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What Does It Mean to Be a Good Citizen?

When I asked my young American interviewees “what does it mean to you to be a good citizen?” most of them did not mention politics or even civics much, if at all. To illustrate, here are four examples of the modal response they offered (italics indicate their emphasis):

Bernard (28 year old software developer): I guess like they teach you in Boy Scouts, you’re always supposed to leave the place cleaner than… when you arrived, and that kind of thing. And I guess you can apply that to most things….You should try to contribute in some way in all or most of the things you do. Or at least try not to be a burden on other people. You shouldn’t go throwing trash out your window, you should be a nice person, you should be polite…you should go out of your way to help people.

Valerie (27 year old genetic counselor): Being a contributing member of society. And I mean that not in a hierarchical way or a snobby way, but just that everyone should do their part in one way or another, you know, like in just making society and your environment and your community and all that stuff better. Helping each other. If you see someone who needs help, do something for them. It can be as simple as if there’s rubbish on the floor, pick it up. Just making life more beautiful and more peaceful and more enjoyable for everyone as much as you can. My biggest problem I have with people are when they just take, and they just take and take and take, and then they don’t give back in any way. Those are the ones who I think really damage, and are not good citizens. It’s okay to take, but you have to give too.

Mark (28 year old software demonstration specialist): Responsibility. I mean that’s probably the first piece, to be responsible, to be civil it’s sort of like the social contract. I think Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote about that, the idea that by opting to partake in society, you’re also opting to treat people reasonably, and to, you know, to not massacre, kill, murder, rape, whatever, but to conduct yourself in a civil manner, to observe certain rules. So I think that a lot of that has to do with being a citizen. And again, responsibility comes in many forms, whether that may be conservation or whether that’s, you know, to fight for your country or whether that’s to make good choices that don’t hurt other people around you. I think that, again, as we get larger, you know, as far as the number of people I think it’s important to keep in mind that when you’re in an elevator by yourself, do whatever you want, okay – you can make faces in the mirror, act funny, you know. But when there are twenty other people in that elevator, you’re constricted in a certain way, you know, there are certain things that you just don’t do. You’re not going to practice your yoga stretches or whatever. You’re gonna be a little more conscientious. And you should be. Because you don’t want to hurt somebody or whatever. You’re not going to throw punches. You want to be nice.

Philip (27 year old real estate broker): Doing your part…If you have a piece of trash, don’t throw it on the street if there’s a trash barrel right there. If there’s a woman with a baby and she’s having trouble opening a door, open that door for her. Somebody falls down, help them up. If you see a crime, I’m not saying try to stop it, but try to maybe get other people, if the law’s around, to stop it. The greater good of society, like, trying to help. Doing things that are right and just.

One way to approach these four answers is to examine the general principle(s) they advance, as well as the examples of good citizenship they raise. To the examples first, all of them refer not to voting, discussing or being informed about politics, contacting representatives, petitioning to pass or overturn a law, participating in a sit-in, boycott or demonstration, volunteering on an election campaign, pursuing a public issue in court, or the many other possible forms of political engagement. Rather, the examples offered refer to proper conduct in interaction with others, including strangers: do not “massacre, kill, murder or rape”; help those in distress, such as victims of a crime, or a fall; do not throw trash on the street, and if you see trash on the street, pick it up; do not do yoga stretches or throw punches while in an elevator with others; and open doors for those who may need help opening doors.

As the above responses suggest, such proper conduct or civility is rooted in the general principle that the good citizen is thoughtful of, and helpful to others. But the examples these four modal responses provide suggest at least three significant circumscriptions to this principle. First, citizenship, as civility, is enacted individually rather than collectively. One does not, and should not, need others to be civil toward others. Indeed, civility is more commonly understood not as a collective or situationally contingent norm, but rather as an internalized ethic, a personally cultivated disposition to consideration for others that a properly socialized citizen should implement in any situation, regardless of what others do. Second, citizenship as civility is constituted in acts of consideration and helpfulness toward one’s immediate environment, and the people in it, whether on the street, at work, home, or elsewhere. Civil citizens are foremost nice, not assertive or passionate. Third, these acts need not take much effort; one does not have to change one’s routines in order to be a good citizen. For example, on the way to work, I can throw my morning coffee in the trash rather than on the ground. I can refrain from killing anyone on my way. I can open doors for others at the subway and at my workplace. I can stand still while in the elevator with others. These civil acts do not just help make me a good citizen; they make me a good citizen. That is, civility is not a necessary supplement or corollary to anything else, such as political or civic engagement. Civility suffices as good citizenship.

Not only does good citizenship not require political engagement in the minds of many of my interviewees, but it can be exercised in an almost infinite variety of ways, from the most modest to the most extensive. Some will do more, some will do less depending on time constraints and inspiration, and that is acceptable. As Elizabeth, a 27 year old clinical psychologist, explained in her own response to the good citizen question,

I think, obviously, not doing wrong constitutes a good citizen. So not stealing, not killing .…I think it’s perfectly acceptable to sort of be kind of a fly on the wall in society and be considered a good citizen. I don’t think you need to necessarily do any one specific thing that is going to make your mark. I think there are certain people who have a little bit more intrinsic motivation to go out there and do specific things that kind of leave a mark on the world and that’s great. But I don’t think everybody has to do that.

In this “fly on the wall” conception, people can fulfill their citizenship by responsibly performing their everyday private roles as workers, friends, and family members. Thus, as Elizabeth told me, “I personally think my number one responsibility as a good citizen is to raise children who behave themselves in the world, who don’t go out and make trouble, basically.”

There was one notable exception to this modal concept of civil citizenship. When asked what constitutes a good citizen, Edward, a gay 25-year old computer researcher, remarked:

Up to high school I never really thought about politics at all. I used to actually kind of have a disinclination to read about politics or to listen to it or hear about it. I’ve always been very liberal. I mean, I think being gay, it’s kind of a default. But I think I’ve gotten a lot more interested in politics. But in a lot of ways I feel very cynical about it also, you know. So like in high school, I remember, there was this kid who was passing out these things that said “Free Mumia”, and he was telling people about it. And actually I was interested in my school’s chapter of Amnesty International and I was involved in the environmental club and so, I think to a certain extent, I’d like to believe that we can accomplish something to change the world. But, at the same time, you know…I feel like these [Amnesty International] letter writing campaigns don’t change that much really. I think that the only place that really makes more of a concrete difference is elections.

Here, Edward offers us a brief narrative of his development as a political citizen which ends with what is, these days, a culturally unusual conclusion, especially for young Americans. The Amnesty International, environmental and “Free Mumia [Abu-Jamal]” activities Edward and other American high school and college students are exposed to and/or participate in now leave him feeling like they may not be so effective at bringing about change. Instead, Edward concludes that “the only place” where citizens can make “more of a concrete difference” is in elections.

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