Forward Thinking: Civic Responsibility Roundup

How do we balance individual and community? To whom do we owe responsibility – our local community, our nation, or all of humanity?

Two weeks ago I announced Forward Thinking, a values development project created in collaboration with Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers, and introduced the first prompt. Dan is introducing our next prompt today (head on over to see it!), and in this post I will pull together some themes from the various responses to round off the one I introduced two weeks ago: “What does civic responsibility mean to you?” A total of ten bloggers, in addition to myself, wrote posts in response.

As I read through the responses I noticed several themes: First, different ways of understanding civic responsibility in light of the need to balance the rights and needs of individual and community, and second the question of exactly what the “community” we owe this responsibility to looks like.

Starting us off, Ian of The Crommunist wrote an intriguing piece about the role civic responsibility plays in balancing individualism and community:

As with most values-driven issues, my understanding of civic responsibility lies between two divergent value axioms. First, there is the recognition that our presence in a society confers a duty to take care of each other. No individual exists without some level of input from each other – a social infrastructure of laws and values and instrumental assistance exists. We are not in a position to remove ourselves from the implications of this social contract, and have a corresponding obligation to participate in it.

The second and competing value is that of individual autonomy – that it is unethical to compel someone to comply with a behaviour unless that person is interfering with the autonomy rights of another. In lay terms, you can’t take someone’s money or time without that person’s consent, no matter how noble that cause might be. Adherence to this principle allows for voluntary charitable giving, but abhors taxation for social programs or anything other than the basic functions of government (defence of property rights and public safety).

Civic responsibility, to me, is a work-around for resolving the friction within this axiomatic framework. It is a question of re-orienting our understanding of our societal obligation away from something that is an onerous duty to something that is an investment that yields personal return.

Reread that last paragraph of Ian’s, because it’s the key point he’s trying to make. Ian is making a very pragmatic argument in favor of obligation to one’s community. Read his whole post for more explanation, and then contrast it with the more idealistic stance taken by James Croft of Temple of the Future:

As a Humanist, my notion of civic responsibility is broad and forceful: ideally we have a degree of civic responsibility to all humankind, a global and universal responsibility to act to promote human welfare. For the Humanist, there is no difference in moral worth, in principle, between one person and another: the mere fact of person-hood confers moral value on an individual and demands our respect and attention. Furthermore, I believe we are called not only to do the minimum required of citizens (obey laws, pay taxes etc.), but to actively promote others’ good.

There is an interesting range from idealistic to pragmatic in these posts. In explaining why the very term “civic responsibility” makes him instinctively cringe, Matt of Exiting Christianity highlights the importance of arguments like the one laid out by Ian:

The question is “What does civic responsibility mean to you?” To be honest, civic is a word I use so infrequently that I had to make sure I understood the definition correctly. When I think of civic, I think of obligatory words like “duty” and “responsibility,” societal mandates that all must perform. That is probably part of the reason the post-Baby-Boomer generation inculturation in me cringes instinctively. I don’t like to owe anyone anything, though we all have incurred debts greater than we can repay.

Vorjack at Unreasonable Faith echoes the focus on individualism, but also works to solve any potential conflict by pointing out that the government and civic society are based on individuals, and not the other way around:

I tend to view this practically: our communities support and sustain us, so it is in our best interests to sustain them as best we can. I’m an individualist, and I tend to view a community as an emergent property out of a collection of individuals. There are others who take a more top-down approach and see individuals as fragments of the community. Such people usually stress the duty aspect and see expressions of self interest as a type of selfishness.

It’s a very fraught concept in America. The fact that our society is governed from the bottom up, with government legitimacy being based on the will of the people, means that the responsibility for holding the society together rests on the individuals who make up the society.

Vorjack’s point is actually similar to some of what I said:

“Why do you view the government like this, like it’s something out there, something separate, an enemy?” The speaker was Norwegian, the location a conference workshop. “In Norway, we see it differently. We are the government.” As her words settled over me I knew I would be remembering what she had said for a long, long time. See, I grew up with the oppositional view she was talking about. I saw government as the problem, and firmly believed that the only positive thing to do with government was to shrink it. I saw taxes as akin to theft. What changed between then and now was an attitude shift, and the speaker that day gave voice and words to that shift.

In the debate over the fiscal cliff last year, a friend made a fascinating observation on facebook. “I use my tax money to hire the government to do certain things,” he said. “I don’t want it to refund my money, I want it to use my money to do what I’m hiring it to do!” You know, things like roads. National parks. Fire departments. Schools. Welfare for the down and out, and social security for the elderly. His status update also got me thinking, because as a child, teen, and young adult I never thought about everything we for all intents and purposes “hire” the government to do, and also because his status update built on the “we are the government” message of the Norwegian professor.

Ian fixes the problem of individualism verses community by tying the best interests of the two together and Vorjack fixes the problem by pointing out that the civic community is nothing more than the sum of the individuals involved. Jethro of All Weather Cyclist, in contrast, engages in James’ Croft’s idealism – the idea that civic responsibility is something we should do out of the goodness of our hearts – while also emphasizing the voluntary nature of civic responsibility:

This is how I see Civic Duty. It means doing things for others in society that you would have them to do unto you. The law declares what you must do for others, but civic responsibility consists of doing what you should, even though you don’t have to. Things that fall under the heading of manners are optional, but the right thing to do anyhow.

Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars also combines these issues by emphasizing both the importance of reciprocity and the importance of making the world a better place just because we can:

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.

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.

Ed’s post – with it’s point about being able to have an impact on a smaller scale even if we lack the ability to make big changes – makes a good transition into a different question: What community we are referring to when we talk about civic responsibility?

