Have you seen him? He stands by and watches, often with an eyebrow raised and the hint of a smile, when horrible things happen to other people. I’ve come across him way too many times.
When I went to school in Germany, violence and bullying were pervasive. Until I grew out of it, I was an obese child and mercilessly bullied for it. Grinning Idiot always stood around when people were beaten or otherwise abused. He never said anything, never participated, and never lifted a finger to stop what was going on.
When we students demonstrated against the Vietnam War or marched for other political causes, Grinning Idiot could be right there with us, as if we had dragged him along. Or, he stood on the sidewalk, watching. He didn’t start smiling until the police started arresting people. But then he hung around until it was all over and the vans hauled folks off to the precinct.
Later in life, I was sometimes in workplaces where groups of people were laid off at the same time. Grinning Idiot sat around doing work or screwing off, trying to figure out who would remain. He never showed any empathy for people who were let go and didn’t have any critical or other comments to share. When it was time for lunch, he ate.
I’ve seen Grinning Idiot many times in pictures and news footage. He stands around when the Nazis beat up on Jews, communists, gays, and other trouble-makers, for example. Never takes part unless forced, never helps anybody. Just watches and smiles a little. He seems to love watching people being loaded into railway cars—that’s when he shows up in a crowd, feeling safe because it wasn’t his turn. Of course, for him a crowd to disappear in can be as small as three or four people.
Which reminds me, have you seen photographs of lynchings in the United States? There are the perpetrators, who often stand and laugh proudly next to a dead black man, hanged or beaten to death on the ground. Grinning Idiot is right there, just a little off-center, often looking slightly away from the camera’s eye, with his little smirk.
In groups of friends at dinner, a party, or some other event, Grinning Idiot never provokes a conflict or disagreement, but doesn’t mind when somebody else does. He keeps quiet and watches what other people do. As soon as he has figured out who is on the winning side in an argument, he nudges over there to share that person’s shadow.
Do you know who I’m talking about?
If you know Grinning Idiot, how do you relate to him? Are you his friend, neighbor, trusted interlocutor? Have you ever been this person?
Sometimes it seems as if much of the world’s trouble would be impossible without Grinning Idiot standing by and letting it happen. He provides the silent chorus of approval for misery. He’s done this for many centuries. Isn’t it time we got rid of him, one by one? Even if he is you or me?
Grinning Idiot is not brave or smart, and often he knows that. He never leads and never starts a song. Sometimes you can shame him, send him packing, or provoke him into taking a stand. Whatever you do, you need to account for him, because in his idiotic way, through sheer inertia and ineptness, he is extremely powerful. Don’t ignore him, or he’ll stand and smirk when calamity comes for you, not the least bit inclined to help. You don’t want to wait that long.
Do you know of any good ways to deal with Grinning Idiot?