Professor speaks on the role of active bystandership in genocide at UMass

By Will Mallas

(Caroline O’Connor/ Daily Collegian)

Ervin Staub, a professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Massachsetts, lived in Nazi-occupied Hungary during his early years. His time under Nazi control has motivated his research regarding the effects of bystanders on genocide.

On Oct. 2, Staub gave a lecture at UMass discussing the role bystanders play in either worsening or alleviating acts of oppression throughout the world.

Staub’s central argument is that there are two types of bystanders: passive and active. Passive bystanders may witness an act of oppression, yet remain silent; active bystanders take action to help the oppressed.

Through his years of research at both Harvard University and UMass working with both children and adults in various studies, Staub has found that the primary motivation for active bystanders is a “feeling of responsibility for others’ welfare.”

“In a particular community, community standards can develop where people know that it is expected of them to help, and then they may also come to expect themselves to help others,” Staub explained. “This can be the school, this can be in other kinds of communities, but it begins inside.”

Staub went on to explain that many police officers act as passive bystanders in order to stay loyal to fellow officers who have committed acts of police brutality. Staub argues that this can result in guilt and eventually mental illness among officers who remain silent.

When asked what the biggest takeaway of the lecture was, Ginny Morrison, a peacebuilder at the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, said that “bystanders can interrupt the escalation with very small acts, and that’s really meaningful.”

“We really need to try to understand each other,” said Lisa Harvey, a professor in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department at UMass. “That is a really important step toward reconciliation and peace, to listen to each other and understand each other, and at the same time we need to take action, we need to stand up for what we believe in.”

Staub also explained the many actions he has taken in attempts to improve instances of oppression around the world and to help train others to be active bystanders themselves. In addition to trips to locations of historical oppression like Rwanda, Staub also works with police officers to help them become more active as bystanders. Staub has gone to various schools to help students become active bystanders as well.

Throughout his lecture, Staub continually emphasized that individuals should always take action to help those who are oppressed.

“You cannot open your heart and keep an open heart when you don’t do anything and other people bleed,” Staub said.

Will Mallas can be reached at [email protected]