08 January 2013

If you see a stranger on a bus...

Just another silent onlooker

Already upon entering the bus, they catch my attention. It's Saturday night, Halloween celebration day, and people are out partying. I left my party early and am taking the first night bus, it's barely 1 am. They're bent over her bag, obviously drunk, and she screams to him about finding 'it'. (Turns out she's referring to his bus-ticket.) I enter the bus, pick my seat and start looking for my mp3-player and my half-eaten snack.
They finally enter the bus, he loudly thanks the driver and informs that he's the nicest guy they met today. They discuss about which seats to pick, and she sits down and yells at him to come and sit next to her.
He addresses some other bus passengers, first in Danish, but switches to English when he realises they're foreigners. Begins complaining about her, how she talks to him. How would random bus guy react if his girlfriend gave him orders? (Bus guy would do as told.) And if she said so and so? (Still the same.) And so on, making more and more detailed questions. Someone behind me says, “you're not getting any sympathy, cut it out.” He ignores this.
Finally he sits next to her, wishing the other couple and me a good night. Shortly afterwards a friend of the foreign couple enters the bus, and they discuss exams and other everyday events. Within minutes he's back. Is he interrupting? No no.. he isn't. And he begins talking, mostly offending* her, and once in a while she offends him, too, asking him to come and sit down. She asks for cigarettes, he offends her, informs her she can't smoke inside the bus. She asks for them again, he gives in, throw them at her, saying, “you can have your fucking cigarettes.” Goes on discussing with the foreigners, exchanging life stories, trying to convince the friend to start thai boxing. The foreign couple are aware that I'm following the scene, but say nothing.

They get close to their stop. They're not sure which one it is. They start arguing even louder. At this point he's calling her a “fucking bitch” (...yeah. Though I believe he had no clue how harsh a word it actually is in English (the Danish 'kælling' is not as loaded), and he really had a very small variety of offences to throw out there. But still.)
I'm texting my friend about the crazy people around me, by now no longer able to hide my incredulity, and simply sending quotes of their mutual offences. Why are they even together?
She presses the stop button and comes to get him. Catching his attention by grabbing his behind (weird as that seemed to me).
The bus stops. He insists it's the next stop, but she wants to get off here. They shout. She starts going out, but is suddenly lying on the stairs, screaming that she wants to get off, that this is their stop. I realise that he's holding her arm, dragging her back into the bus up the stairs. She tries to get out of the bus, pulling herself towards the door, screaming that she wants to get off. He's shouting to the driver to just drive, that they're not getting off here. She keeps pulling herself, “let me out.” He finally lets go, and she goes out, begging him to get off there as well. He jumps out as the door closes.

I slowly return to myself. Trying to process what I just watched, blinking, closing my mouth (jaw had dropped).
The foreign couple and their friend start laughing nervously, making comments about drunk people. The friend says he considered saying something, but hey, it probably wouldn't have made a difference anyway.
I start feeling my blood rushing. I just watched a scene of domestic violence**, and I had done nothing. Just been yet another onlooker.
As the foreigners get off at their stop, still discussing how it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway and convincing themselves as they go along, I do not know what to do. I call my friend, explaining what I had just overseen.
Other bus passengers start looking at me, clearly not impressed. Because I'm breaking the tabu of speaking about fellow passengers while still on the bus? Because I speak on the phone in the bus in general? Because I complain though I did nothing? Or perhaps I'm overreacting? “It's not like he was hitting her or anything, would you relax? Some people see violence anywhere!” I don't know.


In the following days, I began telling friends and acquaintances. Reactions went from horror to “what's the big deal? It's their business”. Only, the thing is, is it really?

First of all, what if it were you? What would you want? A bus-full of silent, staring, strangers? Or for someone to say, “please, stop”.

Now, I realise that something mutually destructive was going on, and it looked like escalation to me. One-sidedly saying the guy was the bad one here will probably miss a lot of important points; however, I do insist on pointing out that while they were shouting stuff at one another (and, arguably, he was choosing worse words), she grabbed his butt while he physically held her back from leaving the bus, causing her to fall on stairs. (Ever fallen on stairs? OUCH!) She was continually vying for his attention, he kept ignoring her to discuss thai boxing with strangers, only granting her the attention of calling her a 'bitch'. I will take my bet that the power dynamics in that relationship were predominantly in his favour.

The foreigners on the bus put the blame on alcohol. I don't necessarily disagree; alcohol makes you say and do stuff you might not otherwise say or do (hrm). But that stuff does not come out of nowhere; a couple doesn't suddenly start screaming at each other simply for being drunk. Plenty of drunk people make it home without taking their significant other to the floor in a bus. What alcohol does is accentuate feelings you already have. This was a relationship that was already having issues.

Dear strangers on the bus; blaming their alcohol for your not doing or saying anything is just about the most cowardly thing I have ever heard. You did not know how to react, or did not have the courage to say something? Fine. But don't say, “they were drunk, it doesn't matter”. Own up to not knowing what to do. Think about what you did and didn't do. Maybe next time you'll be better equipped, and maybe you'll be able to help someone out of something even worse. But blaming alcohol removes your own responsibility, giving you a nice excuse for not thinking about your own actions and not having to change.
As for the “it probably wouldn't have made a difference anyway” part. Well, how do you know? You didn't try. Only thing you can be sure of is that doing nothing makes no difference.

Here's a theory: for him it would probably make no difference. Someone already told him to cut it out, to no effect. And if you're the type to knock over your girlfriend and call her a fucking bitch, you deserve none of my sympathy and I sincerely hope to never meet you nor anyone like you ever again. I consider you beyond hopes and nothing you can say or do will make me change that position.
As for her, she did not seem to give a second thought, though not happy with what was happening. I've seen it before and I have an idea of what was going on in her head. Begging him to get out of the bus was not stupid nor pathetic, it was the only plausible reaction in the situation. And perhaps, just perhaps, a stranger saying “what you're doing is not okay” would have made her consider that herself. Or confirmed something she already suspected. Who knows?

Right vs duty

An argument that was made to me for doing right in doing nothing was, “you have no right to intervene”.
Notice the word 'right'. It implies intervening because of me, not because of what is happening. As if stopping a violent scene is about my right to do something rather than the right of another person to be safe. So however bad something seems, it's not my business.
My answer to that is: So many bad things have happened in this world because no one wanted to intervene and argued about whether they had the right. I'm simply not buying it as an excuse, whether on a national or a personal level.

This also relates to why I think the situation I saw in the bus is in fact my business. As human beings we have a collective responsibility for one another; if we don't take care of us, who will?

Consider this one as food for thought: do we have a duty to intervene? Towards our fellow human beings, towards whoever is getting knocked over in the bus. Whether the answer is yes or no, at the very least it places the onus of your own actions with you. A language of duty would perhaps confront the idea of passivity in public space, even when you see strangers doing something you find unacceptable.
I don't know what that girl would have wanted, nor what would have been the right thing to do. But to stare silently did not feel like the right thing. Nor did a laughing it off with an “it wouldn't have made a difference”.

What would you have done?

* Big time. It was not nice language, but no need to reproduce here.
** A bit unsure on the correct terminology here, but in any case they were clearly in a relationship and living together, so I'd say it applies.

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