Social psychologists have discovered that individuals are less likely to help a victim when bystanders are present. In fact, if you are a victim, the more people around you the less likely it is that one of them will intervene. There is a diffusion of responsibility in a crowd. This is called “the bystander effect.” If you want to watch some disturbing videos, look up “bystander effect” on YouTube. The videos show actors playing victims moaning on the sidewalk in a big city and even crying out “help me” while people pass them by, sometimes for a very long time, with no one stopping to help.
The good news, however, is that, if just one person stops to help, others join in. This is also part of the bystander effect. One person who shows moral courage and compassion can change the entire social dynamic. This is encouraging. It suggests how important standing up can be.
I am inspired by stories of people who stood up rather than stood by when virtue or innocence needed defending. Like Irene Sandler, who rescued 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. Her inspiring story is told in a book I recently read called Irene’s Children. Or the brave men who, about a week ago, stood up for two young Muslim women against a man spewing forth a hate-filled tirade. The men paid for their courage with their lives.
And I have long been stirred by the dramatic story of the Prophet Joseph Smith rebuking his guards in Richmond Jail. In his autobiography, Parley P. Pratt tells how he, Joseph, and the other prisoners
had listened for hours to the obscene jests, the horrid oaths, the dreadful blasphemies and filthy language of our guards as they recounted to each other their deeds of rape, murder, robbery, etc., which they had committed among the "Mormons" while at Far West, [Missouri], and its vicinity. They even boasted of defiling by force wives, daughters, and virgins, and of shooting or dashing out the brains of men, women, and children. . . . On a sudden he [Joseph] arose to his feet, and spoke in a voice of thunder, or as the roaring lion, uttering as near as I can recollect, the following words:
'SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit. In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still. I will not live another minute and hear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT.'
On that dark midnight in the Richmond jail, the Prophet Joseph stood tall. He stood up, both spiritually and physically, rebuking his guards in a voice of thunder.
Usually, however, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to confront others with force or thunderous denunciations. It is often enough to stand up in courageous but quieter and kinder ways.
I think of the example of another prophet, President Kimball, who stood up spiritually even as he lay prostrate on a hospital gurney. While wheeling President Kimball out of the operating room, a medical orderly stumbled, provoking him to curse and profane several names of God. Still weak from surgery, President Kimball nevertheless had both the strength and moral courage to implore:
“Please! Please! That is my Lord whose names you revile.” There was a deathly silence, then a subdued voice whispered, “I am sorry.” (“President Kimball Speaks Out on Profanity,” Ensign Feb. 1981)
Though flat on his back, President Kimball stood tall. What most impresses me, however, is how he was both bold and loving in his rebuke. He spoke the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15). This is, perhaps, the most common and complex kind of moral courage we need to demonstrate, and the one I most often feel called on to exercise and most want to master.