A Stoic Response to the 2016 Election

November 9th, 2016  |  Published in commentary

Earlier this week, Quartz published a piece about how philosophy has failed in its essential role of helping us to make sense of our world by focusing on academic navel-gazing. My initial reaction was that, yeah, they should be doing a better job. My second reaction was that as someone who values and studies philosophy, there is no “they”, it is my job as much as anyone else’s to rectify the situation. Without further ado, here is my first attempt at that rectification.

If you are anything like most of the people I know, you are reeling from last night’s election results. I won’t go into much detail about what I think happened except to say that I don’t see it as an endorsement of bigotry by the majority of the country (although there is definitely a strong bigot contingent). Instead, I see it as the reaction of people for whom our economy (our whole country, even) simply has not been working for quite a while now. In particular I am talking about people in rural areas who have been seeing their jobs, communities, and way of life steadily deteriorating for decades and for whom a vote of more of the same was simply not an option. I am not trying to condone their choice, only to point out that it would be both wrong and counterproductive to write them off as simply ignorant rednecks. The people who voted for Trump are just as American as I am and this election is a statement that they feel something is very broken with a large part of our country.

That being said, what about all of the progressive urbanites who are in a state of collective shock right now? I believe that stoicism can be of some help here.

First of all, let me start by saying that if you base your understanding of the word stoic on how it is commonly used, you may need to add a second line to that definition. Stoicism as a philosophy is not about ignoring or enduring unpleasantness. Instead, it is about recognizing that unpleasantness is inevitable and finding ways of having a joyful and fulfilling life in spite of it.

The first tenet of stoicism is that one can view the world as being comprised of things which are in your control and things which are not. When put this way, it quickly becomes clear that it isn’t  a good idea to allow your happiness to be determined by those things which are outside of your control (since they will eventually turn against you). Furthermore, if you think about it, there is really very little that you actually have any control over, really just your actions and your judgments. That means that just about everything else in the world is outside of your control, including the weather, what other people think about your actions, and literally everything that has happened up until this moment. So what does that mean for last night’s election? That it is outside of your control. Whether or not you voted and who you may have voted for are irrelevant now. The vote happened and the results have been accepted by the candidates. Whatever you did or did not do, we now live in a world in which Trump is president elect.

So what now, progressive urbanite?

Grieving, obviously.

The election results are not good news and it is neither my job nor my desire to sugarcoat that fact. However, I would encourage you to grieve fully and quickly. Get it over with. If you’re still stuck in a pit of despair in two years when the midterms come around you’re not going to be of any use to the ideals which you hold so dear. (I could also suggest that you practice some negative visualization prior to last night, but that would violate tenet number 1, above.)

Okay, with that out of the way (hope you’re feeling better), what’s next? Let’s look at the things which are in our control. Fortunately, it is a short list:

  1. Our actions. If you are unhappy with the election results, then you need to organize. For example, you could:
  • Build organizations and communities to mitigate the effects of what you fear Trump might do, whether by providing support for those who his policies might hurt (such as security for minorities or ensuring access to women’s health services, whatever the law may say in a year) or by denying him a political mandate (protest, talk to your representatives, do not be silent and therefore tacitly complicit).
  • Prepare for the midterm elections. Trump isn’t nearly as frightening as Trump+House+Senate. In two years you have the possibility of restoring some of those checks and balances, but to do so you need to start organizing now (hence why it is so important to get the grieving out of the way).
  • There are, of course, many other options, ranging from trying to get rid of the electoral college to secession. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but if you are upset, you should do something.
  1. Our judgments. This may seem to be much less important than our actions, but I would disagree. Whether or not you agree with my bit above about the reason for the election I hope that you realize that Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and that unless that cause is addressed, we have little to no hope of making any real or lasting progress. If you believe that what happened is the result of bigotry, then you should attempt to alleviate that bigotry (a difficult task, no doubt, but bigotry often stems from fear of the unknown, so it can be addressed). If you agree with me that there is a significant contingent of people for whom our system is not working, you can work on that. Or you can work on the ~50% of registered voters who did not vote this election. In any case, you might be asking why this is listed under judgements. This is listed under judgements because in order for you to make any progress on the above issues, you aren’t going to have much success if what you think is the problem and what is actually the problem aren’t the same thing. Writing off everyone who voted for Trump as a bigot or everyone who didn’t vote as apathetic is not going to make it easier to change their minds, much less influence their actions. So the best course is probably to let go of your judgements, and to build new ones on better foundations.

I realize that this may not seem particularly comforting or helpful to you, but it’s what I have to give. I believe that this is going to be a difficult time for all of us, but that it is something that we can get through, collectively.

If you are looking for a good introduction to stoicism, I would suggest William Irving’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

Also, it is worth noting that this post didn’t follow my normal process, which usually involves letting it sit for a day before revising and posting. As such, it likely has more errors than usual, which I may or may not correct in the future.

Have a tranquil day.

Tom Dillon

9 November 2016

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