Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 19, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY


Commentary: Students must be active bystanders

My dad is the kind of guy who loves his catchphrases. When I was growing up, he would make these sweeping statements about what it meant to be a Tulp. One of these such phrases he would use whenever we got injured. If I fell off my bike and got a bloody knee, he’d look at me and say, “What do Tulps hate?” and I knew to respond, in my bravest voice: “Infection!” He would proceed to wash out my wound with isopropyl alcohol, even though it was painful.

There was another one he used to repeat to me and my three siblings. He’d look us in the eye and say, “Repeat after me: Tulps don’t run away from trouble, we run towards it.”

Looking back, this is kind of a terrible thing to tell children. To run toward danger. But, I knew what he meant. He meant that we should never turn our back on a scary situation, we should run toward it at full force and do what we could to mitigate it and help those involved. I thank him every day for these wise — albeit slightly misguided — words of wisdom. It’s this mentality that has driven me to be a journalist, a social advocate and above all, an active bystander.

Bystander intervention is a philosophy often taught in conjunction with sexual assault and harassment prevention, but it can extend to all aspects of our lives. Active bystanders learn how to recognize and safely intervene in potentially dangerous situations. Active bystanders support the person who is being targeted without engaging the aggressor and escalating conflict. Sometimes this means distracting someone who appears to be targeting someone who is too drunk to consent. Other times, it means reaching out to campus staff or the police for help.

In a culture that increasingly places value on looking out for yourself, we’ve all found ourselves in similar situations. Maybe we’ve seen someone being catcalled on the street and didn’t speak up; maybe it was that time we drove past a car stranded by the side of the road assuming someone else would pull over to help; maybe it was something as simple as walking by trash in the street and leaving it for someone else to pick up. We witness a problem or injustice, consider taking some kind of action, then ultimately respond by … not doing anything. We continue to be onlookers or bystanders.

Why don’t we help? Why do we silence our instincts? These are questions that can haunt us. Every day we serve as bystanders to the world around us — not just in the smaller situations mentioned above, but to larger social, political and environmental problems that affect us all, but which we feel powerless to change on our own.

Being an active bystander doesn’t take some morally superior person. It’s not about being a savior, either. It can be as simple as seeing a potentially volatile situation and pretending you know one of the people involved in order to give them an opportunity for a way out. This is the strategy I use the most, and oftentimes, the potential victim takes the cue and uses my awkwardness as an escape mechanism. I’ve also “accidentally” spilled drinks or asked people to help me find something that I haven’t even lost in the first place.

Last year on the infamous day that is Cortaca, I, along with hundreds of other students, opted to go to party on Prospect Street. As more and more solo cups lined the lawn and the crowd merged into neighboring yards, I escaped farther into the backyard for some space. Looking around for a place to sit, I saw instead a girl who was hunched over, sitting on a tree stump. Her eyes barely open and her limbs loose, a guy was standing over her, attempting to prop her up enough to make out with her as she feebly protested.

Assessing the gravity of the situation I walked over to the girl and pretended like we’d been friends for years. “Hey, girl! There you are!” I said, extending my hand to pull her up. She looked at me with a blank stare but stuck her hand out anyway. I helped her over to my friends who slung their arms around her and walked her back toward the house to find help.

This is active bystandership, and when cultivated, it’s a mindset that can become a lifestyle. It breaks the norm and forces you to constantly be looking out for those around you — even if they’re strangers. Active bystandership reminds us that we all have a human responsibility to care for others and rely on our instincts to protect our peers.

So, as we approach Halloweekend, Cortaca and even just typical weekends at bars and house parties, I urge you not to be an onlooker or a passive bystander. Next time you see a situation that triggers your instinct to intervene, don’t talk yourself down. Don’t make excuses and don’t be afraid to be “that person. Don’t forfeit doing what is right in order to prevent making a fool out of yourself or the fear of inserting yourself into things that aren’t any of your business. Wear the label of a being a “cockblock” and a “buzzkill” with pride, you could have just saved a life.

In the words of my father, don’t run away from trouble, run toward it.

Sophia Tulp can be reached at or via Twitter: @sophia_tulp