December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Stayers and leavers

By |2018-03-21T20:01:22+01:00June 23rd, 2016|Area 51|
Leavers carry a heavier burden.

eaving — whether a job, a man, or an untoward situation — usually produces irrational agitation. Something has happened, or has failed to happen, and a point of no return established in cumulative response. As the momentum to leave builds, so does tension. Internal or external, it rumbles and snarls and eventually makes itself known.

Staying — or not leaving — is something else entirely. Deciding to stay is usually (but not always) less oppressive. Options are weighed until standing pat is put ahead of changing direction, change that to some represents a leap into a potentially troubling unknown. Staying can be leaving’s last-minute default position.

In general terms, those on the verge of leaving are fiercer and more visibly vitriolic than those on the verge of choosing to stay. The latter often say nothing, fearing a decision not to rebel might embarrass then among those vocally eager to bolt. They often keep still until called to raise their hands.

Decision-making as seen in emotional and psychological terms has a great deal in common with its more hysterical political counterpart, the stay-leave or yes-no referendum. In politics, both sides are dramatically showy. Each advertises its views and belittles those of its opponents. Some ride the coattails of road-rage rhetoric into acts of folly. Such acts tend to attach themselves more to would-be leavers, since they’re the ones who feel shackled and threatened. Angry words can produce angry acts, and leavers have more to prove.

Yet stayers usually have the upper hand. Many of them will gripe from time to time about the need to change if not overhaul the status quo but in practice few are willing to endure the potential consequences of such an overhaul. For them, inviting major variation means gambling on the life they know, and gambling is as resisted as it is beloved.

That’s part of the reason why parties such as Italy’s MS5, a weird kettle of populism and kill-the-king broth, still flirts with national primacy — two of its female members recently became mayors in Turin and Florence — while seeming unlikely to obtain it absolutely. It’s also why the Italian Communist Party was unable to transform impressive national support into an outright election victory in the left-tilting 1970s. The stayers of the time repeatedly applied eleventh-hour breaks (in 1976, the PCI garnered 34.4 percent of the vote, a stunning total at the height of the Cold War, but still five points short of power).

In Greece, a 2015 referendum on whether to accept the harsh terms of a European Union bailout was almost from the start in the hands of “stayers,” who resented the invasive idea of capitulating to the orders of outsiders. Their “no,” or stay, was honor-related, and the bailout rejected decisively. On the verge of a breakup, Greece and the EU nonetheless averted a divorce neither side was entirely sure it wanted.

In Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, pro-independence leavers charismatically exalted Scottish heritage and its intrinsic right to self-determination. Stayers, including the British government, were mild enough that the final result, 55-45 percent against leaving, was a mild surprise. Pre-vote bluster had suggested otherwise.

Same with Britain’s stay-or-leave EU referendum, which has emphasized divorce-like discord: the leavers have been vociferous, the stayers often apocalyptic (what about the children!), and the lead-up difficult for the family to navigate let alone live with for — and a nation is a family, albeit an argumentative one.

The murder of a “stay” parliamentarian by an angry “leave” man has produced waves of guilt and self-examination. Why so much rage?

Because to leave is a powerful choice, and one that once made produces unforeseeable ripple effects — so much so that even leavers aren’t free from anxiety. They must push and shove, insist and overstate, threaten and exaggerate, since those on the other side need only issue dire warnings and play on deep-seated resistance to change. Leavers must make a case-and-half. They carry a heavy burden and always will.

This is why stayers and their ilk usually win, albeit narrowly. In life, divorces or breakups on the brink are frequently postponed at the last moment, and postponed yet again, because major breakage is easier to “threaten” than to carry out. More often than not, the devil you know is the last demon standing.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.