Seeing injustice – should we speak out?

Have you ever witnessed someone being bullied or being spoken down to? You may see the hurt and suffering, then see that person try to regain composure and carry on with their day. It is an awful feeling.

What about seeing someone steal from the office, or deceive a customer? Another common injustice that some people turn a blind eye to is hearing someone being blamed publicly when it was not entirely their fault or even being falsely accused.

We have all seen forms of injustice at various levels, but it seems that often people avoid doing anything about it. This is really sad, as it allows the injustice to continue and in some cases even encourages it to shift to a new level.

So why does it happen?

It doesn’t seem so bad

There are many different views on what is a fair way to treat someone. Some examples are quite clear cut, but as with all things interpersonal there are grey areas that open up the possibility of different interpretations. The problem is that when you start to accept that it doesn’t seem so bad, your tolerance level starts to shift.

Social loafing

The effect of social loafing has been described in many contexts in social psychology literature. Explained most simply: when we are part of a group there is a strong tendency to do less than we would if we were alone. The most famous experiments show how differently people react to someone collapsing in the street. The more people are around the less likely the individual is to help the collapsing person.

This same effect is found in the workplace, but is heavily compounded by rank. If we are surrounded by people we view as superior (perhaps by rank, perhaps by how long they’ve been at the company, etc) then we are much less likely to actually do anything about it.


Once we have taken the embarrassing step of choosing not to step in and prevent an act of injustice we then seek mental peace. This takes the form of justifying the actions, usually by shifting the locus of control onto the victim.

“They need to learn to stand up for themselves”,
“They had it coming. It was probably unfair on this occasion, but they’re always slacking off/taking short cuts”.
“The way she treats everyone, she deserves everything that comes her way.”

Did I really see it?

The other strange, but common reaction to seeing an injustice is to doubt whether or not you really witnessed it. We don’t want to believe that people can be cruel and deliberately unjust, especially when we are there to observe it, so we start to wonder if it ever happened at all.

Fear of repercussion

The really paralysing element of people not preventing an injustice that occurs right in front of them is that they are scared some form of retribution will be directed their way. We know that people don’t like to be challenged, and we know that the range of responses can include defensiveness and aggression.

But somewhere along the line the decision is made that the chance of us receiving some retribution is a scarier proposition than letting an injustice happen without acting on it. The fear that keeps us from acting on this is giving the green light to bullying and other activities.

If you think that your job or career may be limited by you stepping in to help someone then that is a clear sign that you are immersed in a culture that doesn’t align with your moral compass. The need for security is powerful human drive, and in the modern world that means ensuring you don’t jeopardise your job at all. We need to be better than this, to look after each other and to prevent unnecessary suffering.

Practice what you preach

For over three years I have been investigating a murder case in Hobart, Tasmania. Sue Neill-Fraser was accused of killing her partner on the couple’s new yacht. I knew about the case because Sue’s son-in-law had worked for my company for many years.

I was alarmed by the case – totally circumstantial – no body, no weapon, no witnesses, because I felt there was so much doubt. I was worried by the impact of gossip (people actually thought she had killed her first husband – he is alive and well) and the media on influencing the outcome of the case.

I wanted to do something about it. So I set about making a film, Shadow of Doubt. The case will soon feature on 60 Minutes (hopefully early March, Sunday at 7.30pm).

Along the way I met Barbara Etter APM, who is a lawyer, forensic evidence expert and former Assistant Commissioner of Police WA, and the former CEO of Tasmania’s Integrity Commission. She proudly speaks out, but does so based on facts. Anyone interested in integrity and miscarriages of justice should read her blogs and especially her last few blogs on this case.

It’s so important in any circumstantial case that we go back to factual evidence.

We should not assume or generalise.
We should not make judgements when we have no facts.
We should ask questions and seek to solve unanswered questions.

Eve Ash is a psychologist and filmmaker. Eve welcomes participants to her next MELBOURNE HALF DAY WORKSHOP at AIM St Kilda, 13 March 2013 8.30am: How to Present Yourself and Your Ideas with More Impact.


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