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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

How should bystanders react when witnessing injustice?

When it comes to the safety and welfare of others, good manners dictates that we step up and most respectfully raise hell, writes Ellen Vanstone.

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Ani Castillo

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Dear Ellen,

I was walking to work recently when I saw two police officers leaning over a man who was clearly drunk and lying on the grass in front of an apartment block. The man was non-white, and because of so many reports about racist incidents by police, I worried the cops might be abusing him or his rights somehow. So I went over to investigate — but in fact the cops were speaking to the man very kindly, addressing him as “sir” and asking if he was okay. I actually found it very moving to see our Toronto police behaving so respectfully to a down-and-out person of colour. It then occurred to me that I had no idea what I would have done if the cops had been abusing the man. So my question is: what would the correct behaviour be in that situation?

Fan of good policing

Dear Fan,

Thank you for this wonderful letter, which allows me to beat a favourite drum of mine, i.e., that good manners and social justice go hand in hand.

Some diehard etiquette experts would argue that the “polite” thing to do in virtually any situation is to button your lip, avert your gaze and mind your own beeswax when others are behaving badly. I’d argue back with this famous quote from 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As I see it, a truly well-bred “gentleman,” of any class, gender or ethnicity, will always pipe up for what’s right.

I don’t mean you should physically or even verbally engage when you see a racist hurling epithets on the subway, or a bully picking on kids, or a grownup hitting a child, or an adult punching their partner, or cops assaulting a drunk. There’s no point in being a martyr in the moment if it merely escalates the situation, and makes no difference in the long run.

What you can do is bear witness when you see injustice. Speak up if it’s safe to do so — politely offer help to the victims, without engaging with the perpetrators, for example. At the very least, report the incident to the proper authorities, perhaps accompanied by photos or video obtained from a distance.

Sometimes being polite does mean laying low and not drawing attention. But when it comes to the safety and welfare of others, good manners dictates that we step up and most respectfully raise hell.

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