Electoral debates and the art of refusal

A debate is a conflict. A conflict requires the duty of a real conversation that considers others with complexity and understanding. A conflict does not require agreement, but it does require recognition. He is working on a resolution without expecting a reconciliation. Where there is unresolved pain, interactive conversation can lay the groundwork for psychological and emotional repair, even if forgiveness is tenuous. At the very least, a debate can create spaces of honesty through mutual kindness and soften the hard edges of misinterpreted beliefs. Debating, confronting conflicts, is a gift. The debate is unifying.

A refusal is a silence. Silence rejects responsibility and rejects healing. It flees and excludes. Silence is a relief for the person holding back, but it produces anxiety and uncertainty for others. Where there are repeated invitations to face the conflict, the refusal doubles. Others are led to believe that the perceived unfair treatment, disguised as accusations of bias, is real, even if the most likely threat is the unveiling of a horrific truth. Silence redefines discomfort as a sign that something bad is being done to the person being held. The unilateral refusal is a self-righteous indignation to claim victimization.

We can say no. It is an essential condition to enable our ability to imagine and build an individual future. We say no to certain foods because they are intended for a particular body. We say no to a career opportunity because we refuse burnout. We say no to an intimate relationship because we imagine love differently. We say no to touch, desire and manipulation because our basic dignity is sacred.

The refusal to participate in an electoral debate is something else entirely. It’s not sacred, it’s petulant. It does not build an individual future. It disrupts everyone else’s future. It legitimizes freedom of choice but lacks the self-awareness that choice requires. Like all our freedoms, just because we can doesn’t mean we have to.

A scheduling conflict is a code word for refusing to face a real conflict. There are limits to our physical and mental bandwidth every day. Whatever productivity tips our hyper-optimizing, over-planned culture has come up with, the truth is, we can’t be anywhere, do everything, all the time. Our scheduling conflicts are more benign. We have another meeting, our child is sick, an elderly parent has a dentist appointment. An election debate, however, is not a dental appointment.

The criticisms against the refusal are also too narrow. Refusal is either a political strategy or a danger to democracy. These are strange to me. If silence is an additional tool in a campaign’s overall arsenal, it is not criticism. It is an identification of a potentially winning hand. This naming is framed as a criticism because it is much easier to dismiss his boogeyman qualities – in other words, contextualized in the familiar “corruption” scenario – than to accept that the other candidates may not be not as politically savvy.

The so-called danger to democracy is also a strange abstraction, if a bit hyperbolic. Debates benefit democracy. They allow voters to make informed choices. They illuminate policy positions and allay fears on contentious issues. Candidates can also be held accountable for their campaign promises.

They are political constructs that ignore differences within the electorate. If a candidate is consistently at the top of opinion polls but has yet to participate in a national debate, does this signal the deterioration of democracy? Does that mean whole swaths of the public are brainwashed or so gullible they fall in love with maternity statements? Or is it an indication of the inability or unwillingness of opposition candidates to make meaningful inroads beyond the “conscience” narrative so favored by pundits and academic elites? Is the opposition’s view of a significant portion of the electorate so paternalistic that their voting choices are misrepresented as illogical? This heightened rhetoric reflects a culture of over-reacting to CV-building aptitude and under-reacting to oppressive systems.

The purpose of an election is not to preserve democracy. The goal is to win. Only one campaign team seems to understand this.


Dr. Ronald del Castillo is a consultant in social and behavior change communication and has served as a professor of psychology, public health and social policy. The views here are his.

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