Subsidiarity illustrated: An inescapable network of mutuality

This is a pretty terrific PSA from New Zealand dealing with sexual assault (so please be warned that it may be triggering for some).

I came across this via Tobias Rodriguez at Feministing, who provides a good discussion of “bystander intervention as another means to end sexual violence.”

And it is that, as the video powerfully shows. But this idea applies far more generally.

In a sense, “bystander intervention” is an oxymoron. Once you intervene, you are no longer a bystander. The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a “bystander” — that’s just a euphemism for a neighbor pretending they’re not a neighbor. For a neighbor failing to be a neighbor. As the scripture says, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The PSA is titled “Who are you?” — which is close to the title of a post here on the subject of subsidiarity, titled “Who is you?” In that post I wrote:

Consider the following all-too-real hypothetical: You see an old man sleeping in the doorway of a church. His blanket is thin and the night is cold.

What do you do?

The answer depends on who “you” are. You may be a local beat cop. You may be the pastor or a parishioner of that church. You may be a professional social worker. You may be a volunteer at the local homeless shelter. You may be a member of the city council. You may be the old man’s daughter or niece or his long-ago college roommate or Army buddy. You may be a stranger who lives across the street from the church. You may be a despised Samaritan just passing through. …

Regardless of who “you” are, you are responsible. But the nature of your responsibility — particularly in the longer term — differs according to the differentiated responsibilities of the various examples above. These differing responsibilities are complementary. They are not — despite the popular American confusion — exclusive.

The Kiwi PSA illustrates exactly this point. It introduces us to a set of characters with different roles in the story — “The Best Friend,” “The Employee,” “The Flatmate,” “The Stranger.” Their roles are different and thus their responsibilities are different, but they are all responsible. They are all caught up in the same inescapable network of mutuality.

In the first half of the video, we see each in turn evade that responsibility. “Who is my neighbor?” they ask. “Am I my sister’s keeper?” And as always when we ask those weasel-questions, the story in that version does not end well.

But then the story rewinds and we get to see them each, in turn, getting it right — embracing the truth that we are all neighbor to all, and that there can never be such a thing as a “bystander” outside the bounds and the bonds of what that entails, each to each and all to all.

So, who are you?

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  • I’m Batman.

    (Also I agree completely. We’re all in this together. But I’ve been saying that for awhile now…)

  • Ben English

    The video makes a good point though it also makes me a bit uncomfortable in that the onus for preventing the assault is placed on everyone else but the person actually committing it.. And the victim seems to have no agency, as at no point does she ever say ‘no’ or give any verbal indication that she’s not comfortable with this guy.

    I don’t mean this in the sense that consent should be assumed unless you verbally say ‘no’ but that it smacks of learned helplessness to rely entirely on others to interpret your body language.

  • Eric the Red

    White knight cockblocking.

  • Whatever keeps the PUA genes from propagating works for me.

  • My argument would be that the problem of sexual assault needs to be approached from multiple angles. Blaming the victim for not doing enough is not one of them. But two that are very important are the ones who do it, and the ones who stand by and let it happen. This PSA targets the second group, that doesn’t mean other efforts can’t target the first.

    The primary factor in most rapists decision to rape or not to rape (I wish I remembered the source so I could cite it) is whether they think they can get away with it. Their ability to get away with it depends on the apathy of others. If others aren’t apathetic then there will be fewer rapes.

    The solution, of course, is to stop rapists themselves, but in the meantime I think something that leads to fewer rapes by encouraging people to take an interest in the well being of others is definitely a good thing.

    Whether learned helplessness takes longer to unlearn than learned apathy is an interesting question, but unless she could count on others to unapathetically respond, there’s probably not a lot the victim in the video could do. She’s inebriated and, insofar as looks can be used to judge such a thing, not a match for the man physically even if she weren’t. Without someone to back her up standing up for herself could be very dangerous.

    If we want to stop rape, we can’t have the plan be, “Potential victims should learn kung-fu.” The statistics alone are proof that the problem is a societal problem, and it needs an equally broad solution.

    The problems right now are that:
    1 There’s a fair number of rapists in the world.
    2 It’s easy for them to get away with it.

    Getting potential victims to say no only works on those problems (and only number two) provided that others will back them up/their would be rapist gives up easily/they can take their would be rapist in a fight and are ready and willing to do so.

