Silence and the Sergeant Schultz Syndrome – by Terry Howard

Ever watch the old sitcom Hogan’s Heroes? If so, no doubt you’ll remember Sergeant Schultz’s famous line, “I know nothing … nnnoooTTTTHHHING!” when he witnesses Hogan’s shenanigans.

During these times of mind boggling incivility, blatant disrespect, school shootings and outright bullying, I find it disheartening to watch those who sit quietly on the sidelines (or behind them on the stage) while someone verbally demeans others with vicious bullying rhetoric. It’s unbelievable how calling someone a “SOB” and other unprintable words have become an acceptable norm these days.
And even worse are the spineless ones not wanting to offend their political base who choose to stand silently in the background and utter tepid responses, but only when called out on their silence.
Let me to peel back the onion as to why the Sergeant Shultzs, the silent bystanders, in the contemporary world appear to be so prevalent during these turbulent times.

“Groupthink” is one explanation. Groupthink stops bystanders from intervening. Those who participate in groupthink are easily led by a forceful leader and focus on just falling in line and not rocking the boat. Although they may privately abhor and complain about the vitriol the bully spews in public, they become a mindless, over-protective clique when assembled as a group, putting personal and political goals above all other matters.

”Cognitive dissonance” is another dynamic that inhibits the bystander. Here the bystander chooses the path of least resistance, downplaying the bullying behavior, and concludes that things aren’t so bad after all. In their minds, with time the bullying incident will cease to be talked about. “Weathering the storm” is their modis operandi. Like ostriches, they just stick their proverbial heads in the sand.

The “Abilene paradox” is perhaps the most relevant in understanding why bullies can be witnessed by so many bystanders who do nothing. The strong desires to “fit in,” to “go along to get along” are reasons why many bystanders stay silent.

By way of background, Abilene, Texas, is the namesake for the paradox. On a hot summer day a family piled into a car without air conditioning and drove many miles to Abilene to try a new diner. The heat was oppressive, the food was lousy. But no one dared to speak in those terms until later back home. Finally, the matriarch of the family broke the silence by complaining about the food. Then the others chimed in with their complaints – the car was hot, it was stupid to go the restaurant in the first place – but no one said so when it mattered. In the case of bullies, once on person expresses outrage about the bully’s behavior, gradually others come out with their displeasure.

Not to get Freudian on you, but the bystander may sometimes identify with the aggressor. Here the bystander will actually buddy up to and start behaving like the bully, a behavior that is born out of fear to protect himself from the bully’s wrath. They know full well how others who fell out of favor of the bully ended up.

“Winners” versus “losers” in still another variable. We are programmed to love winners and abhor losers. The classic American competitive zeal encourages us to denigrate the luckless target and elevate the bully. Bystander witnesses may abandon the target and actually support the bully. The rationalism may be that the bully is a ‘winner’ and people prefer to associate themselves with winners.
As bystanders, we must somehow muster up courage to interrupt bullying. Here hard choices have to be made, many of them with career implications.

“Hey, get real Terry,” an e-mailer dinged me a while ago on this suggestion. “You choose between the abuse and walking papers. In this economy, only a few can afford to choose the latter.”
Good point. I accept how difficult this may be to do for some. However, and at a minimum, we do need to stop the tacit collaboration that comes with our silence. It means supporting – not abandoning – the target by helping him or her explore options. It means mustering up the courage to confront the bully.

And in the end it may be a matter of having a frank, level-headed discussion with the silent bystander in the mirror. How long are you willing to allow yourself to be humiliated by your silence by the loud mouth bully you find yourself in the company of? How do you explain your silence to loved ones? Is your reputation and credibility worth being wiped out by your silence while your bully bullies?

In parting, and for “Schultz-like” bystanders who have observed bullying and done nothing in the past, the hope is that you’re feeling some guilt and discomfort right now – emotions that will prompt you to act in the future.

“First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one to speak out for me.”
~Rev. Martin Niemoller

Terry Howard

© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is a senior associate at Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com.

One thought on “Silence and the Sergeant Schultz Syndrome – by Terry Howard”

  1. Awesome article! It opened my eyes to better understand others silence in the face of nastiness. I think the environment of hate and fear promote these behaviors.

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