Rachel Marcy of Ripening Reason divided her post in three, writing about local, national, and global aspects of civic responsibility.

I believe civic responsibility is the recognition of the interdependent nature of society, and our mutual obligations to engage with society in a manner that fosters peaceableness and prosperity.

I know I can exercise greater civic responsibility. I’ve exhibited prejudice and a lack of compassion. I haven’t always been as informed about political topics as I should be, and I haven’t always been an involved member of my community. But I will strive to do and be these things moving forward, because that’s the kind of community, country, and world I want to live in.

Civic responsibility. Is it a responsibility we have to our local community, to our nation, or to all of humanity? James also echoes the importance of a global responsibility to humankind, but he also admits how difficult this idea is in practice:

As a Humanist, my notion of civic responsibility is broad and forceful: ideally we have a degree of civic responsibility to all humankind, a global and universal responsibility to act to promote human welfare. For the Humanist, there is no difference in moral worth, in principle, between one person and another: the mere fact of person-hood confers moral value on an individual and demands our respect and attention. …

Sadly in practice things are never quite so easy: we are so constituted to care far more deeply and strongly about those closest to use – our blood and kin, our co-workers, our partners in life’s endeavor – and it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to orientate our lives toward a truly humanitarian ideal. Nonetheless, the responsibility to think of how our actions affect humankind in the broadest sense presses upon us, and we must do our best to heed the call.

Marta Layton of Fides Quaerens also addressed this challenge:

This all reminds me of one of my favorite lines in Les Miserables, from the “Look Down” reprise where we first meet Gavroche:

Look down and see the beggars at your feet
Look down and show some mercy if you can
Look down and see the sweepings of the street
Look down, look down, Upon your fellow man!

It’s amazing how difficult this is for many people: seeing “your fellow man” in “the beggars at your feet.” I believe, though, that this is the heart of civic responsibility. We need to recognize the way people who look nothing like us and view the world in radically different ways still need to be treated fairly and with respect. When it comes to respect and dignity, it’s their humanity that really matters. And our actions need to reflect this.

There is a great deal more to Marta’s post, and it is well worth reading.

In contrast to Marta’s insistence on seeing those around us as our “fellow man,” Matt spoke of his previous experience with Christian teachings and expressed some problems with expanding our community to the whole of humanity:

As a Christian, I was taught a distinction between types of love. (Christians “love” to exploit the fact that Greek often has multiple words to describe what is translated as a single word in English. I can’t tell you many times I’ve heard, “In Greek, the word actually means…”) There is erotic love, brotherly love, and agape, selfless love. The latter is the love Jesus has for Christians, and that is the love, as Christians, we are supposed to imitate. For me, this meant that in a practical sense my love was spread so thin that it didn’t have energy to manifest in any concrete way. I loved the whole world. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud talks about the impossibility of maintaining this kind of love. The act of loving, he counters, is predicated on it being bestowed on some and not others. Loving everyone equally is not significantly different from loving no one at all.

George at Misplaced Grace turned the issue away from a simple local versus global discussion to encompass the new ways we connect in the digital world:

In the last couple decades- maybe even in the last few years- technology has made new communities. Though the definition of “civic” seems rooted in our towns and cities, I feel it needs to be expanded to include these new communities- communities that were not even possible 40 years ago, communities that were the realm of specialized hobbyists a mere 20 years ago, communities that today are an almost assumed and necessary part of life for the “connected generation”. We are living in a world of virtual civics- where our identity, community, and real life successes are increasingly shaped by our connections to people who live hundreds or thousands of kilometres from our doorstep. If the reason we call local engagement “civic” is because these are the people we are most likely to interact or have the greatest sense of closeness and community, then I would argue that “civic” is a word that must be increasingly inclusive of those communities where we have “virtual citizenship“. It used to be the case that community was beholden to the practical limitations of geography; yet yesterday, for example, I had as much (and much more robust) interaction with friends in Florida as I had with the people who live on my street.

It seems to me that if the word “civic” can’t transcend your mailing address- the word is of little use to us at all.

Last but not least, Lou of Raising Hellions wrote about the importance of raising civic-minded children, focusing especially on the importance of creating community and on just how inescapably interconnected we are with the community around us.

I see my most important Civic Responsibility is to raise citizens. I don’t mean that in a creepy dystopian science fiction fashion, but as a practical matter of raising my children with the knowledge and skills to participate meaningfully in the life of the civic community around them. I need to encourage them to engage with our civic institutions in a constructive manner, starting with their school and radiating outward to the wider community. I intend to make sure that they are aware of how the various cogs and levers of our community function and impress upon them how inescapably interconnected we are with the community around us. From the post office to the community council and the city arts institutions to the local news teams to the little league to the health inspector to the community college, all of our various and varied institutions connect and support each other in some way, sometimes in ways that are really obvious and sometimes in ways that are really obscure.

This is especially important to us as secular parents because we have chosen to avoid the parallel institutions provided by the church. I want my community to have a vibrant public sphere because I am intentionally avoiding the alternative provided by religion. Part of having a vibrant public sphere is raising children who are aware of its existence and invested in participating in it.

For additional thoughts on just what civic responsibility ought to look like in action, see the comments on the post where I introduced this prompt.

All in all, I think this first prompt of Forward Thinking went well, and generated some excellent discussion. Make sure to head over to Camels with Hammers to see the next prompt!

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Compiled List of Responses on Civic Responsibility:

Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars

George of Misplaced Grace

Ian of The Crommunist

James Croft of Temple of the Future

Jethro of All Weather Cyclist

Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism

Lou of Raising Hellions

Marta Layton of Fides Quaerens

Matt of Exiting Christianity

Rachel Marcy of Ripening Reason

Vorjack of Unreasonable Faith

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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