Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Don't Vote!" -- Event on Campus

An organization I am involved with -- the Wisconsin Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy -- is bringing a speaker the UW-Madison campus next week. The individualist feminist Wendy McElroy will be giving a talk titled Don't Vote! It's Immoral and It Wastes Your Time. Monday February 25, Room 5259 Law School. I don't generally bring speakers to campus because I agree with what they are going to say, but given the way the primaries have been going, this is a message I am ready to hear. Yes, she is said to be an anarchist.

What amazes me is the sheer hostility her talk has provoked already, days before the event. Posters advertising the event in the Philosophy Department have been torn down and ripped up. And a brief email announcement has provoked a flurry of hostile responses. For instance:
"Don't Vote! Why Voting Is Immoral" That's the most rediculous [sic] thing I've
ever heard. Please remove me from your email list.
Voting is one of the greatest rights given to us by our "Founding
Fathers". It is one property that makes a democracy such as the United
States a place of great freedom and opportunity. It is because of a
democracy that loopy liberals such as yourselves can have such ridiculous
beliefs and morals. If you are unhappy with a great democracy, such as
American, move to China.
Don't send me this junk and clog my e-mail, flyers for this umpopular [sic]
event on campus are enough
In addition, there's:
Please don't send me things like this. I read the entire message with hopes of finding something worthwhile.
Sadly, it was a complete waste of time. I am embarrassed for the people
giving the talk.
As well as this mysterious response:
fuck off....your [sic] telling people not to vote? i can see why that would
solve all the nations problems.
And the inevitable:
fuck that bitch
Alright, I admit quoting the last one was unnecessary, but there is a certain virtue in completeness, almost any sort of completeness, and I wanted to quote them all.

What the Hell is going on here? Is democracy itself the last surviving state religion? Is voting some kind of sacrament? Is hostility to politics the last remaining sacrilege, the only one you can still hate?

Maybe the title of the talk is just a tad inflammatory. She seems to be telling me (yes, I do vote!) that I am immoral. The title of one of Wendy's essays on the subject -- Act Reponsibly: Don't Vote -- makes the same point in a less offensive way. I guess it would have been better. Oh, well, this is our title and we're stuck with it.

Anyway, in the hope of forestalling more angry messages, let me try to be reassuring:

This is a forum -- Prof. Harry Brighouse, a distinguished political philosopher (of UW-Madison and Crooked Timber), will be there to present a contrasting view of voting. The point is to spark discussion of the ethics of participating in political processes. We aren't trying to discourage people from voting. It's the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, after all!

As to what I think about it, let me just say that I think it is fascinating that people generally find it hard to see anything ethically problematic, ever, in their voting behavior. I have never seen anyone display a twinge of guilt over the consequences of a vote in which they participated, whether the consequences were war, inflation, recession, or the flight of employers from their jurisdiction. But when you think of it, isn't voting the one opportunity most of us have to do something really evil? How many chances does the average person ever have to participate, for instance, in the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of human beings? Only our participation in the state gives us such horrible opportunities. Yet such things, when they happen, are always someone else's fault. The very act of voting seems to be morally numbing. Somehow, we disconnect our thoughts about things we do to others personally from the things we do to then through the mediation of the state. The distorting effects of this moral anesthesia on the development of the human conscience must be vast and devastating.
Added later, the day after the event: Things went well in every way -- there were about 90 people in the audience, overwhelmingly students. This is a very large audience for a talk of this sort. (Over the weekend before the talk, we got some welcome free publicity when a local journalist, Catjusa Cisar, wrote an article about my little email flap for the Capital Times. Also, Harry blogged about it over at Crooked Timber.) At the event, Wendy was by turns provocative and inspiring, and Harry was witty, charming, and insightful. The Q and A was lively but civil on all sides. I was surprised to see that there were a number of principled non-voters present. Thanks again to Wendy, Harry, and everyone else who came! (Also thanks to the people who sent me "non-hate emails," as they kept calling them. I definitely appreciated that!)


Mark M said...

great post!

Skip said...

Is the event open to the public?

Lester Hunt said...

Mark, Gee, Thanks!

Palmer, Yes, it is open to the public. Silly me, I should have said that.

Righteous Bubba said...

Here's a handy link which reveals that some people regret voting.

Anonymous said...

maybe you should vote against killing hundreds of thousands of people. isn't that sort of the obvious answer?

Lester Hunt said...

Anon, I was speaking about voting as being tempting and therefore corrupting. Voting against war (or most wars) is how you should vote, but there seem to be a lot of incentives to vote the other way -- and to accept no responsibility for it afterwards. ... By the way, as to what Wendy would say on this, she said at the talk that she is not against voting on referenda, only against voting for people to have power over others. If a war were put to a vote, she would by all means be in favor of voting on that. If on the other hand it is a matter of voting on candidates who have different positions on military policy, the matter is more complicated. In 2000 I voted for Bush precisely because he had a less aggressive foreign policy position than Gore did. Of course I was cheated, just like a guy who buys a car that immediately breaks down. Except that the buyer of the car has right to redress, and the voter does not. Wendy's position is not mine (yet?) but I think it makes a lot more sense than at first appears.

Anonymous said...

Lester, sorry I don't respond to your blog posts more often. For some reason, breaking through the Great Firewall is easy when it comes to reading, but not so much when it comes to actually doing anything, like posting.

I should probably just read Wendy's essay on the matter, but I'm wondering how you feel about voting for more explicitly libertarian candidates and causes. You had Badnarik in '04, and if all indications are accurate, Bob Barr will be the Libertarian candidate in '08. Wouldn't it make sense to vote for him? Otherwise, for what it's worth, I was thinking that the choices we face in '08 are so abysmal that sitting out this year might be a moral obligation! Bob Barr running, though, for the first time in a long time, gives me a sense of hope that maybe voting won't be such a waste this time, if only to help create the largest protest vote possible.

- Jason Walker

Lester Hunt said...

Yes, voting for third party candidates in general seems to be immune to some of here arguments. Her main argument is that if you vote for a candidate (she is not against voting for initiatives) you are trying to give someone power over others. Well, what if you are voting for someone who can't possibly win? Is that objection still applicable? And what if your candidate pledges to lessen the power that people have over others? I actually asked her about this, when we were chatting in a bar after her talk, but I don't remember what she said. Too many beers at that point, I guess. Darn!