Transition Café – Bystanders

My thanks to those who stepped up, last-minute, to host the Self-Organized Transition Cafés, while I’ve been out, much appreciated!

Learning new languages opens up new worlds to us. For me, learning languages of non-Humans as well as those of other Humans has been opening huge new worlds, for most of my life. Happily, the white-coat-and-clipboard set are now recognizing Animal languages as worthy of study (although the word “language” is still triggering for some of the old guard, so we’re supposed to say that while Humans use “language”, non-Humans “apply labels”. Anyway…) Very informative is learning the difference between Baseline behaviors and communications and Alarm or Distress behaviors and communications. For instance, learning the Junco term for “Snake” has helped me find some large, beautiful Gopher Snakes on a few occasions, now. Their term is a combination of spoken word and body language. I’m basically at kindergarten level, if even that, in learning these languages, although I get better all the time.

When Birds become aware of a predator in their midst, the Birds who are affected by that predator make the presence of the predator known to all. Alert Humans can figure out the identity of a given predator fairly quickly by looking at the shape, texture, direction, tone, and volume of the alarm. Not all alarms make a sound, some are silent, and the shape and texture of that silence can tell a great deal about what is going on in that space. More than that, Humans who are seen as allies will sometimes be sought or summoned by Birds who trust those Humans to assist them when they are threatened. One could say “it’s just Nature”, and refuse to interfere, of course, but Humans and non-Humans have had beneficial relationships with each other for as far back as oral history takes us. When did we forget this?

Something we are learning about bullies is about the importance of bystanders. Bystanders give important feedback to both the bully and the bullied. What do you do, when you see something cruel or violent being done? Do you pretend you don’t see it? Do you cheer on one party or the other? Do you join in on what is happening? Do you pretend so well that it didn’t happen that even a few seconds later, when asked about it, you can’t seem to remember? Are you pretending to not remember, or do you actually not remember?

The way bystanders behave in a situation where one individual or group is being bullied by another has a direct impact on how long that bullying continues, or on what the outcome of the bullying is. Saying “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls” or “kids will be kids, they’re so cruel” tells the bullied that they have no allies, and the bullies to keep at it. What will you do when those kids begin bullying those weaker than them? Will you stand up, then? How will you explain to yourself the role you played in that? What about the ones who have nobody below them to bully, but they do have free and easy access to guns?

But really, what do you do when they attempt to stand up for themselves? As much as we pay lip service to the underdog standing up to their oppressors, what do you actually do when they attempt to, or when they even name their experience? Do you take time to sit with what you saw, with the testimony of the different participants, with the consequences of the situation and your participation in it?

Whatever your decision, you are part of that system. With the Birds crying to you to keep their children from being killed in front of them, you are their neighbor, and they must have some level of trust in you to make that ask. We know, now, that they study us, know us as individuals, and have relationships with us as such. This is not just theoretical, but is well-studied and reported in a host of books and articles, as far back as 1992, but observed long before that, and embedded in our oral histories.

We know, very well, the impact of bystanders on bullies and the bullied. The bully looks to you for approval and support, the bullied looks to you for approval and support. They are your neighbors, and they must have a level of trust in you to make that ask. This is not just theoretical, but is well-studied and reported, not just academically, but by every one of us who has ever been bully, bullied, or bystander. Can you support both to be their best selves, to shift out of that dynamic with each other?

Of course, this is not as simple as I make it in this essay. Predators need food, which can mean that someone else needs to die or watch those they love die in order to feed that predator. Bystanders may well sneak in for a quick swallow of spilled egg yolk or gobbet of flesh from a slain chick, and then have their chicks killed the next day. Do you honor the relationship you have with an individual, or turn away to allow “nature to take its course”? How do you behave with a Human neighbor? Human predators also exist, and can enable or inspire predatory behavior in others. They can have personality disorders which can make it difficult or impossible for them to stop hurting others, or to take pleasure in it. In terms of Human ecosystems, they certainly exist for a reason, and will continue to do so long into the future. It could be argued that that is “just nature”, as well. Does that absolve us of the decision to act or not act?

In the runup to the 2016 election, a number of White folks began wearing safety pins, in solidarity with our friends of color who were under threat by newly-empowered white supremacists. What does that actually mean? How many of us still wear those, or display them visibly?

If we choose not to act in service of our neighbors, Human and Otherwise, who will act for us? Why am I asking these questions in a Transition Café?

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Random and Useful Other Stuff:
Toby Hemenway’s (author of Gaia’s Garden and The Permaculture City) website:
Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, by Gary Paul Nabhan
Thinking in Systems, a primer, by Donella H. Meadows
Masterminds and Wingmen, Rosalind Wiseman
Queen Bees and Wannabees, Rosalind Wiseman



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