  • It boggles my mind that you can look at that ad and see “cockblocking.” In pretty much every case, people go up to the girl and ASK her what she wants, implying that if she had wanted to sleep with the guy then she could. She is clearly not interested in him. In that case, they’re not cockblocking the guy–they’re saving him from committing a horrific crime in addition to saving the girl from having such a crime committed against her.

    Why on earth would you want to be a despicable person?

  • I wish it were only feelings apathy or helplessness. For being a cynic, you left off the worst bystander emotions of all: sadistic amusement, vindictiveness, petty-minded cruelty…

    Welcome to the country where a girl was being raped and the only thing a bystander to say was “She is so raped!”

  • Eric’s got a long history of this kind of thing. From what I’ve gathered of his fragmented trolling, it boils down to “Bitches deserve to be under my all-mighty cock. RESPECT THE COCK.”

    Expecting him to think better of it is probably futile. I’ll engage with many trolls, but it’s better just to ignore this one, report his more offensive messages and move on.

  • Indigo

    She’s also not giving any indication of knowing what’s going on and enthusiastically consenting to what’s happening. An absence of a “no” is not a “yes” – and she’s giving plenty of *non*-verbal cues that are pretty strongly indicating “I am barely able to stand up”, not “let’s go to my place and have sex”.

  • JustoneK

    Dammit Bats, stop wasting money on batgadgets and start a nonprofit!

  • The_L1985

    Since when are words the only acceptable or easily-understood way to say “I’m not comfortable with this situation?” I can think of several off the top of my head: flinching, screaming incoherently, struggling, walking away, disgusted or frightened facial expressions.

    Why does a person have to be speaking English words in order to have agency?

  • cyllan

    I have often wondered if an Alice In Wonderland sort of response to these more persistent and less entertaining trolls would be useful. I mean, I understand that one shouldn’t engage the troll, but it’s also good to put up some sort of response to indicate that such behavior is not up to the community standard.

    I envision such responses as “No. I don’t think that unicorn fewmets are actually glittery. I see them as more sparkly than glittery. Also, as everyone knows, glitter is a lifestyle choice, and surely unicorns would be more polite than the leave droppings that infested your house with glitter.”

  • JustoneK

    I kind of like that, but I know some trolling would be able to catapult off of that into further inanity while still throwing out potentially triggering shit on an otherwise easier to read chunk o’ interwebs.

  • The_L1985

    White knight on the chessboard, get up and show you where to go,
    And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is movin’ slow,
    Go ask Alice; I think she’ll know…

  • The_L1985

    Am I doing it right? :P

  • cyllan


  • cyllan

    It’s true. I continue to wish for the ability to mute people in general on Disqus.

  • Sounds like reverse-kittening! In the absence of being able to change the offending text, it might be an idea.

    (Kittening was the idea of Science Fiction writer John Scalzi and described at:

  • In the words of one of my favorite games, “You know what the best part about being insane is? Scumburglar fishwife bucket beep morbid dangerosity!”

  • stardreamer42

    Damn straight. If you think there’s something wrong with “cockblocking” a sexual predator, it says something very unpleasant about YOU.

  • stardreamer42

    Two thoughts:

    1) The guy in the video (or rather, the person he’s representing) doesn’t think of himself as a rapist. Rape is that scary dude in the dark alley. What he sees himself doing is getting laid. And hey, he knows that “no means no”, but she never SAID no, so he’s home free, right?

    2) How many other guys are in that bar who chose NOT to try to have sex with the drunk chick? Current research indicates that this guy represents somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 men, out of the universe of those who are in similar situations. Why is his behavior always assumed* to be the norm, rather than all those other guys who understand that not taking advantage of a woman who’s too drunk to walk straight is how normal people behave? Why don’t people ask what’s wrong with HIM?

    * Meaning, “in discussions of rape and sexual predators”.

  • MaryKaye

    Reams and reams have already been written on the victim’s ability to stop herself from being raped. We don’t NEED any more writing on that. Any woman capable of hearing it has heard it, I guarantee you, a kazillion times already.

    Besides, the idea that it’s the victim’s job to stop herself from being raped runs afoul of the fact that a woman could be drunk, could be exhausted, could be drugged, could be disabled or mentally retarded–could be in a poor position, for whatever reason, to defend herself.

    If you, gentle reader, do not have to be constantly capable of preventing yourself from being murdered–all the time, even when your hands are full or you have the flu or you’ve had a drink too many–than I should not have to be constantly capable of preventing myself from being raped.

