The Perverse Power of the Non-Engaged

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A large portion of the populace doesn’t get involved in politics and fails to vote. They say that voting is pointless, or they don’t like the candidates, or they can’t get time off from work. What’s more likely is they don’t like all the drama. They can’t stand everyone yelling at each other, trading accusations, and not getting anything done. They’re confused by the lies and don’t know who to trust anymore. If they live in swing states, they resent the robo-calls and are disgusted by the negative ads. If they live in safe states or gerrymandered districts, they feel powerless to change the outcome. They think they’re apolitical, but there’s really no such thing. Like it or not, they are still involved in politics.

They’re like the stonewalling spouse who will never sit down and talk about his feelings or will get up and leave as soon as anything gets real. He says that he’s trying not to get into a fight, but it’s his evasion that prompts the fight.

As a marriage counselor, I say to the stonewalling spouse, your wife is yelling and nagging and carrying on because she’s trying to get you to listen. The same thing is happening in the civic arena. The political people are yelling, making a million robo-calls, and flooding the tube with negative ads because they’re trying to get the non-engaged people motivated.

As a marriage counselor, I will also say to the other party, don’t you see that he stops listening because you yell, nag, and carry on? But, that’s a different story. We’ll get to that when I talk about activism.

The politically non-engaged person in a safe state or a gerrymandered district is another matter. They’re like the marginalized spouse who goes silent because she has no legitimate power in the marriage. They believe there’s no sense in speaking up because nothing will come of it. What do these spouses do? They look compliant; they get sneaky; and, when they’re driven far enough, they rebel.

In the civic arena, we see what happens when marginalized people rebel. You get a revolution, things get set afire, and heads roll. Syria happens. Compliance is often mistaken for trust; but compliant people are often collecting injustices and hoarding resentments.

It’s not so easy to spot politically non-engaged people getting sneaky. They look like they have no interest in public affairs, while on the side, they’re subverting the dominant order. The Arts are always good for subversive activities. You think the hip-hop artist is raging about bitches and hos, but he’s getting his voice. The photographer publishes fine portraits of street people while documenting the humanity of the forgotten. The novelist describes his experience of war, but you also see the insanity of war. The comedian gets us to laugh at the powerful and, in the process, reduces their intimidation. Art is often a way of saying something clearly without saying it at all.

If Art is not available for the marginalized person to express himself politically, there’s always crime. Riots, of course, are directly political, even if they do seem misguided; but how much graffiti, vandalism, and casual littering is actually a political statement? How many muggings are an act of civil disobedience? Do people rebel by smoking a joint ? Are importing drugs an alternative trade deal? When you cheat on your taxes, do you say the government has no right to your cash? Is contempt for the law actually contempt for the lawmakers? We’ll never know because the people who do these things are being sneaky and will never admit it.

The main point is that you can’t avoid politics. You are political even when you don’t mean to be. Even if you switch to Hollywood gossip every time the news comes on, you’re still a participant in the process and have a lot to do with the outcome.

Is there ever a time when it makes sense to be non-engaged? Is avoidance ever a good idea? When I work with couples I say, if you’re going to confront an issue, pick a time and place that favors success; otherwise, avoid it. Not every setting and situation is right to settle controversies. You might need privacy, freedom from distraction, and no weapons close at hand. You might want to avoid the touchiest topics when your spouse is drunk, or tired, or daring you to start a fight.

It often makes sense to be non-engaged, at least some of the time. If you live in North Korea and don’t approve of the Supreme Leader, you should probably keep it to yourself unless you’re certain you can trust someone. If your family becomes enraged that you vote Republican, maybe you shouldn’t bring it up at dinner when your pony-tailed father is carving the turkey. Talk to your buddies if you want to complain about business being stymied by regulations coming out of the EPA. Use some discretion and avoid being overtly political when nothing good can come of it.

These days, when people are particularly sensitive and exhausted about politics, it may make sense to avoid the subject more often than not. People need a break. So, if you win an Academy Award this year, go up on stage, accept it, thank everyone, and sit down. Don’t hold the whole world hostage while you lecture about climate change. We’ve had about as much of that as we can take.

Politics has become so incendiary that it often threatens to blow up everything we try to do; so it’s often important to keep politics out. For instance, I keep my politics to myself when I meet with clients, not because I’m ashamed of my convictions or because I think they lack importance; but because politics could derail the work we’re there to do. My clients might think I’m politically non-engaged. I guess, as long as I’m at work, I am, to the extent there is such a thing.

If you’re one of those people who is totally burned out from this last election, then becoming non-engaged, at least some of the time, is a very good idea. You don’t have to be religious to declare a sabbath, free of politics, once a week. It might help you be more politically active the rest of the week. This might be the time for you to cull your Facebook feed or to unsubscribe from the most extreme messengers. It’s not the ones you disagree with that you may most need to prune; it’s the ones who try to get you going with the latest outrage. Stay fresh by taking a break so you ‘re ready when you really need to take to the streets and knock on doors. You don’t want to say, “Go ahead, do what you want; I don’t care anymore,” when it most matters.

Anyone who has ever sat on a committee can tell you, it’s not the ones who talk the most who have the most to say. It’s not the ones who are always busy who get the most done. It’s the ones who pace themselves who have the staying power. They’re ready to spring into action at the decisive moment. They may not look engaged; but they are.

Read part I, A Marriage Counselor Takes on Politics
Part III, Building Walls
Part IV, Intolerant of the Intolerant, Outraged by the Outrageous

Background image on photo by Huffington Post