Eric Stinton: Resisting The Cynicism Of Another Election - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

Opinion article badgeMy mail-in ballot has sat on my desk, unopened, since it arrived a few weeks ago. Even though mail-in ballots have made voting easier and more accessible than ever, turnout for this year’s primary election has so far been lower than in years past. Clearly I’m not alone.

Election seasons are exhausting, if not downright dispiriting. My fellow columnist Denby Fawcett recently pinpointed how the coronavirus pandemic and technology have made political campaigns less personal, and thus duller.

Meeting with a few hundred voters face-to-face risks Covid exposure, and can devour entire days. But a single Instagram post only requires a few minutes of effort – likely from a young campaign volunteer – and it can reach tens of thousands of people, without the candidate having to share the same breath with any of them. In olelo Hawaii, by the way, sharing one’s breath is called “aloha.”

All of that is true and worth noting, but I think there’s a deeper reason behind the sluggish turnout. People are tired of being told this election is the most important one … until the next most important one. We’re disillusioned by the mailbox-to-trashcan pipeline of campaign flyers from candidates who seem less concerned with proposing solutions or clarifying ideas and more interested in creating an image and solidifying power.

Reading through the Civil Beat candidate questionnaires has been about as illuminating as the Sunshine Laws the Legislature exempted itself from. Those who are earnestly striving to make Hawaii a better place are nearly indistinguishable on paper from those who, sooner or later, will be busted for bribery or fraud or corruption. If history has shown us anything, the word “will” is appropriate here.

2022 primary election ballots arrive on the 3rd floor of the Capitol for sorting.
2022 primary election ballots arrive on the 3rd floor of the Capitol for sorting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But the past does not stop there in its capacity to demoralize. A recent University of Hawaii report on the state’s political economy highlights many of the same challenges that candidates identified as the biggest issues facing Hawaii: the exploitative and damaging impact of foreign investment, our economic dependence on tourism, the housing crisis, our lack of sustainable growth. According to the report, these problems have been festering for years, if not decades.

Ah, I apologize, the report isn’t recent at all; it’s actually from 1994. If it were a sentient being, it would have been able to vote for the last 10 years. Then again, if it were a sentient being, it would probably be debating if driving down the road to the ballot dropbox was even worth the effort.

I’m not supposed to give in to cynicism, at least not publicly. The expectation is that I trot out The Formula, one you’ll instantly recognize if you consume enough political media. The Formula dictates that I outline the problem, explain why it’s a problem, then conclude by imploring readers to hold the powers that be accountable for change, usually with a stuffy declarative sentence like, “and so, therefore, we must _____.” You can fill in the blank with “develop affordable housing” or “diversify our economy” or whatever the issue du jour is. Yet somehow, all the things we must do slowly transform into all the things we can’t do, which of course is the dishonest way of saying all the things we won’t do.

But I’m also a teacher, a profession that demands me to be stronger than my despair. In my mind, the most important role for teachers during these pandemic years has been to address our students’ social-emotional needs. I try to help my students identify their feelings, give them names and work backward to figure out where they’re coming from. We as adults take for granted the familiarity we have with our feelings, and the vocabulary we have to navigate them.

We forget the deluge of mysterious, amorphous emotions that wax and wane in adolescence, how jarring it can be to experience a feeling for the first time. Even those who possess the imaginative capacity to empathize with young people still can’t truly appreciate how magnified those emotions have been during the last few years.

But I also tell my students that our feelings are not always honest with us. We feel anxieties that aren’t there, assume motivations we don’t know and unconsciously layer different emotions on top of each other to rationalize something we’d rather just avoid. It’s why we get angry when we’re embarrassed, why we lash out at others when we’re alone, why we pretend not to care when we’re disheartened.

Hope is not a feeling I often have, but I like to think of hope not as a feeling but as a philosophical position. It’s a dispassionate and necessary tool to build a future worth inhabiting. It’s one reason why people have kids, fight for a cause and join religions: we need something sturdy and unassailable to push us past our apathy when everything inside of us is saying that nothing matters.

Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci referred to this idea as “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” He believed we should look at the world with clear-eyed determination; if we are to summon the motivation we need to affect change, then we have to see the obstacles to that change for what they really are.

Rebecca Solnit defined hope as “an embrace of the unknown and unknowable.” She wrote that optimists and pessimists alike share a false certainty: “Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.”

Both of them are much smarter and wiser than I am, and yet they are also much more optimistic; who am I to disagree? So I’m casting my ballot, not because I feel hopeful about what can or will change, but because I have to be hopeful – for my students and myself – even when I don’t want to be. Especially when I don’t want to be.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Eric, I’d like to suggest that "I know how you feel" , but in reality, how you, me, or your students feel is really beside the point. You vote because it’s your responsibility as a citizen to make informed decisions about candidates, people just like all of us, who have taken a position on certain issues that mostly resonate with yours. Learning about issues and candidates go hand in hand, and in our state, we have the right, unusual in most parts of the world, to be polled on those issues, indirectly, by the candidates we vote for.Voting is relatively easy compared to actually making change in public policy, but it does require keeping yourself informed. As a teacher, I’m sure you know the value in passing information to your students, preparing them for the day when they too will be expected to exercise their right to vote, to choose, to make a difference, to be part of the slow, consensus building process that government in a democracy represents. It’s reason, not passion, that makes such government work.Or, you can spend your time keeping up with the Kardashians, following the latest TicTock challenges, and letting life happen to you. Panem et circenses circa 2022.

Wylie · 1 month ago

Sure hope people vote this year. I see so many of my neighbors ballots unopened in our dumpster. It’s heartbreaking that people just don’t care anymore.

outlawmotorcyclegang · 1 month ago

An illusion of participation and control. Look at what happened when Maui voted to outlaw GMO (the monsanto referendum). The end.

ClaudeRains · 1 month ago

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