What does it mean to be a “good citizen”? High school civics, the very class designed to teach teenagers the benefits of altruism (if ever there was a modern feat of improbability, that has to be it), attempts to force the recognition onto students that all who live within a society are citizens to it and have a responsibility to shape it how they see fit. The prominent values discussed include accepting responsibility within your community to help those in need, needing to respect and adhere to rules for socially responsible behavior and a willingness to participate actively. Since the introduction of the civics class in the mainstream curriculum, our definitions of “your community”, “socially responsible behavior” and “willingness to participate” have evolved and adapted to fit new platforms. But now, one phrase in particular bears re-examining as the fight for freedoms moves from the streets of the Polis to the moral heights of the digital Akros: “Your Community”.
The original definition has shifted from members of an ethnic or religious community to a more fluid version – but the underpinning philosophy of associating with those who share an ideological view or values system sustains. A common argument amongst pundits and everyone’s loud relatives is that the sense of community we once held is shrinking, and that much of the erosion of discourse is attributed to increasing levels of partisanship. In this, partisanship is identified as the source of unrest fracturing our democracies. Congressional representatives attribute increasing levels of racial dialogue, violence against minorities and reduced tolerance undermining notions of oppositional legitimacy as being due to increased polarization within society. A world divided by ideology is one where opponents dehumanize each other and disassociate from the need to tolerate dissenting opinions, thereby reinforcing their existing biases and exacerbating every issues – or so the theory goes.
Labeling partisanship as causal to division is both lazy and mistaken. To suggest that s typically followed by a recommendation that the solution to increasing levels of intolerance is the adoption of a healthy detachment from ideology and use of an objective, non-partisan attitude. This conjures an image of complacency or disengagement; but recommending the solution to creating an engaged and active democracy is apathy is quite literally antithetical to the notion of citizenry itself. It further pushes a norm that discourse, healthy and engaged discourse, is simply a more tolerant version of what we see today. Herein is where the diagnosis becomes lazy. Active citizenry within a functional democracy involves tolerance, yes, but also division – we stand up for the values we hold dear and understand that when acting in the best interests of our society differs from our personal norms, we have a responsibility to speak for our views. Today’s political debate isn’t insular because we disagree with each other, nor because we don’t listen – it is because we now associate our sense of community with what political ideology we adhere to, and thereby view every disagreement as a encroachment on our own identities and worldviews.
Politics and religion share characteristics of zealotry and fundamentalism – each camp holds extremists proclaiming the literal interpretation of the values systems is the only way to true prosperity, but most adherents exercise a temperance and understanding of the need to adapt demands within a complex and dynamic world. In times of hopelessness and strife, we fall upon institutions that provide us hope, give us a sense of community and allow us to develop a sense of identity and shared experience. The 2008 Financial Crisis and War on Terror have created tumultuous times over the last two decades in the United States, during which historical trends would indicate there should have been an increase in attendance of faith-based institutions. But attendance at religious services has been steadily decreasing over the last 20 years, indicating that people are seeking their sense of community and hope elsewhere. It is perhaps not a coincidence that levels of political partisanship have spiked within the same time period, nor that digital forums now provide the insularity for individuals to form ideological communities where ideas can be freely shared across traditional boundaries, much like religious institutions did in the past. If the battle is between “the heart of America and the liberal coasts”, it is understandable why connection with others who feel equally geographically isolated could create a sense of community on digital platforms, and why neither side would understand where this division arose from – a subjective and individualized need for hope is a hard thing for an individual lacking the same contextual constraints to comprehend.
It is the view of this article that the causal issue facing societies is not partisanship nor a lack of community, but a failure to grasp how the provision of basic needs varies across groups, and how historical circumstance influences modern-day decision making. When one ceases to be objectively hungry, one has time to ponder the subjective questions of identity and purpose. In this search, it is logical to assume that one would align with individuals whose experiences are shared. If your community is discussing elections instead of religion, then that’s what you would do as well. We are, in effect, all in search of those with whom our values align so we can feel a little less alone.
To address this gap, policymakers must employ creative tools, some of which should be directed towards issues such as loneliness and isolation – increased screen time and a lack of connection with one’s geographical community have been categorically shown to make one more lonely, thereby increasing levels of stress, depression and anxiety. Engaged citizens who only mobilize digitally and remain insular, whatever institution they remain insular in, are a poor substitute for the image conjured up by the Greeks and patient teachers of civics classes. If you really want to get people to talk to each other again about the big things, perhaps getting them to talk again about the weather with their immediate neighbors might be an appropriate way to start.