I voted yesterday for the first time in my life. I know you’re thinking: waiting until you’re almost 30 to vote -how unpatriotic, but let me explain. While I’ve been living in the United States for the past 11 years, I was only able to get citizenship this year. Before that I was caught in a voting no man’s land: unable to meet the residency requirements for voting in my home country but also forbidden from voting here, in my adopted country.
I’ve sat-out, feeling powerless, as Americans elected officials who disappointed me (yes, I’ve cried on election night) and I’ve felt left out as Americans elected officials who’ve made me proud (I’ve cried happy tears too). It’s no surprise then that I reveled in my first election day and proudly called attention to my “I Voted” sticker. Given my excitement about voting, I was surprised and intrigued to read that my classmate, the lovely Keegan of Paper Crane Library, was opting not to vote.
In her thoughtful post (please read it!) Keegan lays out her reasons for not voting. I wanted to share the first reason she gives:
1. I am a pacifist. No matter which candidate you vote for (with the exception of Jill Stein. Maybe. Kind of.) you are voting for war. You are voting for the expansion of and the enslavement to the military-industrial complex. And not only that, but the government thrives on the disenfranchisement of women, people of color, the poor, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, and the environment–discrimination and oppression are types of violence.
As I was reading I kept seeing my beliefs (I’m also a pacifist) reflected in Keegan’s words. This made me wonder: how can two people who share the same ideas about the world be motivated in such totally different directions? While I’m sure the paths that lead to our divergent views are too complicated to sort out, the difference between Keegan’s and my feelings about voting mirror an ongoing debate in activist circles: what is more effective changing the system from within or revolutionary change from the outside?
There is plenty of support for working for change from within. Every encouragement to vote, to get involved with a legal organization (ACLU, Lambda Legal, NRDC), or to donate to a development organization working overseas (PeaceCorps, Kiva, Red Cross) – is pushing you to take action within the system to change the system. Working within the system is definitely the most user-friendly form of activism (that’s not to say that it’s easy) and advocates of this approach cite that this is the only realistic way to sustain long-term action campaigns. Other argue that as a part of the system, activists have more power to effect change than they do outside it and are more likely to attract allies.
That said, there are many who warn against the dangers of this approach. Political hip-hop artist Immortal Technique eloquently sums up their concerns: “Niggas talk about change and working within the system to achieve that. The problem with always being a conformist is that when you try to change the system from within, it’s not you who changes the system; it’s the system that will eventually change you.” Groups who have worked outside the system include revolutionary movements like the ones that fueled the Arab Spring, protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, and boycott actions like the grape boycott associated with Cesar Chavez that was dedicated to improving farm worker conditions.
Working within the system and outside it might seem like opposing forces, but in fact most successful activist efforts involve a combination of both efforts.
My apologies for the long post, but thanks again to Keegan for inspiring it! What do you think? Is activism possible from within the system? Or is doing so a slippery slope to becoming the very thing you were trying to change?