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How responsible are we for the behavior of others?

A former colleague in a teacher workgroup I belonged to designed a unit around the question: How responsible are we for the behavior of others? When she spoke about how her 5th graders wrestled with the essential question, she spoke about the direction their questions and inquiry followed. Rather than focusing on the powerful dynamic between the bully and their target, the students wanted to talk about those bystanders. What do we do? Is it my responsibility to stop the behavior of someone else? Is it my job as a fellow student to speak up in defense of the target? What if the bully then turns their attention to me? It’s safe to assume students look to adults to figure out the right thing to do.

There are entire TV shows devoted to what adults do in the 3D world in situations in which it appears someone is the target of a bully. We study the bystander effect. We re-frame bystanders as upstanders. Trump is a prime example of a society wrestling with how we deal with an adult who says and does things that are clearly offensive. (Spoiler alert: His actions cause us to seek out tribes. If what he says resonate, you want to connect with others that feel the same. If what he says is offensive, you want to connect with others that feel the same.)

The edu-twitter and blogsphere is a different challenge. Education chats happen regularly. Education-related tweeters return to threads that are days, weeks, sometimes months or years old. With Trump and other examples of bullying, in the “real” world, we have multiple data points to inform our conclusions about the speaker. We hear his voice, we see his body language and facial expressions. We see how his words are often a direct response to the feedback he gets from his audience. We don’t have that in 140 characters.

So, this morning, I’m wondering – what’s our obligation to our profession? How responsible are we for the behavior of others? If someone says something sexist, racist, or factually incorrect, do we speak up?

No. As long as the sexist, racist words aren’t directed at someone, no one is being hurt. The reader has no idea what the Twitter user’s intent is and their gaffe may just be a sloppy or lazy word choice. More the point, it’s not an individual’s responsibility to police others’ words, thoughts, or actions. Report offensive behavior, ignore offensive words.

Yes. The lack of a specific audience doesn’t limit the responsibility we have to speak up for equality and equity. Stereotypes are reinforced when someone makes a statement about a group of people and that statement goes unchecked. It’s not necessary to chastise the speaker but it is critical that educators hold each other accountable for perpetuating stereotypes or inaccuracies.

It depends. If you care, speak up. If you don’t… don’t. I suspect the heart of the matters lies less around who and when we speak up and more around what we do when someone brings a word or a phrase to our attention. Does it cause us to double-down on our thinking or double-check our work and language and clarify as needed. It remains that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their impact. So it would seem that when it comes to this particular essential question, I have no answer.

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