Cynicism is not Harm Reduction

I have been around long enough to know that when I read something that is challenging, that flies against all that I know, I pause and listen. I can’t always hold back my reactions, but I listen. I listen to both what is being said and what isn’t said. But most of all, I listen to ensure my reactions aren’t at the center of the conversation.

We are all reckless and impulsive with our words and actions, but especially with our opinions. And I have been known to strike against an idea before I have the full facts or heard from a diverse group of experts with lived & professional experience. But after a month of seeing “voting isn’t harm reduction” on my timeline, I feel like I have listened enough to form an opinion.

That line is bullshit. Bullshit that my social justice friends are scooping up with a big spoon, choking it down like the cynical lie that it is. Bullshit because using decolonization work to shame people –for– voting won’t deliver the kind of decolonized collective care many of us social justice types envision. But it will deliver us into the hands of fascism, putting any decolonizing perspective on hold indefinitely. Pushing us directly into the hands of those who have been manipulating this system to their own ends. Why? Because we haven’t built any coherent new systems to give people a place to land. Hell, we can’t even agree on a replacement for Twitter to escape Elon Musk (forever now referred to a “Empty Husk” in my posts). When this all falls apart the resulting chaos , at least right now, makes it ripe for fascism to take center stage.

I don’t disagree with the core sentiment that we live and participate in an oppressive system, but please don’t say voting isn’t harm reduction.

Let me give some context. One of the accounts I follow posts a lot of very challenging, in-your-face indigenous, anarchist activist wisdom that resonates deeply with me. Their focus is on decolonization and so i recognize that as a half-white Latina lawyer, I need to truly interrogate my belief in a system that is so obviously not working for everyone. I cling to the values I was raised to believe: that voting is our opportunity to have a say in both the people we elect and the policies we pursue. I have believed that voting is not just important but absolutely vital. So when I hear “voting is bad” I have to check my knee jerk reaction and listen instead, unraveling my own feelings.

It is on me to understand and account for the deep history of oppression of indigenous peoples that continues today. Even after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Native Americans were still met with roadblocks and bias in trying to access that right. And among the groups who have the right to be resentful and suspicious of American democracy, Native Americans have been consistently shown that their vote, indeed, their very existence doesn’t matter. And given how we continue to hear more horrors about missing indigenous women and residential schools, I don’t disagree with the core sentiment. Because no matter how much we idealize our system through the world, our government is still a colonizer that is using its power to control and hurt others. There is no debate for me about that. And I can see how participation in it no matter how well intentioned still perpetuates and approves of that system.

But the phrase itself “Voting is not harm reduction” is where I draw exception. Not because I’m blind to the flaws of this of this system, but because I teach and practice harm reduction. This concept comes out of the substance abuse/mental health treatment world. It is a set of strategies that can be employed to do exactly what it sounds like, reducing harm by meeting people where they are. Instead of condemning people and forcing them to quit drugs cold turkey, it employs a spectrum of strategies that will reduce the inherent harms of drug use, increase autonomy and ultimately get that person to a place of personal wellness and safety. It is one of many strategies in a continuum of collective care.

So, as applied to democracy, harm reduction does look a lot like…yup, voting. It meets people where they are, giving them input, no matter how minor into the laws that will shape their lives for years to come. Without the vote I wouldn’t be able to access the marijuana I use to treat my trauma and chronic pain. Without the vote for a bond project the garden project at my kid’s school, which provides the veggies the lunchroom uses, wouldn’t have been built. In this environment, voting is one of the most accessible harm reductive measures that doesn’t require personal intervention or direct service. Because in a world where my child could be shot at school, where climate change could destroy whole towns, the one little bit of control I have IS voting. It is the only form of harm reduction available to all of us (even though it still isn’t as inclusive as i want it to be).

I’m political because I love

I came of age politically with the 1992 election. I got to meet Bill Clinton at a rally and all of Pueblo was proud of Ben Nighthorse Campbell who was running for Senate (until he switched parties – i was so upset that I wrote him and even got a personal letter explaining why). That year Amendment 2, the famously double-negative ballot measure that would bar LGBTQ folks from equal protection (and was overturned in Romer v Evans) was gaining traction and was about to hurt people I loved.

My political career started because I loved my brother who I had found out was gay in 1992. I loved him so much that I campaigned in my school against Amendment 2, even though few of us could vote. I was so passionate to protect someone I loved that I changed my entire career trajectory and spiritual calling to support that love. My vote has always been synonymous with love.

But as my brother and I have seen time and again, the people who claim to love us won’t fight for us. They won’t change their vote for us. They won’t show up for us the way we have for them. And while we know more than most that voting is an imperfect form of love…it is the most public form of love we have right now. A vote for our equal rights is the least of what we deserve. We deserve justice. We deserve love.

There is no love that is pure – there is always doubt, self-interest, and bias that creeps in. And political love even more so. That we become distorted to the point of distraction about politics shows me that love plays at least a part in our democratic decision-making. We’ll claim that our electeds “love us” (pssst….they really don’t) because they promise to fight for us…and when they fail (and boy, do they fail!) we act like a wounded lover who just found out our beloved was cheating on us with the enemy. Politics is love.

When we vote for them, we want them to prove their love by doing exactly what we want in the way we want it. It’s a fucking unhealthy relationship of you think about it because they make empty promises to fight for us, while we begrudgingly accept the hearts & flowers excuses for every time they disappoint us (looking at you, Ben). That is…until we tell them that this empty love affair is over by kicking them out of office.

