Commentary
11:36 am
Wed May 23, 2012

Does Power Really Lie With Bystanders?

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 12:49 pm

On my route home, there are a couple of stretches I tend to hit where, more often than not, there are a lot of people trying to cross the street at points where there are crosswalks but no stoplights.

And kids being kids, sometimes there's no crosswalk, but they're trying to cross anyway. Increasingly now, because there are new apartments going up, I also see more young working people marching across the street, carrying their take-out dinners, ear buds in place.

I am interested in which motorists stop, and for whom they stop. Do they stop for the little ones all bunched up together, who all seem to be working on identical wads of contraband gum that their mothers will no doubt make them throw out? Do they stop for the harried moms trying to keep the strollers and the walkers moving at the same pace? The too-cool-for-school teens?

Even though I've been watching this dance for a while, I still haven't arrived at a unified theory of the crosswalk. I do think elementary school cuteness seems to confer a slight advantage; teenage bravado, not so much; young professionals, none at all. And why would that be? I think it has something to do with who's watching.

Can I just tell you? It makes me think that the power does not lie with the person trying to make something happen, or even the person trying to stop it, the person crossing, or the motorist deciding whether to stop or not. The power seems to lie with the bystanders.

Once, when I was on my way to work via a different route, I saw a man in one car hit a woman in another and try to get away. But the bystanders wouldn't let him.

There was no meeting, no conference call, no vote. They just blocked his path and kept him in check until the police came. They are the ones who gave the unspoken signal of what would be tolerated and what would not.

So this is my theory about what really affects the hot-button issues, too: same-sex marriage or marriage equality, if you prefer; immigration reform or a path to citizenship, if you prefer — amnesty if you don't.

This is my vision of why and how things will change. It's not so much because of what advocates want or opponents decry — it's because of what bystanders will tolerate.

If you think about it, most of us are bystanders to the big debates of our time. A highly regarded study, which Tell Me More previously reported on, suggests that only 3.8 percent Americans identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, according to demographer Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

While many people argue that allowing same-gender marriage redefines marriage, if the numbers are true, then the real effect is not from same-gender marriages per se. It can't be, because by definition there won't be that many of them. The real effect would have to be on how the rest of us view these folks in relation to ourselves.

As for the issue of immigration, especially illegal immigration, the numbers of immigrants are large enough that you do see changes in communities.

But here again, most of us are not immigrants, legal or illegal, and most of us are affected only tangentially — if we hire or compete in certain labor markets, or if we depend on certain kinds of services. No, most of us are affected in so far as we calculate the costs and benefits of a more expansionist approach versus a more restrictionist one.

I'm not going to predict how either of these two ongoing and powerful debates will be resolved, except that they will be eventually. It's only to remind us that there's much power, not just in what we choose to do, but in what we choose to see, and how we choose to see it.

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