    Last summer I played in a game where I was out in the woods all night with about 120 mostly young, mostly male players, and we were being hunted by zombies–all night long there was screaming as the zombies found people. So if someone had wanted to rape me, it was a sterling opportunity–I could have screamed but no one would have known it was a problem. And I had to sleep, so I wasn’t able to be constantly vigilant. I crept out of camp around midnight and slept rough under a tree, and someone found me at 6 am and woke me to say that everyone in the camp was dead…. (Damn, that was fun. I want to do it again.)

    And you could say, that was a risky thing to do, you could have been raped. But I’d say in return, I’m a full human being and a full member of society, and I get to do things just as much as a man does; I reject any implication that I am responsible for deterring rape by curtailing my participation in the world.

    Short form: the victim is the *last* person who should be asked to take more responsibility for preventing rape. She very likely has more than her share already.

  • VMink

    John Scalzi briefly flirted with a moderation technique called ‘kittening.’ It turns troll offal into the most sacchariney, cute, ebullient optimistic comment possible. Say, “BRIGHT SPARKLEY RAINBOWS ARE THE BESTEST!” Weather it’s useful or not is an interesting debate.

  • VMink

    (Gah! Beat me to it! =) )

  • Awww, is the little misogynist upset that the mean old socially responsible men got in the way of an innocent little rapist-to-be? That is so sad, I think I am going to cry in sympathy.

    Boo-hoo, boo-hoo.

  • M

    She’s drunk. You try being coherent when you’re drunk.

    And she shouldn’t have to say ‘no’, the fact she hasn’t said ‘yes’ should be enough to stop a decent man from having sex with her. You don’t assume you can enter someone’s house with their explicit permission, why would their body be different?

    ‘learned helpessness’ does not mean what you think it means.

    People who commit rapes are usually sociopaths who know what they are doing. It’s very rare that anyone accidentally rapes someone. In this case, the guy deliberately gets her even more drunk, drags her out of the club and starts undressing when she’s clearly almost unconsious. There’s no grey area there. Having a video that says ‘don’t rape’ would be like having a video that says ‘don’t murder’. Rapists have no empathy so appealling to their fellow feeling wouldn’t work. Maybe a video about how horrible prison is would discourage them. Or how if their names appear online in connection to rape, they’ll find it harder to get a job. Rapists only care about the consequences to themselves.

  • It’s certainly possible that I’m too charitable, though it’s also worth noting that I have a very low opinion of apathy. If you don’t have a medical condition causing it* I think apathy can be pretty unforgivable.

    That said, I’ll usually be less cynical than my name suggests, I’ve had it long enough that it’s just my name, divorced from any meaning beyond that. And given that it comes from the more than half my life when I had depression and it wasn’t responding to treatment, where now it is, I probably have a somewhat more positive outlook than when the name applied.

    In truth I’m not sure what’s worse, standing by while something horrible happens to someone because of malicious intent, or standing by while something horrible happens to someone because you just don’t give a shit.

    I’ll nominate someone who knowingly does either for the title of, “Evil,” because in my opinion they’ve earned it.

    As for the video’s question, who I am, I’m the person who is completely oblivious and doesn’t notice anything is off.

    * When it comes to something like depression causing apathy I’ve been there. If I condemned it I would be both a hypocrite and an asshole.

  • Mm, that’s a good point. Both have the same outcome, and if the best thing a person can say in their own defense is “Well, I didn’t help rape her,” then yeah, he’s still a piece of crap as a person. Knowing about and doing nothing to help a victim in the making is despicable behavior. Sadly, it’s becoming increasingly common in the libertarian perspective as “enforcing personal responsibility.”

  • Monala

    The only thing that bothered me about this was the stranger – going into a dark alley and grabbing a guy when you don’t know if he has a weapon or not is a rather foolish thing to do. And if the potential rapist hadn’t walked away, this situation could have turned very ugly. Even if the stranger had his own weapon, it could still work out badly for him. Not to mention, if NZ is like the US in this respect (maybe any NZ-ers could tell us?), the police might not consider the man of color the hero, against a white perpetrator.

    I liked the rest of the scenarios, though – especially the flatmate. “You’re staying the night? OK, I’ll get you a blanket for the sofa.”

  • Why don’t people ask what’s wrong with HIM?

    I think that you’ll find that people do ask that.

    As to your first point, you’re right. Most rapists will admit to committing rape provided that admitting it doesn’t involve using the word rape. There’s a disconnect between the act of rape and the word rape. One that allows rapists to comfort themselves with the false notion that, hey, at least they’re not committing rape.

