Risto Juola
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The All But Universal Illusion

Non-Voting, Social Pressure, and Freedom of Speech


Nov 11, 2010



"Got an issue with the city ... ? ... You better NOT COMPLAIN if you're also NOT GOING TO VOTE ... So, are you going to SHUT UP or VOTE?"

-- University of Western Ontario Students' Council


"It's noble to promote voting, it's self-aggrandizing to deride non-voters."

-- Tim Shirk


What is the connection between free speech and voting? In Canada, "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression" falls into the constitutional category of Fundamental Freedoms, while voting "in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly" is categorized under Democratic Rights. Certainly then, from the standpoint of the aforementioned fundamental freedoms, citizens are free to express the opinion that "You better NOT COMPLAIN if you're also NOT GOING TO VOTE." Or, as another group would have it, that "if you don't vote, you can't bitch." Or again; "most of us ... vote. Shame on the rest of you, and I hope you aren't bothering to bitch right now. You gave up that right when you couldn't be arsed to go to the poll." In response to these claims however, we must ask ourselves the following: if a person has chosen not to vote, and they subsequently choose to express an opinion that is critical of their political environment, should that person's voice be ignored? Should we presuppose that the person is necessarily or obviously apathetic? In any case, does a person's abstention from voting mean they need to feel ashamed and "SHUT UP"?

In terms of constitutional categories, the question at hand is: does the choice to not exercise a constitutionally granted democratic right abrogate a constitutionally protected fundamental freedom? Constitutionally and legally speaking, the answer is no. A person who does not vote continues to enjoy the right of free speech, regardless of voting record. No detractor has any legal basis for attacking a non-voter's ability to speak freely. Because the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch refrain seems to be a popular one, I'll emphasize the point: any formal attempt to make a case against a person's right to free speech on the grounds that said person chose not to vote would fail in court, because it would fail to adhere to the principles and statutes of the Canadian constitution.

However, though we are fortunate to enjoy fully constitutional and legal protection in thought, belief, opinion and expression, the issue being examined is more properly understood as a social one. Specifically, the issue here is the exercise of social influence. The goal of the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch doctrine is to induce one of two outcomes: voting, or shame. Accordingly, the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch offensive is a social (or perhaps, sociopolitical) campaign, being an attempt by voters to influence non-voters. That the campaign is undertaken at all is proof that its undertakers feel it is a sensible one, and we may reasonably estimate these undertakers hope and believe their claims will produce a social effect, thus prodding non-voters towards voting, or else shaming non-voters into maintaining silence as regards politics. In addition, we may safely infer these undertakers also believe their campaign is necessarily or best formulated antagonistically, as their chosen verbiage -- "Shame on ... you"; "SHUT UP"; "can't bitch" -- is decidely visceral in its construction. The question remains: what are the intentions of those who bound a conversation within a framework of statements such as "Shame on ... you," "SHUT UP," and "can't bitch"? What is the character of the influence of these visceral constructions?

By its chosen words, the character of the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch campaign is straightforwardly apparent. The goal here is to make non-voters feel bad about their choices, to goad them, and to belittle their intellect and ability. Make no mistake -- make absolutely no mistake -- telling a person they are barred from talking about politics, regardless of intent or justification, is elitist and authoritarian, as well as unconstitutional.

If a social group, or a society, or a culture upholds the belief that people cannot discuss problems of politics because they have chosen not to vote, and that culture then exerts social pressure to that effect, then the outcome of that social pressure can be nothing other than to quell political discussion and involvement, to at least some degree. Is this result something less than inconsistent and ironic by the lights of the stated goal of increasing political involvement? But, is quelling political discussion truly the desired outcome? Can stifling political debate be the conscious goal of the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch group? "[I]s telling a genuinely apathetic voter they are not allowed to talk critically about politics the best way to get them to participate?" Here I am giving the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch group the benefit of the doubt, and presuming they genuinely seek to engender political awareness, and are not by design attempting to indirectly diminish political debate. Yet, quelling political discussion is precisely the stated goal of the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch campaign, for "if you don't vote, you can't bitch"; that's right, "SHUT UP or VOTE." A peremptory and contradictory set of decrees, if ever there were.

