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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Circles of Citizenship

Some say that voting is the first and most minimal step of being a citizen.  I say it may be the most minimal, but not the first, act of citizenship.

Here are the four steps of citizenship which I think make a continually reenforcing and enhancing circle or perhaps circle of circles of citizenship.

1.  Voluntary association.  People first exercise their citizenship by participating in civil society.  Girl scout troop leaders, soccer coaches, block or drama club members, neighborhood watchers, Rotary members, nonprofit organization, union, and PTA members are reenforcing the voluntary associations that constitute civility.  It means coming out of my private space, beyond my home and business, past my lonliness and individual self-interest.  De Tocqueville was clear about this character of democratic society in his Democracy in America.  Appearing in public is the Greek definition of courage according to Hannah Arendt.  

2.  Civil discussion.  Inquiring, acquiring more information and ideas, learning from others, presenting opinions for criticism, engaging and arguing regarding the benefits and shortfalls of policies is the most essential act of citizenship.  And then, as Socrates would have it, going home to think, to confront myself, to adjust and modify my opinions.  Voluntary association (#1) can be the occasion for this listening and learning process that builds the relationships of civil society.

3.  Judgment.  Casting a ballot is a decision in the here and now, based on what I know at this moment.  The option for which I cast my ballot is the best that can be achieved at this time in my judgment. Voting without thinking, without listening and speaking and testing my opinion, or simply because it reenforces my faction and is narrowly self-interested is a disservice to citizenship and to justice.  I think is that it would be better if people who did not inform themselves, wrestle with their opinions and choices, and engage with others did not vote.  The best condition is when all of us vote knowing our extended interests, having formed opinions through listening, discussion and thought.

4. Action.  Participating in the public arena to follow up on and even refine my judgment, to hold officials accountable, to act in concert to see that policies are implemented, is the fullest participation in civil society.  It is the very definition of power--to organize with others to act in concert.  It is also recognizing that I am not always right and that the opposition may see factors and consequences that I do not. That brings us back to #1.

And that is the Circle of Citizenship.  It is the fulfillment of the human capacity to shape my self by shaping the society in which the self takes shape.  It is the highest expression of the human capacity to interact with others and their world.  It is both traditional and progressive, learning from the past but innovating for the future.

But what if there is no civil society, no public space to engage with others to shape opinions and decide a common future? As in a dictatorship, an oligarchy, or a plutocracy, or even in a democracy that does not admit a public space for people with certain characteristics? That is the point of rebellion. The first act of citizenship here is the act of organizing with others to make a public space which carries the great risk of being violently suppressed by those in control.  Only then can the Circle of Citizenship be established.

A Post-script:  I've been reading The Gardens of Democracy and realize that there is an even further first step to citizenship and that is courtesy.  Courtesy means acknowledging another as a person with dignity.  It means saying hello when walking or jogging, giving up a seat on the train to someone who needs it, holding the door, saying "please" and "thank you," and just smiling to the other person.  A synonym for courtesy is civility.  Courtesy: the first step of citizenship.

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