    That said, the fact that the determining factor is most often whether or not they can get away with it and that most people*, rapists included, can detect non-verbal signals meaning, “No,” both suggest that rapists know they’re doing something wrong, even if they wouldn’t call it rape.

    Regardless there is an active effort to switch from a paradigm of “No means No,” to, “Yes means Yes,” so that silence doesn’t mean, “You can get away with raping me.”

    Your penultimate question: “Why is his behavior always assumed* to be the norm, rather than all those other guys who understand that not taking advantage of a woman who’s too drunk to walk straight is how normal people behave?” has a fairly simple answer: It isn’t.

    Or, rather, it isn’t usually. You sometimes get people like Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) going off about how all men are rapists so it’s critical that we limit the opportunities for men to rape because right now it’s like *pause to look up* like a zoo putting a lion and a zebra in the same habitat. That does sometimes happen, but it tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

    Serious discussions of rape generally come with an understanding that most men aren’t rapists.

    One of the problems though, is that the only way to tell the minority that are rapists from the rest is when they commit rape. It’s not like the rest of us come with a Not-a-rapist halo hanging over our heads. And it’s not like telling non-rapists to don “Not A Rapist” t-shirts is going to do anything other than freak a lot of people out.

    But, that aside, there has been a fair amount of work put into trying to figure out what makes rapists different from everyone else, and most discussions of rape and sexual predators come from the position of assuming that rapist/sexual predator is not the norm.

    * But not all. It is a disturbing fact that I may well fall into the group that can’t read body language well enough to detect lack of consent.

  • If NZ is anything like Australia, a black guy probably wouldn’t be getting much racism backlash. (We have huge racism issues with Aborigines, Asians, and Lebanese. People of African descent, not so much.)

    Was the bouncer a POC? He didn’t register that way to me…

  • It’s not actually the stranger who goes into the dark alley, I think it’s the bouncer (who was alerted to the situation by the stranger.)

    Still not the smartest thing to do, but the bouncer at least presumably has some self defense training given his job.

  • Baby_Raptor

    This. PLEASE!

  • Baby_Raptor

    You’re gonna end up in jail one day. And decent society will cheer. Maybe you’ll learn something while you’re in there.

  • I suck with race, so take this with a shaker of salt, but of the groups you mentioned the bouncer might possibly have been Lebanese.

  • Regardless there is an active effort to switch from a paradigm of “No means No,” to, “Yes means Yes,” so that silence doesn’t mean, “You can get away with raping me.”

    I wholeheartedly champion this paradigm. I have always said, “Unless she enthusiastically says ‘Yes!’ then you can assume she means ‘No.'” It should go without saying that when a person is not in a condition to say yes, that still means no.

    One of the problems though, is that the only way to tell the minority that are rapists from the rest is when they commit rape. It’s not like the rest of us come with a Not-a-rapist halo hanging over our heads.

    I have always been in favor of forehead branding as a punishment for rape or domestic abuse. Their obviousness of that punishment would increase its effect as a deterrent to that behavior in others.

  • Antigone10

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure that was the bouncer. He was the one checking IDs.

  • Shayna

    I saw a very clear no the first time he tried to dance with her. She shook her head, pushed him, and moved away from him. It is only when she is left alone and drunk almost to the point of passing out that Mr. A-hole returns.

  • Monala

    Yeah, I thought Maori or Middle Eastern, too.

  • Akili

    There are so many people who go on about how we need to tell men not to rape and thing is, there are always going to be people that rape and murder. I feel that teaching others to defend themselves and others is the best way to help society. (And by defend themselves I mean it in the ‘common sense’ way of don’t go down a dark ally in the middle of the Crips street wearing red)

  • What is the common sense way of not being raped when the vast majority of rapes are initiated in a place familiar to the victim, with a person familiar to the victim, in a situation in which they have little or no reason to feel like they’re going to be raped?

  • Donalbain

    I know of no “Batman”. Are you related to “The Goddamned Batman”?

  • Donalbain

    Over at Lawyersgunsandmoney they usually respond as if the troll were recommending or asking for pancakes. Perhaps we could respond as if the troll were threatening to kill people with sheep.

  • I know this is a bit besides the point, but it’s worth discussing.

    Assuming the following premise: that an adult woman with sufficient mental capacity might and should have the right to choose to take a guy home and possibly have sex, without anyone shaming her for it or interfering- if you are one of the bystanders (friend, stranger, flatmate) how do you tell when she is or when she isn’t sober enough to consent? (The woman in the video couldn’t walk straight so that was a clear clue, but in general, in a life situation like this, where do you draw the line? How do you tell?)
    Also, in the same vein, and connected to what stardreamer said- ” The guy in the video (or rather, the person he’s representing) doesn’t think of himself as a rapist.”; if you are, shall we say, the decent-human-being-who-does-not-want-to-be-a-=rapist version of the guy, how do you tell if the person you’re considering taking home is sober enough to consent or not?

