Make participation your lifestyle and the whole existence becomes such a joy.” —Osho
At the bystander training session I attended last month, the facilitator reminded us more than once, “Your first intervention will not work.”
And so she offered more than nine tactics for deescalating violence, not just one or two.
When you don’t expect instant success, it makes sense to adopt a different attitude than you would if you did expect your first intervention to work. A certain long-haul persistence becomes logical if order won’t be restored right now.
Perhaps someone being verbally abusive on the subway train won’t respond well to you putting your body between them and their target. Perhaps a person in the throes of window-breaking won’t be amenable to your efforts to talk them down. That first intervention does not work—so how do you respond?
Your answer might depend on whether you’ve chosen to participate in the work of resolving that situation. You might instead choose not to participate; that’s smart sometimes.
Last week, for instance, I did not participate in an intervention when a man went on a loud, eight-stop racist tirade about inter-ethnic conflicts across New York City.
Another man physically intervened but didn’t verbally engage once it became clear his counterpart was more interested in insult than argument. A full carriage of people studiously ignored the aggressor, and our silence didn’t seem to cool him off at all.
In situations that don’t trigger that much of a sense of danger (or cortisol!), I find participation a compelling and challenging theme. It’s compelling because it teaches me that I have something of worth to add to the whole. It’s challenging because it counters my conditioning about [not] being able to impact the systems and contexts that structure my daily life.
Perhaps participation necessarily nods to the long haul process of working and growing with others. Participatory democracy describes its “participation” in terms of committing to an unfolding civil society beyond occasional electoral events: stepping into council meetings, responding to public comments, deciding with school boards.
Each of these actions is a way to show that we’re invested in what we give to and receive from our societies, and each one gives people a chance to work for what they believe. Seeing those beliefs and values become material through policy and community is a remarkable thing!
But our first interventions in violent or unjust situations will probably not work. If they don’t, there may be ways for us to withdraw from public activism (one is the so-called Benedict option), but there aren’t any sustainable ways to withdraw from human community for more than eight stops on a subway train.
We’ll have to learn to live with each other. Perhaps, in time, we’ll also be able to like doing so.