On Civic Responsibility

Despite the frustrated sigh of my last post and my desire to check out from the disgusting political scene on display in America, I am not apathetic about civic engagement.

It seems like we are living through a transformative time in history. Digital technology is changing everything about our lives– how we relate to each other, how we do business, how we consume and disseminate information, even how we educate. Simultaneously, a globalized world is emerging, creating opportunities for expanded awareness, but also causing widespread nationalist resistance. It seems we are fighting over how this new era will play out.

No one is a bystander in this cultural and political struggle. Our very lifestyle is a statement. What media we consume. How we spend our money. Whether we vote. Whether we defend our values, or stay silent while others scream.

There are warning signs that threaten the stability of the country. Read any political news and you won’t read very long before seeing the word “unprecedented” thrown around about this election season. Compromise is the essence of democracy, and it’s hard to forsee an environment in which any compromises will be made. The fundamentals of our democracy– balance and separation of powers, peaceful election transitions– are in jeopardy. The Supreme Court is a political weapon, not an arbitrating body. The alt-right is spewing radical, dangerous rhetoric which is not likely to fade under a Clinton administration.

My fear is that the ugliness causes ordinary human beings to disengage, while the radicals on each side tear the country apart.

I’m not sure exactly how to engage constructively in such a divisive and emotional time. But here are a few thoughts.

Avoid trolling

Much of our public discourse happens on social media, and much of it is not pretty. Trolls are intentionally provocative. Spewing rants and memes, mocking the other side, bandwagon outrage– this does not help us increase our awareness of the complex issues facing society.

I am inclined to ignore trolls on the internet. Maybe if they were ignored, their intensity would diminish. A good rule of thumb would be: If this person is not trying to engage in meaningful dialogue, no need to respond or take it seriously.

On the other hand, it’s tough to ignore things you feel strongly about. Baseless claims, racism, hypocrisy– they demand a response. Some even call for platforms like Twitter to  monitor and shut down anonymous and hateful posts.

Stifling free speech is a tough sell. And some people enjoy entering the fray and throwing punches.

The only corrective I can offer is teaching and modeling responsible internet behavior.

Read newspapers

I can be as guilty as anyone on this front, but a major problem seems to be the abundance of superficial, emotionally charged, or blindly partisan opinions. Fueled by cable news and social media.

We could wisely guard against these shortcuts by taking some time to intentionally find good information. The internet is throwing uncertainty into the business of journalism, but at the moment, traditional newspapers and magazines still provide the bulk of news gathering, reporting, and analysis.

Skimming a feed doesn’t do the same as picking up a print newspaper or subscribing to a digital version of the newspaper. Even a weekend read would do much to increase awareness of the world around us. Local newspapers also help people discover how to participate in the democratic process.

Vote

Much of the how the next few years play out will depend on how people vote. Not only in the presidential race, but for the House and Senate, and in state and local races. And voting happens more than every four years.

I understand cynicism when it comes to voting, especially during this election. Terrible options. Uninspiring human characters. Sick of politics. Busy lives. What will one vote matter. But voting does matter, your vote does count, and the outcomes of elections do impact our lives.

Voting is not the only way to engage in civic life. You can donate money to causes. Write your representative. Join a community organization. Volunteer your time. Whatever.

We live in a precarious time. Please engage responsibly.

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