It’s Easy to Be Outraged on the Internet. It’s Much Harder to Be an Upstander IRL.


Like many people all over both North America and the world, I followed the live results of the US election on November 8.

Because I don’t own a TV, I attempted to stream the coverage on my laptop.  Yet, because so many North Americans and people from around the world were also watching, the stream timed out every minute or so, in need of constant refreshing.

It was in this way, along with commentary from a battery-operated radio and the #ElectionNight hashtag on Twitter, that the end result eventually – astoundingly, at least to me – became clear.

Many people on Twitter, to put it mildly, were not at all pleased with the result.

Their response formed a tide of outrage that broken in hundreds of tweets a second in support of people of colour, women, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ+ community, and disabled people.  All of these groups, given the vitriolic commentary flung their way during the campaign, now face a significant threat to their basic human rights and dignity under a Trump presidency.

This online outpouring on November 8 was a heartening act of allyship – one that has grown no less fervent in subsequent days.

But support for marginalized groups can’t end there.

Eventually, there comes a need to act upon your outrage IRL.

It’s easy to rail against injustice on social media – to convey your disbelief and disgust in a 140-character soundbite that may well make a name for you for 15 minutes or so in the process.

It’s even relatively easy to march in protest, as has occurred in numerous cities across the US in the aftermath of Trump’s victory.  There’s a certain safety in numbers that can allow a person to make a stand without truly standing out.

It’s so much harder to stand against injustice one on one.  By design it’s difficult to do this, which is why injustice so often manages to win.

Standing by vs. stepping up

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum earlier this year – in which the majority carried the decision for England to leave the European Union – hate crimes against immigrants and people of colour in England increased by 41%.

A similar phenomenon has also already started in the US, a certain segment of Trump’s supporters – already pumped up on his vile words during the campaign – now feeling emboldened to openly express their hatred  following his win.

hate-hurtsIt is in these fraught situations to come that everyone who was so appalled online on Election Night now has to show their true quality.  In this, I include myself as well, for although I’m not American and am from a marginalized group myself, hate knows no borders and anyone at any time can become a target.

(Already there has been a swastika painted in a suburb of Vancouver, where I live, plus a Canadian politician seeking leadership of a major federal party has called Trump’s win “an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well”.)

We all need to prepare ourselves to step up and help those most endangered by the election result, in any way that we can.

Under ordinary circumstances, for a variety of reasons, people commonly react with apathy when they observe a person being victimized, particularly when other bystanders are present at the time.

According to psychologists, the greater the number of bystanders, the more pronounced this effect and the less likely it is that anyone will help.

It’s hard to overcome subconscious social conditioning in order to help a stranger in need. It’s hard to know what to do, what to say, what will defuse the situation rather than escalate it or cause you to become a victim yourself.

Nowadays, when someone is being victimized, people often respond by recording the incident and posting it on social media.  The motivations for this are themselves varied, but often it’s done to prove that the event in question took place for use as future evidence.

We are extremely fortunate for the ubiquity of mobile recording devices in this regard, which in recent years have helped bring certain offences to light that might otherwise have gone unreported and unpunished.

However, in certain instances, a victim may endure even longer and greater suffering in the time it takes to capture that truly incriminating moment on video.  What the victim may need more than anything is for you to actively intervene.  Now.

Being an upstanding citizen

When it comes to being an upstander – the opposite of a passive bystander – you having three forms of intervention that are open to you:

OPTION #1: Confront the offender (if you feel safe doing so)

keep-calm-and-be-an-upstanderThis “confrontation” need not be physical or violent; indeed, in some cases, violence will may make the situation worse.

Sometimes, something as simple as calling out, “Stop that!”, “Leave that person alone!”, or “Get lost or I’m calling the cops!” might be enough.  Otherwise, additional options include the following:

  • Distract the offender, such as by asking for the time or pretending to know them from somewhere.  This might either to redirect their focus so they lose interest in what they’re doing or else just give the victim a chance to escape.
  • Try to reason with the offender.  This tactic might work best if you and the offender visibly have something in common (e.g. you’re both the same gender, race, or age) in order to create a sense of in-group solidarity between you.  Acknowledge their frustration (however absurd and detestable it might be) and try to convince them their actions are worth neither their time nor the potential consequences of getting caught.
  • Make silent eye contact with the offender.  You may not even need to say a word.  Just them knowing that you can see what they’re up to might be enough to make them stop.
  • Pander to their power, both that which they hold over the situation and the power they perceive within their own self.  Politely ask (or beg) them to please stop doing what they’re doing because it’s upsetting, because people are scared of them, because there are children around, because anything that will allow them to discontinue their actions while saving face and maintaining their feeling of authority.

OPTION #2: Support the victim (either during or after the offence)

Again, the manner in which this occurs depends upon how safe you in coming between the offender and the victim.

If you feel safe:

  • Physically interpose yourself between the offender and the victim.  Pretend you know the victim and initiate a conversation with them that is completely unrelated to what’s presently occurring.  Focus your attention solely on them and don’t let them turn their attention anywhere else but on you.
  • All but ignore the offender while you do this, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening. With luck, the offender’s intention to cause harm will wither under the lack of acknowledgement and they will give up and go away.

anti-muslim-harassment-guideIf you don’t feel safe:

  • Wait for the offender to leave.  Once gone, go to the victim and find out what kind of help they need.  Are they injured?  Do they need an ambulance?  Do they want you to call the police?  A friend or family member?  A taxi?
  • Reassure them that what happened to them wasn’t right, wasn’t their fault, and that you’re sorry they went through it.
  • Ask the victim if they want you to be a witness for them.  If they say they don’t want to press charges, don’t try to talk them into it at that very moment.  The thought of going to police and laying charges can be scary, and they’re likely feeling scared enough by what just happened.
  • If you’re able, escort them someplace safe.

OPTION #3: Call for help from someone better able to provide it

If the situation is beyond what you can safely resolve yourself, call upon those who are able to intervene.  This can include:

  • Police
  • Local security
  • A group of fellow upstanders to help you carry out options 1 or 2.

We all have a responsibility to take action against acts of hatred – to do all that needs to be done to help create stronger, safer, and more inclusive communities where all people are respected and valued as fellow human beings.

Have you thought about what you can do to be an upstander against hatred?  Are you prepared to do that thing when the moment arises?

(Image source #1, #2#3, and #4)

2 thoughts on “It’s Easy to Be Outraged on the Internet. It’s Much Harder to Be an Upstander IRL.

  1. Janna this is a great post and I hope it reaches a good audience. We all hope that we’d react appropriately in these cases. It’s little consolation to the victim but the perpetrators of hate crime and bullying are almost always sad inadequates trying to look masterful. As to America’s new administration I doubt it will play out as badly as some fear.


    • Thanks, Roy. I agree that we all want to do the right thing in the face of discrimination. However, it can be hard to know what that right thing is if you’ve never given your options some thought outside the heat of the moment, which is fraught with stress.

      It’s true that hate crime perpetrators are doing so to cover their own feelings of inadequacy and discontent. A lot of them have come out of the woodwork following Trump’s victory (and Brexit), though, which in some cases is more worrying than Trump itself. If this behaviour becomes normalized (or I should say re-normalized, because we’ve been here before), those of us who claim that we care will have an important role to play in stopping it down once more.


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