What Do You Do When No Candidate Is Unproblematic?

I got into the social justice scene a few short years ago. Back then, I was very concerned about Republican obstructionism, horrified by Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments, and appalled by the murder of Jordan Davis by a white man who didn’t like the volume of the 17-year-old’s music. I couldn’t believe that Mitt “47 percent of people in the U.S. are entitled moochers” Romney was a presidential candidate. I didn’t think things could get much worse.

I’ve never been more incorrect in my entire life.

It was around this time that I made a Tumblr account and started learning about concepts like rape culture and white privilege. Not long after that, I began to regularly come across the term “problematic.”

Some of you may remember the blog “Your Fave is Problematic,” a Tumblr page dedicated to listing all of the “problematic” things said or done by well-known celebrities — from Benedict Cumberbatch comparing autistic people to Frankenstein’s monster to the frequent cultural appropriation found in Tyra Banks’ photo shoots.

While the intent may have been to call attention to how often beloved public figures perpetuate harm upon marginalized peoples, there was some fallout from the trend. There were cases of people in the social justice community lashing out at or harassing anyone who expressed affection for a celebrity who had done something harmful. Many individuals outside of the social justice community felt personally attacked by the mere suggestion that one of their faves was problematic. This led to discussion about being allowed to be fans of problematic celebrities, media, and content, as long as you’re aware of the fact that they’re problematic and don’t try to defend them when they’re harmful.

There were also issues with people using the word “problematic” to describe things that should be referred to as “horrific” or “upholding rape culture” or “a function of systemic racism and white supremacy.” Some mocking of the term then took place, and its use fizzled. However, the lessons of this trend remain — the vast majority of people and media have problematic pasts, ideas, or content, and they can still be loved for their positive traits as long as the rest isn’t ignored or defended.

Cut to 2016 and the dawn of the Election Discourse.

After months of argument within the social justice realm, I’m still stuck in this awkward place of “the Donald Must Die crowd makes a lot of good points, but I’m not about to be the white person who tells black people to vote for Hillary” and “it’s true that Hillary is an imperialist warhawk who is partially responsible for the deaths of countless people in the Middle East and the rise of the prison industrial complex, but damn, I can’t tell Latinx individuals that they shouldn’t do everything possible to stop Donald.”

As for my own vote, I live in Washington state, which essentially means that my vote doesn’t matter. Satan themself couldn’t unfreeze this state from its perpetual deep blue. So what do I do? At first, I thought my vote could go to a greater cause — supporting a third party candidate in the hope that enough similar votes could dig our country out of its 240-year two-party hole. Maybe in the near future, there could actually be a viable option other than “Democrat” or “Republican.”

Then I heard about Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate. I looked at her campaign website, and wow! She was just like Bernie Sanders, only more in line with my thoughts on gun control! A true progressive! Dare I say, a social justice warrior?

She seemed like the perfect person to give my vote to. But then I found out something that stopped me from unfurling my “Jill Stein 2016” banner.

She’s problematic.

First came the assertion that Stein is anti-vaccine. Though she’s denied this claim and has openly voiced her support for vaccinations, she uses some arguments and language common in the anti-vaccine movement and has shown a lot of sympathy for them. This stopped me cold due to how much I despise the anti-vaccine movement for its incredibly ableist, dehumanizing, and eugenicist treatment of people on the autism spectrum.

Then I saw her initial response to the Brexit vote, which, although it was taken off of her website, was archived and is pretty yikes-o-riffic. Is that support she’s giving to a movement entirely fueled by xenophobia and Islamophobia, and to a vote that’s caused a severe uptick in both in the U.K.?

Then I found out about the entire Green Party’s stance on sex work.

And what is this about her saying wi-fi signals are bad for kids’ brains?

Oh good lord, and her running mate called Obama an “Uncle Tom president”? Twice??

During the state primary vote in August, I even considered voting for a local candidate from an actual socialist party. Unfortunately, right there in the voter’s pamphlet, the party expressed support for those white guys who literally (LITERALLY) crapped all over sacred Native American sites in Oregon because they were mad that the government punished someone for starting illegal fires in drought-ridden wildfire country.

I know we settled on the idea that people should still be allowed to have their problematic faves, but the presidential election is in an entirely different realm of importance than celebrity. We’re talking about candidates for the presidency of the United States of America. And reblogging a photo of someone’s face isn’t the same level of support as voting for them in an election.

I’m still a social justice activist with rather high standards. I won’t pay for movies that whitewash. I won’t buy tickets to see comedians who make rape jokes. I won’t even mention that Benedict Cumberbatch exists on my Tumblr blog.

How, then, can I vote for Jill Stein — someone who has been racist and supported ableist, whorephobic, and Islamophobic ideas?

That kind of thinking got me to here — How problematic can a candidate be and still get my vote? Where is the line?

Jill Stein supporters like to say, “Don’t compromise your ideals. Vote for Jill Stein.” But now it appears that voting for Jill Stein would compromise my ideals. That begs the further question — considering the vast range of ideals and opinions on social issues, will there ever be a politician who fits mine in every single way? Can there be an unproblematic fave?

Probably not.

So if I can’t vote according to my ideals, what should I do? Vote for Jill Stein anyway in the hope that some kind of third party can emerge? Vote for Hillary Clinton just in case? Not vote for President at all?

Voting for Jill Stein could actually grant this country a third party. If any third party gets 5% of the popular vote, the federal government has to partially fund them in the next election cycle. The emergence of a far-left party could push the entire country left, reversing the U.S.’s steady slide to the right of the past few decades. The future could be so much brighter than Hillary Clinton.

On the other hand, voting for Clinton helps ensure that we avoid a presidency that would be so disastrous for so many people, including people I know personally (and likely myself, though less intensely), in the near future. Can I risk President Trump for something that may not even work?

On the third hand, maybe the only real solution is to reject the entire system that keeps leaving us with such crappy choices by not voting at all. Or is that just what the Dick Cheneys of the nation want me to do?

There doesn’t seem to be an option that doesn’t risk harming others. So how much harm can I risk causing others for what chance of a better tomorrow, all while still being able to look myself in the mirror?

This line of questioning has been such a headache that I’m starting to sympathize with certain anarchist acquaintances who say we need to abolish the entire system and create many small, self-governing communities that can either have a straight vote on every issue or have elected representatives that actually represent them. It certainly seems simpler, if impossible.

Two weeks out from the election and I still don’t have an answer. If you were expecting one, sorry. The best I can say is once this is all over and people stop talking about it, hopefully the lessons of Election Discourse will remain. Lessons that may even be more positive than “everyone will disappoint you.” Maybe it will help ensure that people fight to keep Hillary Clinton as progressive and non-bombing-civilians as possible. Maybe some of us will even get fed up with compromising and enter the political arena themselves. No, not me, but somebody.

Maybe we could even start to discuss whether the current system is good enough — whether it works for all of us or just some. And if it only works for a privileged few (and I think most people reading this will agree on that), then we need to look deeper. After the almost inevitable win of Hillary Clinton, let’s work to get ourselves out of this lesser evil hole.

That is, if we can keep ourselves from entirely repressing our memories of the Hell on Earth that has been the year 2016.

Good luck, us.


Lead image: adapted from flickr/Gage Skidmore and Marc Nozell

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