With election fever in the air, I’ve been holding on to Errol Morris’s Op Ed video “11 Excellent Reasons Not to Vote?“, waiting for a time when I could give it my full attention. Thank you, Friday morning!
Morris’s piece interests me for two reasons that will be familiar to literary types: form and content. As many readers will know, Morris is an award-winning director and author (who keeps a vibrant website that corrals all of his various projects). For me, however, Morris is most notable for his documentaries: films like The Fog of War and The Thin Blue Line not only take up some of the most fascinating and complex questions that we have as a society (war, justice, ethics, belief), but do so in a visually compelling way. [I’ll just come right out and say this now, so as to reveal my prejudices: I dearly wish that more documentary filmmmakers, working both in short and long form, would pay more attention to aesthetics. Realism can be a trap; dependence on interviews, static camera, and archival footage can be flat. I’m looking at you, Ken Burns.] His recent piece for the NYTimes, then, is actually labeled an “Op-Doc”: an neologism that I assume brings together the ideas of “Op-Ed” (a term that I assumed grew out of “opinion-editorial,” and certainly fulfills that role, although Wikipedia tells me that it actually comes from “opposite the editorial page” to indicate its difference from the editorials penned by newspaper staff themselves. Huh. You learn something new every day.) and “Documentary.”
Before we even get out of the gate with Morris’s piece, then, we’re already talking about a new genre: what is an “Op-Doc”? What are its components? Are the expectations for it different than they would be for an op-ed piece? What happens when you move the requirements for an op-ed into a video form? And for that matter, what happens when a short documentary becomes an opinion?
I’m overly concerned about these formal questions right now because they’re the questions that my first-year composition students are wrestling with as they move into their final research project for the course. Up until now, they’ve crafted essays in print and moved them into digital text (by uploading them into an online portfolio); they’ve also composed a remix video, and thus worked with visual and audio sources (with a bit of text sprinkled throughout). But as we move toward the end of the semester, I’ve asked them to think about how to use the best of both formats: digital text, along with visual and audio sources, to help their audience to understand a complex question and their attempts to answer it with their original research. Piece of cake, right? (If you’re interested, you can follow their good-natured discussion about this and other class issues on Twitter at #DEW1: a hashtag that grows out of the name for the class—Digital Expository Writing.)
On Monday, I think I’ll ask them to look at the ways that Morris does just this in his Op-Doc: his question, as you might note from the title of the piece, is manifold:
It made me wonder: What’s stopping us? Do we have reasons not to vote? How can we hear so much about the election, and not participate? If hope isn’t doing it, isn’t the fear of the other guy winning enough to brave the roads, the long lines?
To answer that question, he interviewed a series of young people who actually DID intend to vote (a characteristic that makes them unusual by national standards) and asked them to engage his questions before explaining their own motivations. I love this approach: it sets his subjects up to think beyond themselves from the very beginning, which may very well help them to imagine their initial motivations very differently. But before I jump fully into the recognition of the content of Morris’s piece, I want to finish up this assessment of the form: how does this position his audience? If you are a reader first, then you know what’s up with the video—he reveals his methodology in the fourth paragraph. You would know, then, by the time you double back to watch (assuming that you do), that the interviewees don’t endorse the “11 reasons not to vote” that they’re articulating. But if you’re a viewer first and a reader second, you’d be at least a minute and 30 seconds into the video before you began to see the speakers questioning the arguments that they provide against voting. And perhaps this is at least part of the work that the video achieves: if your assumption is that these are young people who are apathetic/confused/slackers, then you need to take a closer look at them. It’s a clever, and subtle, rhetorical move on the part of the filmmaker, who might be calling out the readers/viewers of the Times on their willingness to castigate a generation for their unfathomable lack of civic pride.
On the question of content, which has already managed to slide into the conversation here, Morris quickly runs through, and largely dispels, I think some of the more popular reasons for not voting (e.g., one vote won’t matter; confusion and complexity; no candidate is good; “it’s just a way to make yourself happy”; “awkward family dinners”), before listing some very serious reasons to vote (i.e., Florida in 2000; the legacy of the Voting Act of 1965) with some less serious ones (e.g., spite voting). Along with some chipper music and Morris’s own good-natured hectoring from behind the camera (“How much would you sell your vote for?”), it makes for an incitement to vote that is free of the hectoring, guilt-inducing messages of some “get out the vote” messages.
As a side note, however, I’d like to point out one of the themes that emerges from the interviews. At the end of the written portion of Morris’s Op-Doc, he says this: “Voting is a leap of faith. Calling it a civic duty is not enough. Either you believe that the system is both changeable and worth changing, or you don’t — and most new voters are not convinced.” Very probably true; and as someone who is particularly interested in the ways that language works, I’d venture a guess that “civic duty” is not a term that lands with very many young people nowadays. It barely lands with me, and I’m almost 20 years beyond many of the people interviewed in this piece.
The theme that the interviewees DO pick up, however, is the dismissal of the individual and the pleasures of joining a group. The video begins with the argument against voting that hinges on the acknowledgment that a single vote could matter; five minutes in, a participant reminds us that “it’s not about you, it’s about all of us…Get off Twitter, stop talking to your friends about how great you are, go down to vote and throw your lot into the sea with everyone else.” The next person talks about the “on the other side” experience of having voted, a kind of shared practice that should inspire people to go and get a drink. We later see a very pregnant mother whose vote is now “twice as important,” along with a newly-naturalized citizen who will vote for the first time. It’s a bit of a vexed message (what’s up with the Twitter hate?), and yet seems to suggest that dedicated voters in a demographic notorious for NOT voting imagine themselves and their motivations as being distinctly communal; they’re in a group who vote right now, in this election, and/or they’re in a group that prizes voting in a historical trajectory. Everyone else is in the sea, or getting a drink after having voted, or voting in honor of those who couldn’t vote before him. This is what we all do; you should do it too. Is it going to far to say that individualism, here, is shunted aside for the priorities and pleasures of the generation as a whole? Where does the rationale for voting as a mode of belonging fit in the rhetoric of civics, of responsibility, and in the description of the millennial generation(s) as individualistic and navel-gazers? If Morris’s interviewees are representative of young people who DO vote, how do we use these insights to capture and incite more of them to “throw their lot into the sea”?