Civic duty and its importance
Thursday, April 20, 2006
The concept of trust is what ultimately makes or breaks a society. As a citizen you have to feel confident that your neighbour will not steal from you or injure you. There has to be a certain level of solidarity where the individual can feel that he or she is part of something greater, that they are not alone and that their fellow citizens care about them. If someone is constantly looking over their shoulder and feels they need to be on guard against everyone around them then they simply cannot play a constructive role in society. They are too busy trying to protect themselves against real or imagined threats to themselves or to their families. This prevents a strong civic identity and creates a situation where every individual, every family, every ethnic group, religious group, or whatever views itself as against all other individuals, groups, and society as a whole. Such an environment serves the interest of no one except those who wish to impose tyranny over those weaker than themselves. It is not an acceptable condition and yet it has arisen in many areas of the world and threatens to arise in many others.
The concept of community and the key role of the individual within society is the cornerstone of Western Civilization, forming the basis for the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic. It was firmly established in these cultures that a functioning society depended on the participation of an active citizenry. The ideal citizen was held to contribute to the social, economic, cultural, and political wellbeing of the society as a whole. The citizens of Athens, Sparta, Rome, and other examples of the polis, therefore possessed a strong civic identity and attachment to their respective communities: communities they often had to defend.
Fundamentally we still follow the same tradition. We still live in Western Civilization and inherit the same tradition. What has changed is the global environment in which we now live.
The dramatic increase in wealth and luxury following the Second World War meant that individuals and their families no longer had to rely nearly as much on communal support as they once did. Suburban living and the widespread availability of automobiles meant that people left their communities to work elsewhere and lost their economic ties to their community. Community is something many people pay lip-service to but it is a matter of great difficulty to actually describe suburbia as being a community when many people do not even know their neighbours.
People also became used to the notion of perpetual peace and the majority no longer felt a need to mobilize in defense of their nation against external threats as the Greek City States and even early modern nations had to do constantly. Indeed from the 1960s onwards the concept of service to one’s society has been diluted by counter-cultural arguments that condemn organized society as inherently oppressive and even murderous. The result was entire generations of people who largely rejected public service in favor of the private sector, self-interest, or simple rebellion against the establishment. These factors and others have created the current reality where human beings, for the first time in history, are quite literally atoms. They exist in their own little bubbles and often feel little or no obligation to society or community. Indeed if one actually reads John Locke or some of the other liberal philosophers of the 18th Century, you could say that their philosophical concept of the “atomistic” society, where society is but a mass of self-interested individuals, has come true. The idea that society is greater than the sum of its parts has taken a considerable beating over the course of the 20th Century.
For someone who believes in duty to one’s community the present situation can certainly be depressing. It isn’t easy to live in a society where trust is so fleeting and where we are often so wary of our fellow citizens. It isn’t easy to see all these cuts to social spending and assistance to the poor because the more wealthy elements of our society feel no solidarity with and cannot identify with such people. It isn’t easy to see government and business act so irresponsibly and undermine the public good out of short-term expediency.
I could go keep on listing things that I disagree with until I go crazy but I will stop now. In spite of all this I have not and never will give up faith in the virtues of public service and public trust and solidarity in society. When we work together to improve our society and participate as fellow citizens in its workings, we make things better for us all. When government defends the wellbeing of its citizens through effective social programs everyone benefits. When people see each other as part of the same society and common identity they will lose much of their suspicion for others and be more willing to help one another. When the individual seeks to fulfill their potential within society and applies their skills to performing a particular societal role, regardless of how small, it contributes to society and benefits us all.
What is fundamental to what I am arguing is that we are not rivals. There is no reason why we all should not share the same inclusive community spirit. We are all individuals living in a society and it is in everyone’s interest that society be unified, strong, and just and to achieve that everyone must play their part in society. Everyone has skills, everyone has something to contribute, and there is no excuse for those who choose not to contribute to their society. This is a shared existence and we are social beings. We need one another.
If there is one tradition that we should remember and apply from antiquity, it is this tradition of the public good and service to the public good. I have absolute faith that the value of this tradition will win through and society will see the sheer merit it possesses. The human desire for togetherness and belonging will always win out over loneliness, alienation, and selfishness.