He’s probably just joking.

When you say that, you tip the gasoline can a little further onto a fire that very few people care to control.

Does that sound inflammatory? Incendiary, maybe? What if I told you that every woman I know has experienced harassment, and sometimes worse, in professional or academic settings? Your daughter, your sister, your wife, your mother — they will deal with this, whether they choose to discuss it with you, or not.

Susan Fowler spoke out against harassment culture at Uber. Image from www.susanjfowler.com

The stars of the show are usually the victim and the perpetrator. But what about everyone else? What about the people we’ve all been, at some point, who say this kind of stuff:

It’s not my problem.
I don’t want it to affect my relationship with _____.
You worked so hard to get this job. Do you want a little thing like this to affect your career?
Are you sure he meant it like that?
Just laugh it off.
He’s probably just joking.

Every day, men and women are both complicit in not speaking up when harassment occurs. Ingrid Sanders, a female tech founder, caught our eye with her piece on “Silicon Valley’s ‘Open Secrets” — an account of this disturbingly ubiquitous dynamic in the professional world.

Recently, Justin Caldbeck, a venture capital guy with money, connections, and a nice San Francisco office, was outed as a serial sexual harasser by three women who had attempted to speak out for seven FUCKING years.

Aligning Caldbeck with another uber-yucky CEO of recent notoriety, Sanders cautions readers against simply joining an angry internet lynch-mob. More important, she argues, is taking action in our own lives, against the more insidious and less conspicuous examples of bystander complicity of which we have all been guilty. She writes:

In a sense these two guys — Caldbeck and Kalanick — have become lightning rods for issues that were just accepted as “the way business is done”, but they are not the only ones deserving of negative attention, and there are many, many people who endorse this sort of behavior in various ways for profit or influence. Or they perpetuate the more subtle behaviors that are equally damaging on a systemic level.
Countless other stories will never be known — and consequently many offenders will continue offending — because most often people decide it’s just not worth it to fight and the ones that do almost always get skewered by individuals and the press — unless they hold enough power or are endorsed by those who do. I’ve heard influential people warn against ever going up against an investor for wrongdoing because “in the history of Silicon Valley an entrepreneur has never won against an investor, justified or not.”

In recounting the way that non-harassers nonetheless enable the harassment of women in tech, Sanders essentially describes bystander behavior — the willfully blind masses who “just don’t want to get involved,” minimize the problem, or simply refuse to believe a victim who has spoken out.

What do we say, instead of shrinking into a conflict-avoidance, “survival” mode? It’s natural, almost evolutionary-feeling, to want to avoid a threat, to will ourselves to ignorance.

Changing bystander behavior, and recognizing our own past or present complicity, is essential to the process of combatting harassment culture. It involves being uncomfortable, at first. But then it is transformative.

“It’s not my problem” becomes “I could be next.”
“I don’t want it to affect my relationship with _____” becomes “Maybe I don’t know_____ as well as I thought.”
“You worked so hard to get this job. Do you want a little thing like this to affect your career?” becomes “You didn’t deserve this. You deserve to be treated professionally. Anything else is unacceptable.”
“Are you sure he meant it like that?” becomes “I am proud of you for speaking up.
“Just laugh it off” becomes “Tell me what I can do to help.”
“He’s probably just joking” becomes “I believe you.”

The quote’s origins are a little murky, but Edmund Burke, or someone who had probably seen quite a bit of bystander behavior in action, explained:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

The fire a mile away isn’t burning down your house. And until it affects you, I guess you can choose whether you’d like to pour gasoline, or try to put it out.