JVP Speaks: What is Civic Duty?

Project Civility is in full swing at Rutgers, whether you noticed it or not. The initiative’s aim is to get people to ask questions about what it means to be part of a community, about how people should treat one another, and what can be done to improve the quality of people’s treatment of others. Of course, the whole initiative is voluntary rather than mandatory, which means that, chances are, one likely won’t be prompted to participate in Project Civility in one’s day to day. At the very least, I’ve yet to be prompted, so I figured that I’d prompt myself and my fellow JVPers to participate in Project Civility with this week’s question: Should America have a notion of civic duty if it doesn’t already? Why or why not? If so, what should it entail?

Alex Giannattasio: Civic duty is the moral imperative that members of society actively protect the rights of society as a whole. There are many ways to fulfill this duty, one of which, for instance, is voting. By collectively engaging in the democratic process, our society as a group agrees to work out its differences peacefully in exchange for giving everyone a voice. This in turn sets a baseline for the group’s peaceful coexistence to stand upon, thus preserving the basic rights of every individual.

But voting is not the only way to engage one’s civic duty. Voting takes such a small effort that the possible impact per person is diluted anywhere from hundreds to millions of times over. A more active way to meet one’s civic duty is to work in one’s local community to improve the quality of life of the most needy, and to just improve it in some valuable way. We as a nation are in fact living up to this now: community engagement in America is at very high levels, with 111 million Americans volunteering their time in the past 12 months and 60 million volunteering on a regular basis. The Future of American Power by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 6, at 10. Community engagement bears a much bigger impact per person and improves the quality of the community in which you live. In the short term, this kind of civic participation can be much more valuable to a nation as a whole, because it translates into social improvement at an extremely efficient cost.

Michael Stuzynski: Americans have a sense of civic duty because after over 200 years people are still somewhat conscious of the concept of the Revolutionary War. The fact that people fought and died for your right to vote, among other things, is everywhere in culture, and is reiterated with every new war that our country fights. It’s less a sense of a duty and more a sense of a responsibility that is owed to the respectful remembrance of people from the past. But it’s also pretty cool that you can be responsible for firing the leader of the free world, and all of his oafish minions.

Jhoany Benitez: When I first read this question, I was immediately going to answer “Yes, definitely. It’s your right, so, why not? People in Cuba wish they could make a difference.” But then I opted to put some real thinking into my answer and ended up completely changing my mind. So my real answer is No. I think that the United States shouldn’t have a notion of civic duty. Why? Because people should not be forced to do something. Voting, to be exact. “It’s your right as a citizen!” Does this mean that I have to run out and vote—even if I don’t even know who I’m voting for? That’s why I changed my mind. Because I remembered hearing from friends who opted not to vote because they knew nothing about the people running.

Also, let’s say that you hate Republicans…but you don’t even know who’s running for either party. Does that mean that you’re going to vote for whoever’s representing the Democratic party even if you know nothing about them? This is where the notion of civic duty fails. I think it’s better to not vote than to shove down people’s throat the belief that it’s their “civic duty” to vote and have them vote blindly. So I say No to civic duty. Vote because you care, not because someone’s telling you to do so.

Dave Imbriaco: To me, civic duty is what is expected of a citizen in return for living within a system that allows them certain rights and freedoms – the RESPONSIBILITIES that come with those freedoms, if you will. There was a point in this country not too long ago when everyone who took high school social studies classes learn not only about how government works but how they must also actively participate in it. This seems to have all but died in our modern education, which is a tragedy of epic proportions. The mantra of a good social studies class went that it creates not only good students but good citizens. Also, it wouldn’t be called our “duty” if it was an easy thing to do. It sucks to choose between a giant douche and a turd sandwich, but you, as a citizen, still have the duty to make that choice because you live in a democracy. There are countless other ways you can get involved in a democracy but this is the most basic of all. /rambling.

Billal Ahmed: I find it interesting that while young people often have no problem condemning strict notions of what it means to be a good Muslim or Christian as a danger to global security, they hesitate to criticize civic duty for the same reasons. I have no problem with the idea of improving a nation through the idea of civic duty, whether through volunteering, teaching, building, etc. However, I blame civic duty for the prevalence of worrisome nationalism which inevitably begins to infringe on the rights of others. Civic duty easily leads to civic elitism, which reinforces the notion that a particular nation is special and requires extremely lamentable acts to be carried out in order to preserve that status. One could argue that civic duty is a fundamental motivation for the vigilante bands currently patrolling the United States border with Mexico. One could also argue that civic duty lead to the vengeance-fueled invasion of Afghanistan nine years ago with Operation Anaconda, which was blinded by passion and thus badly disorganized. Civic duty is excellent under the same conditions that religious zealotry can be considered excellent- when it is used to fuel the betterment of humanity rather than the suffering of others.

