Primary season is just beginning, and our phones and televisions are about to be bombarded by nonstop ad campaigns and canvassers. Different candidates will promote different visions of the future and focus on different issues, pissing everyone off in the process. One message, however, will be consistent throughout the whole affair: No matter what you believe in, vote. It’s your civic duty. Democracies only work when all of their members participate.
However, that’s not strictly the case. Democracy can get along just fine when a huge number of citizens are asleep on the job — just so long as those who do participate know what they’re doing. Whether voter participation this year is 7 or 70 percent, the daily work of writing, passing and repealing laws will be the same; the only difference will be who does the work. Maybe higher voter participation rates would give us better results — but maybe they wouldn’t. If most of the apathetic voters in a given election cycle would have voted for ineffective leaders, then the world is a better place because they stayed at home. We would all be better off, for example, if only qualified experts voted on climate change policy.
Participation isn’t good in and of itself, it’s only good because of what it can bring about. When we forget that fact, in the political world and elsewhere, we lose valuable perspective.
Children today are often derided as the “Trophy Generation,” the group who gets rewarded for participating rather than succeeding. It’s not our fault — we should blame the people handing out trophies, not those receiving them — but it’s a bad trend nonetheless. When we treat champions just the same as failures, we devalue the champions’ successes, meaning they are less likely to direct their efforts towards success in the future. When we treat failures just the same as champions, they are less likely to re-evaluate their options and redirect their efforts. Effort is a good insofar as it is necessary for success, but effort that accomplishes nothing doesn’t have much value. No matter how hard you work at it, trying to carry water using only a sieve isn’t a noble task — it’s impossible, and you should try something else.
America’s cultural premium on participation also reaches its tendrils into the classrooms of Yale. In many seminars, students are given participation grades that are supposed to assess their level of engagement with the subject material and their peers. There are a number of reasons why this is a bad practice. It puts introverts and the naturally quiet at a disadvantage and allows unjustified personal prejudices to manifest themselves in students’ grades. On top of all that, however, it’s likely a counterproductive measure. When teachers give grades based on participation in a discussion, no matter what is said, students feel pressured to speak on a topic even when they don’t have something good to say. It’s only natural that some students will have more to contribute to a discussion than others, either because they feel strongly about a particular text or because they have experiences relevant to the class. But if a reading didn’t speak to or resonate with a particular student, he shouldn’t feel pressured to say something. Stigmatizing and penalizing nonparticipation incentivizes superfluous, valueless comments. I’ve made them, and I expect many others have too. It’s easy. Begin with “just to build on that” or “just to add to that point,” then repeat what the person just before you said in slightly different words. Yale’s seminars and sections are filled with people repeating endless permutations of the same idea, and our participation-centric culture is the driving force behind that unfortunate trend.
Let’s not mistake the instrument for the end. It would be better if every Trump supporter stayed home for the primaries, it would be better if poor athletes sought different pursuits beyond sports and it would be better if everyone who speaks just to say something didn’t speak at all, participation be damned. We shouldn’t care about participating. We should care about participating well.
Alaric Krapf is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .