Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Sacred Right of Complaint

With several elections going on today, it seems appropriate to bring out this one.  I heard someone the other day utter the old chestnut "I vote because if you don't, you have no right to complain."  It's a veritable cliche of American democracy.  But what is so important about complaining and why is this an alienable right? 

There are several presupposition in the claim: 

First, is a sense of political fatalism.  No matter who gets elected, there will be something worthy of complaint. Things are going to be messed up.  We don't say that if you don't vote, you have no right to celebrate.  Surely, those in office make some things better?  But this is irrelevant to why you should vote.  Politics is not to make the society a better place because it just ain't gonna happen. 

Second, there is value in being able to express your complaint.  Suffering is bad, suffering in silence is significantly worse.  It would be horrible if you had something to complain about and couldn't express your displeasure to those around you.

Third, there is nothing that can be done about these things by those who are unelected.  If you are not in elected office, you cannot make things better in the society.  Complaining about the situation -- which doesn't alter it, but allows you to express your dislike -- is all that you have. 

Fourth, it is only by choosing a candidate that you are awarded the right of complaint.  This is a right you are granted by action.  Cast a vote, get the right to complain.  If you see something wrong but didn't submit your ballot, no fair pointing it out.   Not that voting would have changed it (see presupposition 1), but the fact that you didin't do this one little thing means you have no right to be upset about it or to voice that displeasure.

All four of these presuppositions seem completely false.  Voting is a good thing, it can change the world.  Voters in North Carolina, for example, are once again trying to write bigotry into law.  Voting could stop this if enough caring people vote.  Politics can make the world a better or worse place and there are any number of ways that one can participate in political life and other ways that can improve the world.  Vote.  Please vote.  But do it for the right reasons, not just to be able to complain without guilt.