    I admit that’s a bit offtopic but it’s worth talking about.

  • Aunt Vixen

    That is a good PSA. I especially like how in the second run through the scenario, the other people’s actions don’t change – it’s just that they take one more step than they did in the first run. (The guy in line to get into the club, for example, still nudges his buddy all “Dude, look at that, eh?” – but then he asks the bouncer, “Is she all right?”) I don’t know why that aspect of the thing is all I can think of this morning, but it is. Maybe because: it’s not suggesting anyone’s first instincts are actually wrong; just insufficient. It’s not that we should do something different; it’s that we should do something more.

  • alfgifu

    This doesn’t look off topic to me – it looks very much on topic and potentially problematic.

    If you are a bystander, and you’re worried, then there’s no harm in asking ‘are you ok?’ Better to err on the side of caution. If she is an adult woman who is freely making her own choice, then the worst you’re doing is inconveniencing her briefly while she pauses to reply to you.

    In the video, the woman is portrayed as being so out of it that she is being dragged along rather than walking at her own pace. I’d say that’s a massive red warning sign in itself.

    This is exactly the point of thinking in terms of yes means yes. If the consent situation is anything but a big clear yes, then it’s a problem.

    My husband and I have developed a cunning system that helps resolve this question for us. If one of us is horny, s/he says: ‘hey, mind if I take you upstairs, then take you, upstairs?’ (or other variations on that theme). If the other doesn’t feel like it, they say ‘not right now, thanks’. Problem solved!

  • Hexep

    That actor just looks so dang skeezy. Heavy-lidded eyes, mouth permanently ajar… he was well-cast, I’ll say that.

  • Aunt Vixen

    I mean: I’d also like the following things:

    1. For the bartender not to have actually served the girl when she’d clearly had more than enough already (I don’t know the policies in NZ, but when I tended bar we stood to lose our jobs if we served someone who was already drunk, and since we didn’t have breathalyzers behind the counter it was a judgment call that worked out to, we can refuse to serve anyone we think we ought not to serve, for their own or anyone else’s safety);

    2. For the cab driver to have been included as one of the potential game-changers;

    3. A corresponding PSA where the dude’s friends, etc., alert *him* that this is not cool. There’s a preliminary hint of that here, with the bouncer hauling him off the girl in the alley, but as so many others have said here and elsewhere, we spend a lot of time telling women how not to get raped (and this is a spot about helping a young woman not get raped, really), and hardly any time telling men how not to commit rape. A little “hey, bro, maybe just get her number and call her later” wouldn’t go amiss –

    – but I realize these are outside the scope at this time.

  • Carstonio

    It’s not worth talking about, at least in the sense that you mean. If there’s even a whisper of doubt in your mind as to whether the person you’re with is sober enough to consent, then assume lack of consent. If consent isn’t not explicitly and enthusiastically given, then assume lack of consent. This applies to both sexes. This isn’t about a woman’s right to pursue sex, but about an individual’s right to either grant or withhold consent.

  • I generally endorse this.


    My problem with the “whisper of doubt” approach is that my mental capacity to consent (to anything, really, but we are particularly focused on sex here) exists on a continuum, and lots of things affect where I am on that continuum, both in terms of day-to-day variation (e.g., I had a lousy week at work and my mom goes in for chemo next week, so I’m more inclined to make foolish choices right now) and inter-personal variation (e.g., Sam just seems better at evaluating the consequences of their actions than I am). The same goes for everyone else, as far as I can tell.

    It’s rarely clear to me where on that continuum I ought to draw the “capable of meaningful consent” line. As with many binary thresholds, its exact placement is ultimately pretty arbitrary.

    As a consequence, I almost always have a whisper of doubt when it comes to questions of what counts as meaningful consent, even my own, let alone other people’s. (Again, this applies to pretty much everything, though I recognize that we’re treating sex as special here.)

    Rather than let this sort of existential doubt paralyze me, I generally move forward (or at least endorse moving forward) on the basis of less stringent criteria. For example, I’ll ask myself whether I think a reasonable doubt exists. On occasion, I’ll even ask myself whether the preponderance of the evidence supports one judgment or the other.