Brian Connolly: We pay taxes…so, we already all do have a notion of civic duty. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great outlet for people who have the time, energy, and willingness to help their fellow countrymen (and countrywomen, out). But, quite frankly, people have live’s to live. If you want to run a YMCA program for underprivileged youth–knock yourself out, you’ll probably feel great doing it. But in no way should America institute a mandatory system of community building exercises. That encroaches on the freedoms that we have. And, as an interesting reminder, historical precedents that include an overwhelmingly strong concept of national duty include Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Just a thought.

Rebecca Zandstein: Civic duty, being the responsibilities of a citizen are demanded by America to some extent. Citizen’s are required to pay taxes and obey all laws of the state in which they live or are traveling to and the federal laws. Aside from the latter give or take a few citizens are expected to follow other rules that are not necessarily obligatory or concrete: like voting and being morally just to one another. While America does provide citizens with a code that they must follow I believe that the “unspoken law” should be followed as well due to the positive effects it can have on society and the individual(s). Civic duty allows individuals to participate in activities that many would literally die for the opportunity to do. Civic duty can assist others, whether below or above you in the hierarchy, in a manner that no one else might necessarily have the capability of. Regardless of the latter, America can only enforce a limited amount of written code/rules on its citizens despite that it might be tempted to enact the “unwritten code” onto its citizens as well. Unwritten civic duties are optional and those who view them as mandated have the benefit of, at a minimum, being viewed in a brighter light than other citizens.

Marlana Moore: There are certain attributes that make a person a good, admirable human being, regardless of nationality. When I think of civic duty, I think of those things I can do to be a good and responsible person in context to my identity as an American. Civic duty includes voting, obviously, but voting entails some other duties as well. In order to vote responsibly, you have to be aware of the candidates and know what they stand for. Similarly, being a responsible American involves knowing what your government is doing, and telling them what you think about it. I think if more Americans really took this attitude of their civic duty seriously, our government would not feel so removed from us, and we might instead feel that they are helping us.

Ben Kharakh: I think that America lacks both a cohesive and shared vision of what it means to be a good citizen and the means by which the virtues of good citizenry are to be cultivated. Rather than wait, however, for the government to improve or for people to start discussing what it means to be a “good American”, it’s up to those people who desire reform and deliberation to be the change they wish to see. That means asking one’s self, “What can I do to be a good citizen?”, which is the same as asking one’s self, “What can I do to be a good person?”

It’s important to be a good person for a number of reasons, one of which is that the way we treat others teaches them how to treat us, something that’s easier to discern on a micro scale with a family than on the macro scale with a nation. A nation, however, is just a family with a lot of people, which means that it simply takes longer for the treatment that we’ve taught others to come back around and affect us. But it will, it does, and we are seeing the affects of now more than ever. Not that this is anything new; we just didn’t have TV and Internet 2,000 years ago.

Who’s to blame for this? No one or everyone; take your pick. Personally, I find the question of, “Who’s responsible?” less useful than, “What do I do?” It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.

Brendan Kaplan: By “sense” I think what you mean is cohesive whole, picture, or gestalt.

Any position on the matter, even one devoid of commitment to civic duty is nonetheless a sense. We HAVE a sense… is it the right one?

I think the question really is then, what type of sense of civic duty should individual Americans have? How does this sense impact the greater country as a whole?

Things tend to function fractally, and that means the the number one thing you can do to change the country is to change yourself. To determine what type of country we should have, is to contemplate what type of people we should be. In short, by asking if there is a proper type of civic orientation, we are asking ourselves if we think that there is a proper way to act or not.

I am of the mindset that there is. I guess then, that I believe that we as individuals, and therefore collectively as a country, should maintain a set of behavioral standards. Our question further suggests that those personal standards that I think we should maintain are relevant to the way the nation functions as a whole.

OK, so what standards should these be?