The importance of such campaigns and their social influence can not be overstated, as the Canadian constitution itself operates and evolves by the lights of constitutional conventions that provide an offical pathway for social influence over constitutional matters. Understanding this relationship between social influence and the constitution, let us be sure not to entertain justifications opining that "Shame on ... you"-"SHUT UP"-"can't bitch" campaigns or their verbiage are tongue-in-cheek, for by their derisive nature such campaigns and their verbiage are at best foot-in-mouth. Perhaps a private, personal quip to a colleague might be considered tongue-in-cheek, but a public social campaign is substantively different from a private quip, and the social conditions of the two contexts should not be confused or conflated.

For a pithy passage exposing the fatuity of the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch approach, I will turn to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, in which the approach is dealt with, summarily:

"Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant -- society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it -- its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own ... Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had always been agreed. The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not only, as the proverb says a second nature, but is continually mistaken for the first. The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself."

Looking a little more closely at the questions of voter abstention and political passivity: does regular or compulsory voter participation imply an enhanced political situation? First: "Mandatory voting isn't politically neutral. It's bound to affect which parties do well at the polls and which do not." Second: remember we need look no further than our own political history to find a concurrence of high voter turnout with state oppression. "Recall the Canadian elections of December 17th 1917 and June 11th 1945, which had voter turnouts of 75% and 75.3% respectively -- among the highest in Canadian history -- elections that found the elected government disgorging xenophobic propaganda, and in the latter case interning or forcibly relocating and restraining hundreds of Germans, thousands of Italians, and over 20,000 Japanese, for the crime of ethnicity." In this connection, consider point three of Hack The Vote's "How To Vote" page: the "Status quo can kill you. (If it's bad.)" Just so. From the perspective of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese who were interned, relocated, and restrained by the Canadian government, the impact of the official political status quo, as sanctioned by the voters, was bad indeed. As well, here we must be aware that examples of state oppression that transcend voting trends are abundant, as evinced for example by the continuing Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Agent Orange sagas.

Proportionately, with information like this in mind, and if we're thoroughly concerned about exploring political issues, then how ready should we be to dismiss and even repress the opinions of non-voters? What about the dangerous realities that flow from official voter activity? The problem in this instance is the belief that the official political party system accurately captures and propitiously facilitates the full spectrum of political positions and possibilities -- which it does not.

Accepting that official political systems and processes leave something, and even much to be desired, then one of the major threats "today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to 'be active,' to 'participate,' to mask the nothingness of what goes on." Taking up this point, Philip Berrigan opined "if voting made any difference it would be illegal." Whether or not one agrees, condemning non-voters of apathy or ignorance presupposes the problem is "voter passivity in the face of genuine options," when in fact those who do vote run the risk of propping up and legitimating systems that mask nothingness inside pseudo-activity, thus potentially contributing "to the imposition of self-limiting political norms." In this case the phrase "voter apathy" is perceived directly, assuming its most literal meaning. The solution here, as Thoreau observed, is to "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence."

Therefore, in the first analysis, by their failure to adhere to the principles of the constitution, their internal inconsistency, their demoralizing and humiliating application of social pressure, and their failure to address the very real problem of political pseudo-activity, campaigns of the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch stripe are immediately self-defeating. Belief in the shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch principle is little more than submission to "all but universal illusion"; an instance of, and warning "against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them."

So, can non-voters freely make political commentary? Always. Do voters, simply by the act of voting, enjoy a superior political or social stance to non-voters? Never. Voters -- and, need I say it, professional political actors, and everyone else -- are in no position to pressure or judge non-voters based solely on the fact they have not voted, and shame-on-you-SHUT-UP-can't-bitch suggestions to the contrary are profoundly anti-democratic. Political engagement requires personal and social commitment far beyond the casting of a ballot.

Hence, the concision of Tim Shirk: "It's noble to promote voting, it's self-aggrandizing to deride non-voters."