If you don’t vote, you must complain

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” It’s universally accepted—and exactly backwards. Consider this scenario that (I hope) remains far away.

Smith: Help! The president signed an executive order criminalizing my beliefs! They’re seizing my home and taking me away! Tell someone!

Jones: Sorry, neighbor, but I didn’t vote, so I can’t complain. You’re on your own. Good luck!

Brown: I voted for the current administration, so my complaint would be hypocritical. You’re on your own. Good luck!

If you see an injustice being done, do you really think it’s your duty to silently go along with it just because you didn’t vote? Should others, if they see it being done to you?

Think about the implications of “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Does that mean resident aliens must accept violations of their rights without complaint? Does it mean minors are fair game? They can’t vote either, so I guess the government ought to be able to do whatever it pleases to them—right? Would you say that blacks in the Jim Crow South should not have complained, because they didn’t vote? Of course not. That’s because we all know that nonvoters still have rights, no matter how aggressively our platitudes deny it.

Maybe you’re claiming that it only means, “If you could have voted against something but didn’t, then your complaint against it is hypocritical.” Maybe, but so what? Hypocritical doesn’t mean false. Being Jones, up above, does not excuse you from your responsibility to complain. And if you cast the wrong vote, then you’re Brown. How is that less hypocritical? The fact is, your responsibility to complain is far more important than your responsibility to vote. I’ll gladly forgive someone a wrong vote, or a non-vote, if he lodges a valid and forceful complaint.

We posture as if this anti-non-voter doctrine empowers us all with the instruments of change. But this is false. Votes don’t change a thing; complaining does. In fact, a cogent argument, delivered by one who understands it and means it, is the only thing that can bring about change. These arguments are what give us something to vote for (or against).

I point this out every election season. I’ve lost friends for it. But it’s true. 

In a legitimate sense, complaining is what made America. This is a nation built by ideas, founded by men who argued. We have the lives we have today, because men were ready to go to war against those who told them to stop complaining.

Ask yourself what would have become of the American Revolution if they had believed what we believe today. What would Samuel Adams have said to the citizens of Boston? “Sorry, but what can we do? If we had voted, then maybe we could complain. But we’re being taxed without representation, so that’s the end of it. Now let’s go home and be loyal, uncomplaining subjects, and stop thinking about our rights.”

Samuel Adams understood something we’ve lost sight of. All of politics is about rights—the very reason that governments are instituted among men. What are rights? Who has them? How can we best protect them? These questions aren’t answered by voting. The answers are found only through careful, rigorous thought, a precious commodity that is inexcusably scarce these days, for which voting is no substitute. And when you realize that the power to think, and to frame arguments that persuade others, is in no way dependent on the counting of votes, then you’ll be on your way to understanding what old Sam Adams was up to.

If you truly want to be involved—if you truly want to make a difference—if you truly want to leave your children a better world than the one you came into—then don’t waste time encouraging ignorant people to cast votes they won’t understand. Instead, put your brain to work. Do the thinking you’ve neglected. Read this nation’s founding documents, and see what questions they raise. Clarify your concepts, and tread fearlessly into your own inner fog. Then think about whom to vote for, if you find any candidate worthy of your vote—because until you recognize your right to withhold your vote from a pack of aspiring tyrants, you don’t understand its value. And wherever your thinking leads you, complain as if your life depends on it, because someday it might.

No, it’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. But it’s a responsibility that this nation’s citizens once took seriously, because they were aware of the blood that was shed to give them the opportunity—and because they preferred death to oppression (a word they bothered to understand the meaning of).

Do you see the difference? If you cast your vote without bothering to understand the issues at stake, and then pat yourself on the back for supporting democracy, you are part of the problem. You’re giving yourself a moral shortcut, a way to feel like a good person without doing anything that actually makes your world a better place. You’ve also told whatever malignant creature you voted for how little it takes to earn your support. Once you’ve let him know how easy it is to bring you into his herd, how seriously do you suppose he’s going to take your complaint? 

Our truism has it exactly backwards. The lesson we all need to learn is: If something is wrong, then whether you voted or didn’t, you have not only a right, but a moral obligation to complain. If you don’t have what it takes to complain, then you shouldn’t vote. 

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