I think it is very difficult to predict how any process will manifest in any specific situation. The content may be different for different people. For example, to become more well rounded, a really rich arrogant kid might be well served by working in a field for a week and being treated with little importance, while an illegal day-worker might truly benefit from being prodded to act arrogant and demand Pellegrino sent to his table. The content of the process of balance is different depending on the direction any particular actor is coming from.

Thus, by realizing that individuals can attain balance by acting in seemingly divergent ways, and considering that a cohesive national “feeling of duty” would necessarily account for these diverse methods of balance, a true and proper sense of civic duty would have to connect and encompass all of these facets.

Our duty must be then to translate the experiences of individuals within the country into content that others can understand as of the same process as their own. Civic duty isn’t about symmetrization, as in what I call ‘the new diversity’ whose maxim reads “Nobody can be discriminated against, therefore everyone has to be exactly the same [when measured against pre-approved factors such as income, education, wealth, aptitude]” Instead, civic duty is about recognizing the differences in the individual stories that become aggregated into cultures and nations, and elevating those differences as the welcome product of a highly specialized humanity that has evolved traditions and customs that allow it to live in a variety of situations.

Interaction between these different cultures must be facilitated in such a way as to not allow the willful destruction of a culture simply for the sake of its destruction.

Civic duty, then, is about communication, accountability, and rights. These days, accountability is so often lost as people are reluctant to suggest that an individual’s perspective might be flawed for fear of offending a cultural perspective. To compensate, these same people often become overly concerned with communication or rights, and end up as misguided activists, protesting anyone and anything in their paths.

A further revision then: Civic duty is about a mediation of communication, accountability (consequences/ resolutions), and rights. Those concerned about their civic duty engage in processes that further these three ideals.

Way to go JVP!!

2 thoughts on “JVP Speaks: What is Civic Duty?

  1. I agree with Brian. The fact that we pay taxes and vote to continue to pay taxes at given rates show that a sense of civic duty is built into the system we live in. It is not only the act of choosing to pay taxes at a certain percentage, but more importantly what those taxes are tied to that make them indispensable in the society we’ve formed. The way we vote on our taxes would be a good indicator as to how much civility is actually out there. And what’s more, many tax issues are voted on at a local level, greatly increasing the weight of each person’s vote.
    In this election in Massachusetts there were two questions on the ballot that would lower two BIG state taxes. The first was a reduction to the alcohol tax. The second was the state tax, which is 6%, and they wanted to cut it to 3%. The first one passed by a fair margin; the second one was shot down decidedly.
    This tells me a few things. First of all, the argument for lowering the alcohol tax was that it would keep people in Massachusetts from driving to New Hampshire to buy cheap liquor. Trust me, this happens A LOT. Every body who can go to New Hampshire to buy booze does. Lowering the tax would keep that spending money in-state because alcohol would be just as cheap and a drive to New Hampshire would be unnecessary. The fact that this question passed tells me that people are trying to stick together and make sure that our immediate space is well and prosperous. You’re buying local. Now, I don’t know if voting to cut that tax was civic duty or not, but it demonstrates at the very least that people are helping each other out.
    I cannot think of an argument to lower the state tax. It’s irresponsible. Those taxes fund schools, police, fire stations, snow removal, garbage, and prisons. Those are things that towns, cities, and states cannot do without. If civil duty is anything, it’s ensuring that those things which are necessary for the survival and prosperity of our homes remain in good working order and are making progress. When taxes are tied to those things which are necessary to keep our society whole, a sense of civility becomes inherent in the system we live in. Massachusetts voters knew what cutting that state tax would mean for the state as a whole. We shot it down by a substantial margin, 57% against, 43% for. Civic duty is responsibility in all its forms. It’s using the system we have to make better our society as a whole. Put better questions on your ballot and you’ll get better results. And that calls for personal accountability. Where civility lacks, one finds laziness.

  2. You can pay taxes, vote, and still be a bad citizen. And since what it means to be a good or bad citizen is tied to whether or not one performs one’s civic duty, it’s reasonable to say that there’s more to civic duty than voting and taxes. As Brian pointed out, people don’t necessarily have the time or desire to perform community service, but maybe in recognizing that one lacks the time or desire for community service one confronts a problem deeply rooted in our society: why don’t we have the time or desire to help other people?
    Also: is there a difference between being a good person and being a good citizen?
    (I am thinking of examples other than, “Not volunteering means you’re a bad citizen.”)

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