When I was a graduate student in the late 1990s I took a seminar about postcolonial literature and theory. We spent a lot of time discussing how colonizers oppressed those they conquered by taking away their ability to understand and make meaning in the world by, for example, making it illegal to teach or speak their native languages. The term we bandied about for this and other similar processes is epistemic violence. It is a brutal, devastating tactic that worked. Imagine one day not being able to find your way around your city because all the street names had been changed and all the informational signs were written in a language you didn’t know. Imagine the sense of dislocation, of fear, of confusion.
I found those discussions fascinating. But I remember one afternoon looking around at the mostly white faces in the room and thinking about how sterile the discussion was. There we were, eager graduate students, sipping our tea or coffee from travel mugs, talking with great passion about our assigned reading in the safety and comfort of an air-conditioned seminar room. So I asked why we weren’t talking about the physical violence—the raping, mutilating, and murdering—perpetuated by colonizers. Why weren’t we talking about bodies? I don’t actually remember the answer. I’m sure we did talk a little bit about the physical violence, but then we retreated from the blood and gore and stickiness to the clean, pure realm of theory.
I’ve been thinking about that particular day a lot lately because I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so bothered by my friends who insist that they are voting for Jill Stein (or Gary Johnson) because they have to vote their conscience or their principles. I admit that I don’t know many people who are so angry with the major parties that they are choosing to vote Green or Libertarian. But the ones I do know often include the caveat that they “have the luxury of voting their principles because they live in [insert solidly blue state] here.” I saw something like this posted by a complete stranger on Twitter just last night. He was arguing with an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and then tweeted that because he lived in California he had the “freedom to vote [his] principles and would probably write in Bernie.” I asked him if he would still write in Bernie if he lived in a red or swing state. So far he hasn’t replied. If he says no, I’ll know that he understands more than he lets on about what is at stake for millions of people in this country. If he says yes, then I’ll wonder how he can privilege his principles (which are by definition abstractions) over the actual safety of millions of other Americans not so lucky to be born a white guy. But when challenged about this privilege, so many of the people complaining that Hillary is just as bad as Trump (a mind-bogglingly infuriating statement by itself) say that they refuse to let FEAR dictate their votes. Of course they won’t. They have nothing to be afraid of.
So these same voters can fantasize about how a Trump presidency might be good for America. Like a controlled burn in a forest. Burn down the old establishment! Then a new one can rise like a phoenix! But think about what this means for the Americans who do not have the luxury to indulge in that fantasy. Think about the Americans whose hard-won rights will begin to evaporate. Think about their actual lives, their actual bodies. Think about what it is like for a Black man to drive in states where the police force has demonstrated a willingness to support officers who kill them. What does it feel like in that man’s body when he sees a flashing light behind his car? What does it feel like to be shoved onto the ground with a gun in your back? What does it feel like for a bullet to enter your chest? What does it feel like to die on the street? What does it feel like to be that man’s wife or child? Think about the young Black man walking down the street who is subjected to searches because a cop thinks he looks suspicious. What does it feel like to have some stranger’s hands patting you down when you’ve done nothing at all wrong? What does it feel like to be afraid of cops?
Think about the immigrant whom Trump wants to round up and deport. What is it like to be pulled from your home? To be sent back to a country you fled? What does it feel like to be separated from your family? What does it feel like to be denied entrance to this country because you are Muslim?
And think about the woman who, if Trump gets his way, may be forced to carry a baby to full term no matter the consequences to her health or the cause of the pregnancy. Do you know what pregnancy is like? Do you know what giving birth is like? Think about it. Imagine the pain. The blood. Imagine someone you love being forced to go through that. Then imagine what might happen to the actual child. Will she be adopted by loving parents? Will she end up in foster care? What will her life be like? What might happen to a woman who gets an abortion? Will she go to jail? What happens to bodies in jail? What happens if she gets an infection from the illegal abortion? What happens to her body?
What happens to the body of a teenager harassed because he is gay? What does it feel like to be told that you are an abomination? What does it feel like to be denied a marriage license because some clerk objects to your right to get married?
These are only a fraction of the questions I could ask about many different Americans’ lives. If you find them uncomfortable it is because they are meant to be. It’s easy to retreat to the safety of abstractions. That’s why I find my friends’ conviction so disappointing. That’s why I find their desire for more ideological purity in their candidates so frustrating. They are privileging their fantasy—because what else could the notion of an ideologically pure candidate be—over the reality of millions of Americans’ lives with nothing at all at stake for themselves. I don’t know how anyone’s conscience could allow that.
p.s. The Hillary supporter replied to Mr. Principles with “Vote Garfield.”