Spoken-word poet and artist Shane Koyczan is onstage at TED, sharing his own experiences and charming us silly. This is an intimate, heartfelt look into a life that has not always been easy. "I've been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself," he says.
Being told to stand up for yourself is a common response to trouble.
What is the connection between the following?
Claims of sexual harassment at the heart of the Lib Dem hierarchy
Claims that Cyril Fletcher sexually abused young boys in care
Children missing education because of severe bullying
Answer: The three most important common features are – abuse of power, the silence of bystanders, and the consequences.
Let me take each of these separately.
Abuse of Power
Power lies at the heart of sexual abuse, sexual harassment and bullying. The person responsible – the perpetrator – has more power than the person he/she is victimising. This may be because they are in a position of authority or have public standing, fame or popularity (take Jimmy Savile as another example). It may be because of their physical size, colour (skin, hair), ability (as opposed to disability), sex or another attribute. Whichever it is, and it may be a combination of a number of these, the person to whom it is being done does not think they will be believed if the perpetrator denies the offence. This is because the other person has more power and often that power is public power: they have friends in high places, power conferred upon them in terms of position or popularity or celebrity, the authority to make decisions and to be obeyed. And the victim feels, whether or not it is true, that to complain would have a bad effect on their career, life chances or position in the school/classroom. Above all, it is often the case that those doing the bullying, carrying out the sexual harassment or abuse are categorised as belonging to the ‘great’ and the ‘good’.
It seems that those ‘at the top’, who are often white, men, able-bodied, and middle/upper class people (and adults in the case of children) have more clout than black or mixed race people, women, the disabled, or children. Their voices are heard. The people at the ‘bottom’ are not taken seriously and their claims are not heard.
In each of the three cases there were people who ‘knew’ that it was happening even if they did not ‘see’ it. They may have been colleagues of the perpetrator, friends of the victim or people who were themselves in positions of power. In the case of groping in the group photograph, the day-to-day running of a Children’s Home or the daily routine in a playground, various people will have witnessed the behaviour but have chosen to ignore, condone or stay silent.
So what is it that stops people from saying, “Hey you, stop doing that?”
Is it just British reserve? Is it a case of, ‘It’s none of my business’ or is it, ‘She/he may be enjoying it and unless she/he complains there is nothing I can do’, or do people just turn away because they don’t want to get involved. Or is it that they don’t want to get ‘into trouble’ – being seen as a snitch, blowing the whistle or interfering. Whichever of these constraints apply they are pretty powerful.
The consequences for each of the victims are that they fail to perform or realise their potential. The women who are sexually harassed leave, keep a low profile, don’t progress their careers in the way that their fellow colleagues can. Young boys who are sexually abused carry the humiliation, the disgust, the shame and anger with them for years. Children who are bullied drop out of school, miss education, continue to have mental health disorders and often fail to achieve.
To prevent and to stop this abuse, people (and that means all of us) need to be made aware of the power imbalance and of the abuse this imbalance can bring; they need to hear and respond to the complaints of the victim; bystanders need to speak out, support the victim and confront the person doing the bullying, harassing or abusing by asking questions like: “What are you doing?”, “Did you like what that person said to you?”, “Why are you coming into this Children’s Home?”, and “Why do you want to see that child?”, or “Why is Cathy crying in the playground?”
We can all play a part in preventing and stopping abuse, bullying and harassment. Be brave!