“I support gay rights.” “I am not against gay rights.” The first is a positive statement, the second a double negative one. Logically, a double negative is a positive. So, why are these two statements so different? As it turns out, the mind is not a machine that follows mathematical principles, and there are more than two ways of expressing an opinion in politics—in many cases, there is a middle ground between the purely positive and purely negative that draws on the crowd of non-confrontational, easy-going people who want the security of having an opinion on an issue without the mental tax of standing up and acting on their convictions. Even though it begins as a positive belief in theory, the reality of double negative assertions leads directly to this middle ground, encouraging disengagement by opposing a conflicting view instead of supporting one with which you agree.
I confronted this issue a few summers ago when I went “canvassing” around Boston with a non-profit organization based downtown, essentially spending every afternoon knocking on doors and talking to people for hours about getting their support for expanding a renewable energy program. We call it canvassing, some call it grassroots campaigning, others call it annoying, and my roommate calls it professional begging. While canvassing, though, I learned that there is a spectrum of political participation into which all people fall regarding an issue. At one extreme, there are people who simply want nothing to do with it—“get off of my property, kid.” The other extreme are people who either fervently support or oppose the cause. The people at the extremes are not all that common, and they are relatively easy to recognize and deal with. The most frustrating people to deal with on a day-to-day, eye-to-eye, door-to-door basis are the ones who fall into this middle ground of the double negative disorder. These are the people who “aren’t against” renewable energy. These are the people who “don’t think it’s not” an important issue. These are the people who “wouldn’t say no” if renewable energy were successfully expanded. The trick of the trade in grassroots campaigning is convincing the people with double negative disorders to convert to its ideologically equivalent, but politically active, positive side.
This all brings me to the real question: What use is it having a political opinion if you keep it quietly to yourself? Isn’t “personal political opinion” a bit of an oxymoron? Forget about voting—voting is the final decision after all the other voices have spoken. Political opinions are powerful, but they often go unused or underused thanks to political timidity, fear of confrontation, and a host of other reasons. Self-annihilation of political voice is especially concerning in a society that depends on the opinions of its people to guide its lawmaking and law enforcement—unfortunately, the quiet middle ground remains all too common of a choice these days. Double negative opinions are an unaddressed failure in personal opinion-making that take away incentive for political action, while maintaining the sensation of political involvement via ideological solidarity. For people who care deeply about the opinions they hold, the people who are on their side but refuse to act on their beliefs are a headache because of the potential political power gone to waste.
Why is it so addictive? Why does it keep happening? Why do so many people care about an issue, but won’t voice their opinions on it? The quick answer is that it is easy to be uninvolved because it requires no effort. But there is more to the story—some people I talked to wanted to get involved, but didn’t know where to start. Others had started, but didn’t know how far they could go. Unfortunately, the vast majority felt their voice couldn’t make a difference. One of my most meaningful personal accomplishments is that I talked to approximately 1,500 Boston residents and attempted to involve them in an issue they cared about, but weren’t acting on. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time, it didn’t. But with the help of hundreds of other people, we mobilized enough people into action that the legislation we were fighting for that summer was passed.
It all comes back to the silent majority of people who hold double negative beliefs. Inaction is addictive. By necessity, politicians and governments react slowly and inaccurately to the people they represent, but this disconnect is in part due to our own inaction. Political stimulation is so difficult—it sometimes requires legions of motivated people walking around neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and talking one on one—objects at rest will remain at rest until acted upon by an outside force. Having been on the begging side, I know firsthand that a small part of the world is begging all of us to find our voices and tell the world what we think—it is indeed the most powerful and underused weapon we as citizens of a democratic nation have to use.
If you have an opinion, support what you want. Be against what you want. But be clear in your beliefs, and do not be afraid to act on them. That being said, if you don’t have any opinion, that is fine—and much more peaceful. But if you do find yourself honestly caring about something, be careful not to slip into the double negative doldrums, because in politics it leads to the passive middle ground where opinions go to die, and where the silent majority goes to wallow.
Featured Image by Matt Dunham / AP Photo