Joan: What is your vision for creating that institutional change?
Jackson: I recognize that I am using a very broad definition for bystander engagement: ANYONE who has peers, friends or colleagues, or anyone who plays a leadership role in a social group or institutional setting – which means virtually EVERYBODY. What is required is not just individual but institutional change. This is beginning to happen in the military. MVP has been doing bystander-focused prevention training in the military for 14 years, and it is exciting that now all four major branches of the U.S. military have decided to employ bystander programming system-wide to prevent sexual and domestic violence. For example, by the summer of 2012 the Air Force has mandated that all personnel at every level need to go through what they’re calling Bystander Intervention Training. This training includes examining and interrupting behaviors on an abuse continuum, and also includes elements of media literacy education.
That level of commitment represents an institutional shift. It is promising in part because of the potential impact this can have in the larger culture. Just like the MVP program’s initial strategy of targeting men in athletics, men in the military have a kind of elevated status in parts of male culture, and it is possible to leverage that status to make speaking out about sexism and sexist abuse more normal and acceptable among men. When men with traditional masculine authority speak out it gives all of us more credibility – especially with men who are skeptical. When the New England Patriots, the Marine Corps or the U.S. Army does bystander training, average guys can’t as easily write it off as “pc” posturing or anti-male propaganda. At the same time, women in the military play an increasingly important role both in and outside of the military in redefining femininity, and bystander training helps them develop skills that can have a powerful effect in the service and beyond.
Joan: How do you see this affecting those who are not in the military?
Jackson: When President Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1948 that racially integrated the military, it was part of – and had a tremendous impact on — the emerging civil rights movement. Recently, I participated in a U.S. Army Summit on Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention in Washington DC. Many key military leaders were there, including the Army Chief of Staff and the Sergeant Major of the Army, who gave keynote addresses. What the military is doing today in this area is really ahead of the curve. There is nothing in the civilian world of this scope and magnitude. Imagine what it would be like for some of the largest corporations or religious organizations to gather together for this kind of summit and make this kind of commitment. It really is pretty amazing. We need to encourage and pressure civilian institutions – especially schools – to study what the military is doing and take ideas from them.
Joan: How do you see changes in technology affecting our work in coming years?
Jackson: New technologies provide new opportunities – both good and bad. And those of us who do bystander work need of course to integrate the new technologies of communication and social interaction into our conception of the role of the bystander. One scenario we use in MVP is as follows. You are a young man sitting alone in your room, and you receive a text from a friend with a sexually explicit photo attached of his former girlfriend. No one else is in the room, but you are still a bystander — to an abusive act by your friend, who’s sent this picture without her knowledge or consent. What do you do? People generally agree that if you decide to send the text to another friend (e.g., “Jimmy you’ve got to see this” and push send) you are no longer a bystander – you are now contributing to that original abusive act. But what do you do? This scenario does not fit the usual bystander paradigm of seeing a friend getting a young woman drunk at a party.
As educators and activists – and as parents — we need to preemptively initiate conversations with young people about these kinds of situations, where people often make quick decisions that in the Digital Age can have ramifications for the rest of their lives. Here again we need to address the question of institutional responsibility. Educators everywhere need to have these conversations long before that moment of truth! If institutional leaders do not initiate curricular innovations or programming on these sorts of issues then they are being passive bystanders.
Joan: Thank you so much Jackson. I loved having an excuse to call you to ask these questions. Questions that I ask myself every day… And I am truly moved by both your passion and your vision for where we all need to focus for the future. Thank you!