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Friday, May 6, 2011

Mob Mentality

This post originally appeared here:


Yesterday, I read this and it made me really angry. It's an opinion piece by Michael Taube, a former Harper speechwriter, about why vote mobs are a terrible, horrible, very bad idea. I already knew I was going to be unimpressed by the second paragraph: "A few weeks ago, there was no such thing as a “vote mob.” But an idea hiding in a deep, dark corridor of comedian Rick Mercer’s brain has, quite by accident, unleashed this holy terror onto unsuspecting Canadians." Holy terror? Srsly? Don't you think that's a bit overdramatic? Taube also says, "Thanks a bunch, Rick. Just what Canada always wanted: another excuse for young people to do foolish things in public, complete with a mob mentality. I’ll make sure you get an extra lump of coal in your stocking at Christmas for your good deed!"

Excuse me, sir. I did not realize that making a public demonstration of our intentions to perform our civic duty and vote counted as "doing foolish things in public." Please allow me to grovel at your feet in forgiveness.

Taube argues, first of all, that vote mobs aren't going to encourage anyone to vote who wasn't going to do so already. This is a common criticism of vote mobs, and my opinion on this subject is down later after I've finished ranting. Anyway, back to Taube:

Also, vote mobs aren’t going to force major changes in the political parties to recognize youth issues. Do you really think any of the major leaders honestly cares that some 18-25 year-olds who wouldn’t ordinarily vote have suddenly been convinced by a comedian’s rant on TV? I hate to break it to them, but there are already young people in all political parties who have been volunteering in campaign offices for weeks. They do everything from answering phones to helping shape policy. These are the type of young voters that the parties want to attract, not those of the circus clown variety.

At the same time, is it a wise idea to encourage young people to vote who aren’t well informed on politics and current events to begin with? For instance, there is a political radicalism among youth — especially the type of youth who would stay home on election day — that could lead to many fringe parties receiving votes. This is good for democracy, but not necessarily for political stability. While no one is expecting all young people to have PhD-level understanding of the Canadian political system, a decent amount of knowledge would be nice.

You think that just because we dance around in bright colours to demonstrate our enthusiasm, we are "circus clown" voters instead of "serious" voters? I don't think this even dignifies a response. Also: have you ever tried to control a crowd of 300 screaming young adults, or an elephant? Requires skills I imagine you don't possess. Have some respect for the circus, please.

And then--"...encourage young people to vote who aren't well informed on politics and current events to begin with." Well colour me infuriated. Do you think that all "non-young" adults who vote are informed about the issues? Today when I was standing in line at the advance poll, I heard a middle-aged man say that the results would probably be the same as last time, because nothing had happened to change people's opinions. WHAT. I wanted to turn around and tell him everything I've posted on this blog in the past month, and more. An even bigger problem is people (particularly elderly people) who vote out of tradition. Two close friends of mine say their grandmothers do this--the one votes Conservative every election because her father always voted Conservative, the other considers herself to come from a strong Grit family and so votes Liberal in every election out of family tradition. (Both of these women live in rural areas where memories are long and traditions strong.) Being informed about the issues has never been a requirement for voting for any segment of the population--and I think that young people are more likely to NOT vote if they feel uninformed.

Don't even get me started on "there is a political radicalism among youth — especially the type of youth who would stay home on election day." I feel like he's probably imagining a person who votes for the Marijuana Party but accidentally gets high on election day and forgets to go to the polls. Or something. Because all of the young people I know who are politically radical are making a point of returning a ballot this election--even if it's a blank one.

And you know what? I would like to see a decent amount of knowledge about the political system from our leaders, thank you. A lot of the most politically active students are studying politics or related fields, and know WAY MORE SHIT about parliamentary democracies than the general population.

I'm sure that Mr. Taube also imagines that young people don't read newspapers, or perhaps he wouldn't have submitted something so negative against young people to be published.

Anyway. Happier news. The CBC interviewed some vote mob participants in Toronto. It's pretty interesting.

The other day I participated in a vote mob myself, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the experience. While it was happening--the running, the screaming, the cheering, the chanting, the waving of signs, the dancing, the singing--I felt invigorated, enthused, inspired. The only problem was that, unlike your average rally, this was explicitly being filmed for YouTube, and so the camera operators needed to get a lot of shots of us to edit together later. We would run around the intersection, dance for about a minute, cheer, dance a bit more, and then run around the intersection again... rinse & repeat... that really got in the way of the momentum and just became exhausting.

After I got home, I thought about it. I thought about the students who streamed out of exam halls as we started our mob, and who we were supposed to be trying to engage. I thought about their faces... confused, amused, or indifferent. Groups of people in colourful outfits running around, cheering, and waving signs are actually a fairly common sight on my campus. (Another reason why I took offense to Taube's "circus clown" comment...) And I thought about the twenty minutes we spent standing around before the vote mob started, waiting for exams to let out so we could make noise. A couple of girls walking by on the sidewalk knew one of the participants who was standing near me, and they came up to ask her what was going on. She explained about the vote mob movement, about low youth voter turnout, about the importance of voting. The two girls looked interested. "That's really cool," one said. "I thought you guys were like rallying for the Young Liberals with all that red." "No! No! The red is for Canada!" "Ooooooohhhhhh..."

While those two girls walked away from us more informed and interested than they had been, I didn't see any of the students coming out of the exam halls join in our dancing/running/chanting/sign-waving. I realized that our brightly-coloured mob looked closed to them--no, not even that. The mob of people had become one amorphous blob of humanity, dancing-running-chanting-singing-running-dancing-chanting, alienating rather than welcoming.

That led me to two important thoughts. First, the potential for vote mobs to attract new voters lies more in the social media aspect--having an awesome YouTube video that makes its way around Facebook and Twitter--than in the actual vote mob itself. Second, vote mobs are important NOT just to encourage students to vote--the biggest criticism of vote mobbing. Of course they're almost entirely made up of people who were always going to vote anyway. That's not a problem. Vote mobs are the highly visible physical manifestation of some young people's political engagement. Because almost 40% of young people voted in the last election, and while that is a very small voter turnout, we focus so much on the almost two-thirds of youth who didn't vote that I think a lot of people often forget about the over one-third of youth who did. Showing up for a vote mob is kind of like putting on a "This is what a feminist looks like" t-shirt. Maybe we're less than half of youth, but we're here, we pay attention to the issues, we're voting, and you can't ignore us if we wear bright colours and scream really loudly (although you can call us circus clowns).

At the end of the day, a sign I saw at the vote mob expresses in itself why the vote mob phenomenon, why the visibility of youth voters, is so important: "We're not just the future. We're the present, too."

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