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Friendship: Of Cliques and Bystanders

Devora Zheutlin, MA, CAS

They are the “middlemen” or “middlewomen,” bystanders who are not the main actors in an event, but who observe this marginalizing and don’t speak up

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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A n unfortunate guest gets accidentally invited to a party by someone he’s really not friendly with. When the host realizes the mistake, he demands that the guest leave. The guest pleads with the host to save him embarrassment and allow him to stay, even offering to pay for his food… for half of the feast… for the whole event. The host loses patience and commands his staff to throw out the intruder! It is just then that the most hurtful part emerges. 

The wounded guest is furious that many honorable people witnessed his embarrassment and stood by. They saw what was happening but did nothing to either stop the offending host or support the offended guest. For the enormous pain and isolated feeling that he experienced, he wants to harm the whole community.

If this story sounds familiar it’s because it is from the gemara in Gittin and is commonly known as the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The detail that stands out is the impact of the bystander; one who witnesses an event and stands by, doing nothing… and the pain and anger it creates. 


The Analysis

Some people have more power than others. That is a fact of life that we may not like, but that we can and should accept. A term coined for the role of such an empowered group leader is the “Queen Bee.” She often presides over a “hive” of followers (or “worker bees”). A Queen Bee is generally powerful and dynamic. She can make things happen, influence others, and start trends. Her role becomes a problem, however, if she chooses to use that power to make others feel small and marginalized (cast aside). 

She can create exclusivity by only allowing some people to feel welcome around her and her group, and by deliberately excluding others. Sadly, any advantage on the part of the Queen and her hive can be used to make others feel left out. Whether it is knowing one another longer, having more belongings than others, or even sharing common interests, all these qualities can be used to make some people feel that they belong in the group, and others, distinctly not.

One would think that to end this mistreatment, effort should be made to educate and change the Queen Bee. But the research shows that Queen Bees are “dug in” to their position and feel dominant, so they are hard to sensitize.

Tenth grader Kaila Ross is not used to worrying about pleasing others. They worry about pleasing her! Her peers have been with her since elementary school and she has been established as the head of her class. That is why when a teacher attempted to discuss some of Kaila’s hurtful actions with her, Kaila was completely unreceptive. “What does she want from me?” Kaila asked, with true cluelessness.

On the other hand, one might try to “pump up” the underdogs, the people being marginalized. Perhaps they can be inspired and persuaded to speak up? However, these students are often very intimidated and are hard to empower. Because they often have “less” of whatever others admire in that social circle (less fame or social connections, less possessions, less confidence, or even less of a history with the group) they feel very stuck and unable to break out of the maltreatment.

The answer lies with a very interesting segment of the population. They are the “middlemen” or “middlewomen,” bystanders who are not the main actors in an event, but who observe this marginalizing and don’t speak up. Officially they are not responsible for the mistreatment, but, by allowing it to go on unchallenged, they make it doable. (Excerpted from Teen Pages, Issue 689)

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