Citizenship requires participation
Morganne Howell | Monday, March 31, 2014
Aquinas wrote, “Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience.” He is talking to you, you as a citizen of your country. Citizenship is not a stagnant title to take for granted. Citizenship is an active bond. Aristotle called it your relationship to the state. Like a relationship with someone you care about, citizenship takes nurturing and engagement through communication. The state communicates with laws, and we communicate as active participants in our democracy, or at least that is what we should be doing.
Over the last few years, a number of uprisings have occurred in various countries against unjust regimes. The young, the old, the educated, the cynics, the passionate, the brave, and overall, the hopeful, have filled public places with non-violent protest. These revolutionaries have engaged their societies on a profound level. Just as we might have watched a master sportsman win or lose a game, we witnessed an expansion of human possibility through the organization of both successful and unsuccessful revolutions. These individuals took active roles as citizens, letting their ideas and hope lead them in action.
Fortunately, we do not need to overthrow our government to institute democracy. We did that a while ago. However, we must not forget that we are still citizens of that democracy, not merely inheritors of a successful revolution.
An active role does not necessarily require organizing a revolution. In fact, participation can require very little. For example, Machiavelli advocated taking a side. Educate yourself, form an opinion and engage the opposing opinion in dialogue.
Compromising that opinion is not a weakness; it is not a betrayal of your ideas or your principles. Rather, compromise is the foundation on which we grow, individually and as a country. Saul Alinksy said, “A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be ‘compromise.’” Mandela and the Dalai Lama are of the same mind.
Stagnant pools form where compromise is shunned. Steer clear of easy complacency because these pools of fraternity are more dangerous than they seem. Examine who is nudging you into solidarity and for what motives. Question others, but also question yourself. Who writes the articles on your favorite website? What voice grooms your everyday opinions? Who funds your news source of choice? Did you denounce Occupy Wall Street in 2011? Did you put Kony as your profile picture in 2012? Did the government shutdown come as a surprise in 2013? Debate your own tendencies with freshly-educated opinions.
On a recent trip to China, first lady Michelle Obama reminded us about the inherent value of hearing all sides of an argument. The best opinions are formed by an open-mind that seeks to hear all sides of an argument before coming to a conclusion. It is for this reason that Obama advocated studying abroad in a speech about developing citizens and diplomats to move the world forward together. Most of her speech was censored, only reaffirming her words.
If you can, study abroad to engage and explore your call to citizenship. The “battle of ideas” can be messy, but it is crucial to strengthening international student engagement. Battle with your ideas over a pint in Dublin or on the beach in Brazil, whatever it takes: Just go.
Go to lectures that interest you. Fall in love and live in a world of collective compassion for a while. Watch a documentary on Netflix while you workout. Ask your professors to talk about current events during office hours. Whatever it takes, start thinking, start questioning and start participating. As Thomas Paine says in “Common Sense,” “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” To be revolutionary in our American society may be as simple as being open-minded, as simple as being informed.
Morganne Howell is a sophomore studying in the Program of Liberal Studies and Italian, with a minor Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.