The disconnect is that for most every human on earth, we fight to protect the people & country we love. We expect the same out of our politicians – so when they show us they love something else – like money, fame or the smell of McDonald’s in the White House, we spiral into disbelief and jealousy, we want to threaten democracy itself, like taking a bat to an ex’s windshield, to show them just how much their betrayal hurt us.

Like most things that are good, like Love, when we are angry enough we weaponize it to get our way. MAGA weaponized its sycophantic love of Trump to make the world a living hell for everyone else. Spiritual bypassers weaponize their love of self to avoid voting at all, thinking they are beyond such lowly “3 dimensional” activities as voting. So it’s understandable that when love enters democracy these days, we all get a bit more nervous than we might have 20 years ago.

Cynicism won’t feed, clothe or house us

That nervousness turns to cynicism when unchecked. And I can’t think of anything successful or life nurturing that grew out of cynicism. It is the fallow ground where our dreams go to die to be composted into excuses, effectuating nothing, actualizing more of what made us cynical in the first place. And while a healthy amount of skepticism, devil’s advocating and cynicism will always be part of our public life, it won’t ever clothe, feed or house us. It won’t fix our roads and it definitely won’t educate our kids or provide us with health care. So it definitely shouldn’t have control over our democractic, collective care, trauma informed ideals.

Do you vote for what you think will win or do you vote your heart? Most of us do the latter, yet publicly declare defeat before it’s even started. “I’m voting for him because i think he’s best for the job, even though I know he won’t win.” Well, he won’t win with an attitude like that, sour Sally. That we are so willing to give up on what we want, but so angry to blame those we elect for doing the same is the crux of why politics sucks so bad.

And it’s easy to fall into cynicism when things aren’t going the way we want, but unless and until we collectively decide on alternate systems to provide common services like fire fighters, roads and schools, we either participate in the systems we have or we devote ourselves to creating new ones with blood, sweat and intellect.

I am reminded that democracy itself is not an exclusively colonizer method of governance. Native peoples had perfected the ability to govern themselves and served as inspiration for our own Constitution (however, the taking of those ideas without the honoring the sovereignty of those tribes WAS colonization). The Haudenosaunee Confederacy spent centuries perfecting their system of democracy and the Great Law of Peace can be traced back to 300 years before Columbus brought colonization to the new world. It’s the stealing of these ideas while simultaneously using them to oppress people that is the problem – not democracy itself.

Democracy depends on US to work, otherwise we’re giving the reins to the people most motivated to see the world in their narrow, supremacist viewpoint, those who oppose that singular right to have a say in our own futures.

Our vote isn’t just for us…

I know it’s tempting to let it burn 🔥 satisfying even. But there are children inside, my children, your children, our collective children. I cannot condemn future generations to trauma, violence, separation and poverty to force a decolonization of these structures. Not today. Not this year. Not with one existential crisis after another looming over us.

I open my heart to hold multiple viewpoints at once. But when trans people I love are scared for their lives, when the Supreme Court has already dismantled Roe and now is set to dismantle the ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) both of which were forms of harm reduction, I am unwilling to risk adhering to the null hypothesis of not voting just to prove my loyalty to decolonizing myself.

I confess, I am not an expert in decolonization, but my impression is that in doing nothing, refusing to vote or worse, shaming people for voting isn’t it. It is a privilege to sit out a process that could cause collateral damage to those more vulnerable than us. That isn’t community care, that’s complacency or worse, cruelty. It isn’t harm reduction to demand performative allegiance to an ideal through actions that would sentence future generations to more of the status quo or worse, fascism.

Because that’s all that we’re going to get if we don’t vote. If we don’t vote we can kiss goodbye to any sort of trauma informed transition to a more peaceful and healthy way of living. Change doesn’t come easily to most humans and it can feel like the house burning down when it happens. I’ve been impressed with thoughtful, engaged leaders who embrace a decolonized mindset – they know that what matters the most isn’t the system we have or the system we want, it’s the liminal space in between where uncertainty can create danger and chaos. Abdicating responsibility for ourselves as citizens doesn’t open doors for new voices and emerging leaders who are ready to actually build the systems we need and want. Voting allows those people to step into roles that will help us all transposition into that in-between space with the least harm to all.

We can give in to cynicism by giving up entirely – but isn’t that what we’ve already been doing? Isn’t that what gave us the world we have? How will more of the same disinterest and disengagement help the world? How does that actually get us closer to decolonization as a goal? We aren’t proving our love of humanity by condemning them to the violence of resentful losers whose hearts are ten sizes too small…and who organize themselves to vote.

And what happens if we don’t vote? What the safety net will be there to catch these children and our elders who rely on our collective action to secure their safety. What happens when we collectively fail them by refusing to vote? Who’s gonna pay that social security check when it dries up? Who is going to deregulate food systems so you aren’t fined for bad food handling? What do we win for our performative allegiance that is both premature and naive? The statement itself isn’t a plan, it’s anticipatory complacency.

Or are we just expecting indigenous, black, queer, disabled folks save us with their organized advocacy because we’re too busy proving our allyship to recognize the embedded harm of cynicism? Because we can’t decolonize while we still place the burdens of this system on the backs of those most oppressed by it.

Harm reduction is about collective care and sovereignty; whereas cynicism is about individualism and complacency. One has decolonizing ideals front and center, the other does not. One shows love and the other does not.

Voting is the biggest way all Americans can show love to each other – by voting with our heart, not our ambivalence.

Today is Election Day and I encourage every eligible voter to get out there and make their love known.

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