Dan Fincke has started a new series called Forward Thinking, in which he will suggest a topic, phrased as a question, and ask some of his favorite bloggers to write an essay about it. I’m glad to have made the list and I like his first question: What does civic responsibility mean to you?
There are a lot of ways to answer that question and I’m sure it will provoke a lot of interesting and thoughtful responses. I have many thoughts on it, but they will likely not add up to a coherent perspective. I’m going to write them out, though, and see where they lead.
The first thing that comes to mind is the concept of reciprocity: We have a responsibility to treat others as we would wish to be treated. In a civic contest, what this means to me is that we have a responsibility to demand and work for fairness and justice, not only for ourselves but for others as well. This is why I so steadfastly defend the free speech of those whose views I despise, even cretins like Fred Phelps. It’s why I speak out against hatred and bigotry while simultaneously opposing laws against hate speech and bigotry. And I think that is part of our civic responsibility in a free society.
We have a responsibility to fight for justice and fairness in so many ways. That’s why I write about many of the subjects I write about. It’s why I speak out against sexism, racism and anti-gay bigotry, and why I crusade against the many injustices in law enforcement and the courts. If there is a single theme that runs through my writing over the years, that’s it. And as a white male that came from relative privilege, I think I have a particular responsibility to lend my voice to the fight against injustice in all of its myriad forms.
The second thing that comes to mind is that we have a responsibility to try to make the world a better place within our sphere of influence. Few of us can affect big changes in society, but we can have an impact on people’s lives on a smaller scale. My father has long said that he wanted to start his own church and call it the Church of We Do Good Things. From an early age, he taught us that we have a responsibility to help others when we have the ability to do so, and he did it this by both word and deed.
A couple years after my uncle was diagnosed with AIDS (he was diagnosed in 1986, so this was 1989 or so), he started a project called Rainbow House, a huge home that we converted into apartments for those who were HIV positive and needed some care but were not acutely ill. He also started a second hand store, Rainbow Resale, to fund it. My dad (and myself, when I was home from college or had the time, but mostly him) spent countless hours sorting and tagging clothes and working behind the counter. My dad spent thousands of hours over the years doing whatever needed to be done and many lives were made better as a result.
He helped my best friend build the home he and his family still live in, spending probably hundreds of hours working on it. Well into his 70s he was still working with a group of guys called the Tuesday Toolmen, spending one day a week doing projects for people who needed help — building a handicap ramp at their house, fixing a leaky roof, that sort of thing. Arthur Ashe once said that service to others is the rent we pay for the space we take up on the planet and that’s exactly how my father has always lived.
I wish I could say that I’ve followed that example as well as I could, but I’m sure I haven’t. I do volunteer work, but I know I should do more. I look at my dear friend Julie, who runs an environmental group and is always doing something positive. In any given week, she’s cleaning up a river, taking water samples, cooking meals for someone who is shut in, driving college students to the polls to vote, preparing dinner for a homeless shelter, organizing a fundraiser for some worthy cause. She’s a dynamo and I admire her so much.
They do these things, I think, because they believe they have a responsibility to others. And because it makes the world a better place. I’ve always loved the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson about a simple life well lived:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends. To appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
As an atheist, I believe that the universe is utterly indifferent to the suffering we endure, and sometimes inflict on others. But that doesn’t mean we have to be indifferent to it. And I believe we all have a responsibility to make the societies we live in better in whatever small ways we can. Millions of people doing little things to help those around us adds up to a whole lot of good and a healthier and happier human race.
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