That’s Unacceptable: The Scientifically-Proven Way to Stop Bullying and Harassment

Over the past few months and most especially over the past week, bullying and harassment has been on the rise. Behaviors that should not be tolerated in any way are being perpetuated across the United States, and public concern is skyrocketing. In the past week alone, kids were caught bullying others with racist and anti-gay slurs at a Pennsylvania high school, vandals posted “whites only” and “colored” signs above drinking fountains in a Florida high school, and a black woman in Indiana was reportedly called a racial slur by a white man who also told her to pick up his garbage. Kids at Dewitt Junior High School in Michigan formed a human wall to stop students they thought were minorities from accessing their lockers.


While it’s easy to try to sling blame for these incidents at the results of the recent US election, it doesn’t really matter who is to blame. What matters is how it’s treated: what we do about it when it happens. To that end, French artist Marie-Shirine Yener, whose work online is published as “Maeril”, created an illustrated guide designed to show anyone how to handle harassment if they encounter it in public. The key to her illustration, which has gone viral multiple times since she first published it following the Paris & Nice terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016, is empathy.

Empathy has been scientifically proven to effectively deal with harassment and bullying. It works, researchers say, because of the way we treat others with whom we might otherwise disagree. Complementary behavior is easy: that is, treating a person nicely who treats you kindly, but true empathy comes through in non-complementary behavior. Non-complementary behavior assumes empathy and compassion even when faced with hostility. Sometimes it can get us in trouble, making it seem like a person who offers compassion in return for cruelty a pushover, but most of the time it functions really well.

So how do we exercise empathy when we see someone being harassed? Maeril’s illustration does a great job of explaining how to handle these scenarios, but I’ll try to break it down here:

1. Engage the person being harassed. Go sit by them and talk with them. Ignore the attacker.

2. Pick a random subject and start discussing it. It can be anything at all; you’re trying to engage them with you instead of letting their attention go to the attacker. Ignore the attacker.

3. Keep engaged. Make eye contact with the victim, keep the conversation going. Build a safe space and continue to ignore the attacker. They’ll soon leave, as you’ve defused the situation.

4. Continue the conversation until the attacker leaves and help them get to a safe place. Ignore the attacker. Respect the wishes of the victim: if they need help, offer assistance; if they just want to go and move on with their life, respect that.

The main theme running throughout all of this is, of course, ignoring the attacker. By focusing your attention on the person being attacked instead of allowing in any way the attacker’s words, jeers and insults to permeate your conversation with their victim, you build a safe place for your victim and effectively wall off the attacker. That’s the most important thing: ignore the attacker. Do not engage with them.

Obviously, there may be situations where police or other intervention may be necessary. In these cases you should not hesitate to call the authorities. But harassment is perpetuated every day, along all walks of life. Being proactive in dealing with harassment helps you and the victim, while sending the attacker a loud an clear message that their behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. There is compassion, there is empathy, and there is non-confrontational signaling. All of these are effective methods of handling harassment.

Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “we must protect the vulnerable”. With so many populations newly-vulnerable, it’s imperative that we demonstrate empathy and compassion, and help anyone in situations where they are unable to help themselves.

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