Good Cit­izen­ship Is Out Of Date

Link post

Norms of good cit­izen­ship have been de­clin­ing. These norms are a cru­cial piece of so­cial tech­no­logy vi­tal to the health of local com­munit­ies and in­sti­tu­tions. While good cit­izen­ship norms are cer­tainly still present in Amer­ica today, they are sub­stan­tially weaker than they were in the 1930s-1950s. This is not be­cause of con­tem­por­ary people’s per­sonal fail­ings; rather, it’s be­cause we’re still op­er­at­ing from a found­a­tion of norms that were built for the New Deal era, and so are not ad­ap­ted to today’s con­di­tions.

A so­ci­ety’s norms lead to bet­ter or worse out­comes de­pend­ing on how well they fit the cir­cum­stances. For ex­ample, in a small town, po­lite­ness norms of­ten in­volve greet­ing every­one you pass and some­times chat­ting a bit; this func­tions well be­cause there are few people and they mostly know and care about each other. In New York City, this would be ut­terly im­prac­tical, so in­stead po­lite­ness norms de­mand ig­nor­ing pass­ersby. Less ad­apt­ive norms will nat­ur­ally lose force as people no­tice that they don’t lead to good out­comes. Norms can be ad­ap­ted to phys­ical char­ac­ter­ist­ics (like pop­u­la­tion), to the land­scape of in­sti­tu­tions (con­trast Amer­ican vs Mex­ican norms of brib­ing po­lice of­ficers, which are ad­ap­ted to the local po­lice in­sti­tu­tions), or even to other norms (con­trast Amer­ican vs Japan­ese norms of pub­lic clean­li­ness, which are ad­ap­ted to local levels of con­scien­tious­ness and trust).

In the mid-1900s, the norms of good cit­izen­ship were richer and more power­ful than today. There was a shared idea that the good cit­izen was an act­ive and in­teg­ral part of his or her (norms differed some­what by gender, but there was more sim­il­ar­ity than dif­fer­ence) local com­munity, as cap­tured by arch-Amer­ic­an­ist Nor­man Rock­well in his iconic Free­dom of Speech. The good cit­izen was sup­posed to be in­volved with or­gan­iz­ing at least one local civic or­gan­iz­a­tion, per­haps a church, or a local re­lief so­ci­ety, or a fraternal club like the Shriners. My grand­father made a point of serving on the board of the St. Louis chapter of the ACLU and writ­ing in­cess­ant let­ters about local is­sues to the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch, while his wife was heav­ily in­volved with the St. Louis plan­et­arium and sci­ence cen­ter. For them, these things were part of a lar­ger pro­ject through which en­gaged cit­izens would do their part to bring about a bet­ter world.

(I don’t mean to im­ply that every­one was al­ways, or even usu­ally, fol­low­ing such norms. For most people, these things are as­pir­a­tional, like the con­tem­por­ary norm that one should read the art­icle be­fore shar­ing an in­flam­mat­ory link. However, even as­pir­a­tional norms can have a not­able ef­fect on most people—think of how the idea of homeown­er­ship af­fects even people who rent, or how the idea of launch­ing a star­tup af­fects pro­gram­mers who have never foun­ded a com­pany—and an in­flu­en­tial minor­ity will make a ser­i­ous pro­ject of liv­ing up to the ideal.)

Over time, so­ci­ety changed, and the norms be­came less ad­apt­ive and thus less power­ful. For ex­ample, 12 Angry Men, a clas­sic of 1950s Amer­ican civics, shows how a good juror was meant to be­have: a bul­wark of En­light­en­ment justice shield­ing the com­mon man from the pas­sions of the mob, in­de­pend­ent-minded, reas­on­able, and char­it­able. (I don’t think fic­tion de­term­ines these pat­terns, but I do think it re­flects them, and some­times crys­tal­lizes them into their most co­her­ent forms.) Since then, as jury tri­als have been drop­ping off in fa­vor of plea bar­gains, these norms have be­come less rel­ev­ant. This pat­tern has played out many times, in ways large and small: some part of so­ci­ety changes, so the norms re­lat­ing to that part be­come less func­tional or less im­port­ant, and so the norms at­rophy.

As a res­ult of this pro­cess, norms of good cit­izen­ship are not nearly as sat­is­fy­ing to as­pire to as they once were. Today’s cit­izen­ship norms tend to be neg­at­ive rather than pos­it­ive: don’t be ra­cist, don’t dam­age the en­vir­on­ment, don’t fall for fake news. The few pos­it­ive dir­ect­ives tend to ad­voc­ate vague and pass­ive things like “be­ing in­formed”, or at most par­ti­cip­a­tion in a large face­less mass, such as vot­ing or march­ing in protests. There is no con­cep­tion that a good cit­izen should build, in the way that a cit­izen of old would as­pire to sup­port the op­era house or be a voice at City Coun­cil de­bates or what have you. There are still people who build local in­sti­tu­tions, of course, but when I talk to them they mostly seem mo­tiv­ated by local pride, and not by the idea of par­ti­cip­at­ing in an over­arch­ing na­tional or civil­iz­a­tional pro­ject that mo­tiv­ated my grand­father’s gen­er­a­tion. Not co­in­cid­ent­ally, this call is now much more rarely felt by up­per-class or up­per-middle class people, who today of­ten see them­selves as too cos­mo­pol­itan to be in­volved with local in­sti­tu­tions.

In Mr. Smith Goes To Wash­ing­ton, note how es­tab­lish­ing that Mr. Smith is a pop­u­lar Boy Scout leader is in­stantly suf­fi­cient to tell the audi­ence that he’s an up­stand­ing, com­pet­ent pil­lar of the com­munity, more worthy of power than the cor­rupt in­siders who know how to work the sys­tem. His role as a local in­sti­tu­tion-builder makes him part of the liv­ing sinew of civic so­ci­ety, and it is mor­ally right (if not ne­ces­sar­ily prac­tical) that he should be­come a Sen­ator. Today’s cul­ture doesn’t have any roles with quite the same cachet.

A large reason for the de­cline in norms around build­ing local com­munit­ies is that there is a new source of com­pet­i­tion for or­gan­iz­a­tional tal­ent: build­ing on­line com­munit­ies. From per­sonal ex­per­i­ence, I know that lead­ing local and on­line com­munit­ies can be so­cially re­ward­ing in sim­ilar ways. So, they will draw from a strongly over­lap­ping tal­ent pool. While on­line com­munit­ies ful­fill some of the func­tions of local com­munit­ies, they don’t ful­fill nearly all of them. Build­ing on­line com­munit­ies is not a part of good cit­izen­ship ideals in the way that build­ing local com­munit­ies used to be (try to ima­gine a mod­ern re­make of Mr. Smith Goes To Wash­ing­ton where Mr. Smith is a be­loved forum mod­er­ator), largely be­cause we don’t know how to make a com­plete civil so­ci­ety out of on­line in­sti­tu­tions.

The de­cline of these norms is a loss, and our so­ci­ety is the poorer for it. However, they can­not be re­stored by simply re­peat­ing what our an­cest­ors did; the reason the old norms fell out of fa­vor in the first place is that they are no longer as fit for their pur­pose. If sim­ilar norms are to ex­ist in the fu­ture—and I be­lieve they can—then they must be built to func­tion in the so­cial and tech­no­lo­gical land­scape of today.