Civic Responsibility Rebooted: Why I think we are a community and we ought to start acting like it.
This post is my contribution to the Forward Thinking project, an amazing online community project started by Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism and Daniel Finke of Camels With Hammers. For more information or how you can contribute click on the links above.
When we hear the term “Civic Responsibility”, several things come immediately to mind. Perhaps most of us will say that voting is a civic responsibility; maybe some of us would say that engagement in local and regional issues is a civic responsibility.
Though I think those are both good examples of ways in which we can show civic responsibility, I think that they merely brush the surface of what civic responsibility means.
In the last couple decades- maybe even in the last few years- technology has made new communities. Though the definition of “civic” seems rooted in our towns and cities, I feel it needs to be expanded to include these new communities- communities that were not even possible 40 years ago, communities that were the realm of specialized hobbyists a mere 20 years ago, communities that today are an almost assumed and necessary part of life for the “connected generation”. We are living in a world of virtual civics- where our identity, community, and real life successes are increasingly shaped by our connections to people who live hundreds or thousands of kilometres from our doorstep. If the reason we call local engagement “civic” is because these are the people we are most likely to interact or have the greatest sense of closeness and community, then I would argue that “civic” is a word that must be increasingly inclusive of those communities where we have “virtual citizenship“. It used to be the case that community was beholden to the practical limitations of geography; yet yesterday, for example, I had as much (and much more robust) interaction with friends in Florida as I had with the people who live on my street.
It seems to me that if the word “civic” can’t transcend your mailing address- the word is of little use to us at all.
What, then, does it mean to be responsible to your community? When we are talking about traditional civic responsibility the answer seems much more obvious- you are tied to others in your community by the shared experiences of geography and locality. Roughly speaking- you experience the same events, you interact with the same people, you use the same basic services. You want to give back to your community because the state of your community directly affects your own success and your own enjoyment; your community is responsible for your success and fulfilment and an investment is both paid back and in some sense owed. I would argue that these same transactions occur in virtual communities- and that in some sense we ought to be more cognizant of our responsibilities to these new communities because we are the pioneers and founding fathers of a community in its infancy. Just as those who took the initiative to plot the street and sewer layouts, build town squares and community services charted the course that made the future easy or difficult for future citizens- so too are we now making the choices that will make access to enjoyment of our virtual communities easy or difficult for ourselves and others.
In this sense it is not enough for us to be merely engaged in our communities, but we must be looking at the ways in which our own investments are going to make things better or worse for the enjoyment of everyone. Just like the man who runs for town council because he wants to avoid higher taxes or reduced services if the town deficit is not addressed- as a community I think we owe it to each other to invest in good habits today to avoid bigger hurdles in the future.
I feel a great amount of affinity for my online community. Some of my online relationships rival those I have cultivated for years in person. There are people I talk to almost daily, some that I interact with several times a week, others who I speak to from time to time when something of mutual interest comes up. There are those who I know through friends and those who I choose to avoid. There are issues in my community for which I am passionate and issues that are of only passing interest.
In every sense of the word I am part of a community, and that community impacts me for better or worse.
My responsibility to that community is both an investment in my future enjoyment and a way to give back to a community that gives me much. I think I owe more to this community than simply being engaged. I owe it to them to make my contribution as meaningful and beneficial as I am capable; I ought to offer my expertise and resources in ways that forward the best possible goals for the larger group.
Responsibility to your community is not just grand gestures; it is true that for many of us grand gestures and huge commitments are impractical or impossible. Not every person in a town will run for office, or give large donations to local charities; those are noble contributions, but they are practically impossible for many of us. There are those of us in the online community whose voices are bigger- who have the platform or the means to make the grand gestures. Some people in the town donate blood or volunteer a few hours a week to charities; some of us online give to a struggling blogger or join together for small scale projects. Some in the town vote or picket or speak up when they witness injustice; some of us online post or petition or comment. Whatever we can give, however big or small our contribution, we must remember that our actions (and inaction) are contributing to a community.
Each of us is making the community that we live in by our choices, big and small. We are building and contributing to the community- a community that is going to give back to us and be part of our future fulfillment. I think that we have a responsibility to that community both as an investment in our future and to pay forward the good that it does for us.
Our communities are there for us, and we ought to be there for them.