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Harmless Hobby or Predatory Pastime: A word on “People Watching”

Look at her sitting there, just popping her Bubblicious Gum (probably pink lemonade flavor, her favorite and mine), coyly twirling her fingers through her hair, while she waits to board her flight to Omaha. No wedding band.  About my age.  Definitely within the acceptable range (+/- 8 years). I’m loving that Baylor hoodie. Green does wonders for her skin tone. Isn’t Baylor almost a Christian school? Wait.  What’s this? Gooo! She’s reading Velvet Elvis! Jackpot. She likes Rob Bell. I like Jesus. Rob Bell likes Jesus. Nice. I wonder what she’s going to Omaha for (probably to break up with her deadbeat boyfriend). I wonder if she sees me standing here pretending to read the departure monitors (probably). I wonder if she wants me to keep her company (probably not). Why ruin a perfectly good relationship by actually meeting, right?

So tell me, how would you best classify the male protagonist in the previous scene?  A social misfit? A sad, lonely little man?  A creepy, potentially dangerous predator?  Wrong, wrong, and mostly wrong. He is nothing more than an overly-imaginative Everyman engaging in a bit of harmless people watching.

One need not look far to uncover a proud practitioner of this ubiquitous hobby these days. Apart from an unwavering infatuation with The Office, and a ravenous hatred of George Bush, there are few things that unite the American populace like people watching. Everyone loves it. Everyone does it. Everyone thinks it’s normal.  Purportedly normal people flock daily to shopping malls, public parks, beaches, and nursing homes to gawk at strangers for hours on end. They pretend to read newspapers and occasionally wear dark sunglasses and baseball caps so that – unimpeded – they might take in the varied and quixotic wardrobes and body types ambling by.  Amusing?  Absolutely.  Normal?  I’m not so sure.

Now, I’m not here to cast stones, or to judge (lest I be judged), or to be a Pharisee, or to ignore the plank in my own eye, or anything like that. I freely admit to willfully and gleefully engaging in people watching. (Usually at night. Often with the aid of binoculars.) This, however, is because I am an exceptionally creepy person.  See, it is not so much the act of watching people that upsets me, it is the social support that this invasive voyeurism enjoys.  Lets face it, silently sizing up passers-by while imagining what their lives are like is a creepy thing to do, yet society does not heap scorn upon the unashamed perpetrators of this pastime as it does other creepy people.

It strikes me as a bit paradoxical that a citizenry as fiercely private as America’s can – in the same breath – decry the evils of the Patriot Act and gush about the inbred family of homeschoolers they observed at the state fair. What is the Patriot Act, if not tax-payer funded people watching? It’s hypocritical. Why is it okay for us to gape at the theatrical homosexuals frolicking down the river walk when it’s not okay for the government to monitor their plot to destroy American values? How can the same girls who sit at outdoor cafes ogling guys from behind dinner plate sized sunglasses get upset about the “lurkster” in the shadowy corner of the bar who has been watching them all night and will probably follow them home? How can people embrace reality television, yet get upset at my attempts to secretly, yet tastefully, film their private lives?  What’s the difference? We’re all creepsters. Why is it that only some of us are subject to social ostracism?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. Maybe no one does.  My intent today was simply to illuminate the hypocrisy of the “people watching phenomenon.”  It seems an unjust inconsistancy in our national conscience, and I felt compelled to address it.  Perhaps you will discover your own answers to these questions the next time you find yourself sitting at the airport or installing a two-way mirror in your bathroom.  Perhaps not.  Whatever happens, I hope no one feels compelled to give up people watching on my accord. That would be tragic.  I hope only that you all feel deeply ashamed every time you do it.

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