perpetuation of harassment, and, ultimately, that erodes our shared humanity.

I’ve seen it firsthand, not just with street harassment, but with COVID – people treated with indignity because of their personal decisions, and everyone just remaining silent.

What then, should be our course of action?

Firstly, we must acknowledge that fear for ourselves often hinders our willingness to help others. Recognizing this is the first step towards change. We can throw hashtags like #metoo around all we like, but if we say or do nothing, it is simply virtual signaling. It means nothing.

Secondly, we need to cultivate a culture of intervention, where standing up for others in distress becomes a norm rather than an exception. This doesn’t always mean confronting the harasser directly. Right to Be Together suggests potential strategies, including:

  1. Distract
  2. Delegate
  3. Document
  4. Delay
  5. Direct

Personally, I prefer doing something more direct. In doing so, especially if you are ill-equipped to handle the situation, you force others to come to your defense. What is more, you’re doing something in the moment that sends a signal to the perpetrator and bystanders that the behaviour of that person is wrong.

The Ripple Effect of Taking a Stand

Every time we choose to intervene, we set a powerful example, creating ripples that can gradually transform societal norms.

It’s about sending a clear message: harassment, in any form, is unacceptable.

More so, it’s about rebuilding the communal bonds that hold us together, ensuring that no one feels alone or unprotected in public spaces.

In the end, the choice to intervene in situations of street harassment boils down to a simple yet profound question: What kind of society do we want to live in? One that turns a blind eye, cloaked in fear and self-preservation, or one that stands united in the face of injustice, regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity?

The answer, I believe, lies within each of us, waiting to be acted upon.

Let’s not wait until we’re the ones in need of intervention to recognize the value of taking a stand. After all, the measure of our humanity isn’t in the fears we succumb to but in the moments we rise above them, choosing what’s right over what’s easy.

CREDIT: Featured image from https://www.thecut.com/2014/10/time-i-didnt-stand-up-to-a-street-harasser.html