Options for the civically minded


in Canada, Geek stuff, Law, Politics

For people who feel a sense of civic duty – a determination to do what they can to improve the laws and policies of their society – it seems to me that there are multiple valid avenues through which to apply your efforts.

The most overt may be entering politics, but it is an option that carries many costs. You might have to spend a lot of time at small-town barbecues wearing a silly apron, to try to convince voters that you’re an ordinary guy like them and not some fancy-school elitist. You might also have to lie about or conceal beliefs that go beyond what the mainstream is willing to accept (better not be an atheist, for instance). Still, if you do take the political route and find yourself in a position of influence, at least you have a pretty defensible mandate to try to implement the ideas you campaigned on.

The civil service is another option. The influence and the constraints of the civil service are both tied to the same role: providing advice. Being someone who provides advice gives you the freedom to use your judgment and the best available evidence to suggest a course of action. The trouble is, you can always be over-ruled by your superiors or by the people who ultimately make the decisions. Civil servants therefore have a moderate level of freedom for expressing their honestly-held and well-justified views, but little certainty that their advice will ever make a difference.

Journalists and academics have the most freedom to speak and defend their arguments in public, but they have even less certainty that their efforts will ever produce concrete changes. Judges, by contrast, know their judgments will have concrete effects, but they don’t know whether that influence will be confined entirely to the case at hand, or whether it will become a more influential precedent.

Setting aside the advantages and disadvantages of different roles, I think it is important to acknowledge that people in all of these roles can be doing their civic duty, in the sense of trying to serve the best interests of their country and the world more broadly. It is possible to serve those interests through obedience – for instance, those who put themselves in physical danger for the good of others – but it is also possible to serve them through honest and open criticism. All governments have made serious mistakes in the past and face major challenges today. If we are to navigate successfully to a safe and comfortable future, there needs to be energetic and open debate based on the best evidence available.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh April 27, 2011 at 7:40 am

Serving as a volunteer is a very important avenue for the civically minded. Many of our civic organizations rely on volunteers.

Tristan April 27, 2011 at 11:29 am

I agree with all the above suggestions, but I would like to add labour organizer as an important civic role people can play. The revolutions in Egypt, for instance, would not have been possible without that country’s organized labour force – and this organization takes a lot of work. This can probably be contained under the heading of “entering politics” because you will spend a lot of time “wearing a silly apron” at a barbecue, or at least talking to people with a desire to convince them of something. Although you’ll have the advantage of actually being an ordinary person (wait, isn’t everyone an ordinary person?).

Milan April 27, 2011 at 11:56 am

The OED defines ‘ordinary’ as: “Chiefly of a person: not distinguished by rank or position; of low social position; relating to, or characteristic of, the common people; common, vulgar; unrefined, low, coarse.”
Also: “Of the usual kind; such as is usually experienced; not singular or exceptional.”
There are definitely people who do not fall into that category: those with unusual skills or charisma, for instance, or those who have a position in society that causes others to take their opinions especially seriously.
Politicians may not qualify as extraordinary, but it seems they often make a special effort to seem as ordinary as possible, since that contributes to electoral success.

I certainly do not object to people having humilty. I do object when people falsely misrepresent themselves, as a way of boosting their popularity.

alena April 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Volunteers have an influence by modeling behavior and values that are important to them. They have a lot of influence at the grassroots level and they can also express their views relatively openly. When I became a new Canadian citizen not so long ago, I was repeatedly told that it is my most important duty as a member of Canada. I take this responsibility seriously and enjoy it a lot. Although this type of involvement can have a lot of influence, it does not carry “power”.

Tristan April 27, 2011 at 5:44 pm

It’s not exactly correct to say the OED “defines” anything; what they do is give definitions which attempt to be descriptive of the way terms are actually used. Defining, as in “define your terms, please”, has the connotation of authorship – when you define something, you get to decide what it means.

Personally, I find this way of understanding the notion of “ordinary” very elitist. By that I mean that if you take the category of “ordinary citizens” to be something that describes something real, if you think it’s a meaningful statement, and you think the OED’s description of its meaning is apt, then you’ve already decided that the greater number of persons are “of low social position” and by extension, “vulgar; unrefined, low, coarse…” In any society where privileges fall according to a parato rather than normal distribution it is true that most people will be of low social position (although, this is somewhat debatable – low in comparison to what?). However, it is another jump to say that because someone is of low social position that they are “vulgar”.

“Ordinary” need not be an insult. And moreover, the utilitarian would concern themselves with the well-being of “ordinary people” first, and this could start by not having a definition of them which might rightly cause such an offense.

Milan April 27, 2011 at 6:25 pm

If you define ‘ordinary people’ to mean ‘all people’ then the word ‘ordinary’ loses any meaning.

Ordinary people are those who are near the centre of the distribution, when it comes to whatever properties are of concern. They are people of about average height, wealth, education, age, etc.

Politicians are often not ordinary in this sense, but often pretend to be because they think (possibly correctly) that it gets them votes.

Alison April 27, 2011 at 7:56 pm

I would add I think it’s possible to be civically engaged and not be in any of those professions.

Milan April 27, 2011 at 8:07 pm

True. A better title might have been ‘Work options for the civically minded’.

Tristan April 28, 2011 at 12:10 pm

“If you define ‘ordinary people’ to mean ‘all people’ then the word ‘ordinary’ loses any meaning.”

If you define the mass of the population as ordinary, and then put your energies only into the bit left over, you’re an elitist. In fact, it’s about the definition of elitism.

If you are actually concerned with the civic, then the primary concern is with organizing, comprehending the interests of, and acting for the well being of “ordinary people”. It would therefore to in many respects “be” an “ordinary person”. It’s not at all clear to me that a person who is un-ordinary is more likely to be a good civic actor than someone who is ordinary. Lots of ways I can think of being distinctive assure alienation from most of the population, which is the last thing you want from civic actors.

Milan April 28, 2011 at 12:51 pm

You are over-interpreting my comments. I wasn’t talking about whether it is good to be ordinary, or who politicians should be paying attention to.

I was saying that, in politics, it often pays to lie (and politicians know it) and that this is an unappealing feature of the system.

. May 3, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

Rarely denounced by the mainstream, this stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by Christian conservatives who stridently — and uncivilly — declare that the lack of godly faith is detrimental to society, rendering nonbelievers intrinsically suspect and second-class citizens.

. May 9, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Michael Igatieff, at the time, straddled both worlds. He was a rare academic who wrote lucid and important journalism. On a whim, I sent him an email at Harvard, where he was running the Kennedy School. His reply was long and thoughtful. Go to Oxford, he said. You’ll never be intellectually intimidated again. As for journalism, and especially freelance journalism, it’s a tough way to make a living, but you’ll be a free man. And that’s worth something.


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