Citizenship: The Hardest Questions

Citizenship is part lottery ticket to the world, part historical symbol, part cultural artifact, and part political straightjacket. It defines where we can go, work and move, and how we’re seen in the world at large. At least initially, it is independent of what we know and how we contribute to society — and yet two people whose abilities and potential are essentially the same may nonetheless have diametrically different lives, opportunities and realities, for no other reason than the passport they carry.

My quest to better understand citizenship and explore whether and how it could be updated for the 21st century has taken me down more rabbit holes and into more difficult conversations than I can count. It is a classic case of a wicked issue: beyond complex, constantly evolving, and with as much diversity as people, places or opinions.

Along the way, I’ve taken note of those issues that are most intractable and confusing. Those topics that leave your head hurting and your heart raw. Those questions that are perhaps unanswerable.

I’ve narrowed this long list to my top five citizenship conundrums. It’s time not only to catalyze deeper conversations about them, but even more so, to start thinking creatively about solutions. This is largely uncharted territory, so let’s begin by using our compass and map.

Moral compass also required. (Photo courtesy Aaron Burden)

Today’s vocabulary is incomplete

The Merriam-Webster dictionary broadly defines “citizenship” as:

  1. membership in a community; or
  2. the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community,

Meanwhile, the Oxford dictionary narrowly defines citizenship as “the position or status of being a citizen of a particular country.” Yet none of these definitions captures what’s going on in the world today.

Ask ten people what citizenship means, and you will get ten different responses. As for me, I am a US citizen, yet feel more loyal to — the quality of my membership is higher in — Estonia, yet am most closely connected to Portland, Oregon. Why am I not a citizen of all three? The complexities of terminology grow as we consider multiple-passport holders, on the one hand, and ten million stateless people on the other. “Citizens of the world,” “citizens of nowhere,” and “global citizenship” get caught up in this confusion. Why don’t we have words for what is actually going on?

Because these issues are emerging. For some, citizenship is central to who they are: it’s closely linked to belonging, identity, culture and agency. It is where they live, work and feel at home. Nationalism and xenophobia result when this goes wrong, or is used to divide. For others, citizenship is little more than a transaction: a place to have a bank account, a passport to use for customs control. Or worse, it’s the place they must pay taxes. And yet for others, it may be where you wish you felt at home, but do not, or where you have agency to affect change. These are wildly different conceptions.

New forms of citizenship are transforming this landscape. Digital and virtual citizenship, Estonia’s e-Residency, and fast-track visa programs for certain individuals (especially tech talent) everywhere from France to New Zealand promise to expedite the exchange of talent and capital… and ultimately, loyalty. If another place can create such a high-quality experience as a member of its community — then at what point does that place become home?

Are we home yet? (Photo courtesy Joshua Rawson Harris)

Community is created, not consumed

Over the past century, we have done a shockingly good job of consumerizing almost every aspect of society, from retail to food, education, and politics. We’ve developed an odd ability to create falsely limiting choices: Cheerios or Cocoa Puffs? Ivy League or public university? Hillary or Bernie?

We’ve also tried to consumerize community, and even own it. But this is the antithesis of what community represents. Moreover, what good is ‘community’ if someone else makes all the rules?

In his new book Our Towns, James Fallows highlights this need to encourage community and civic creation, not just consumption. “Creating in this sense means taking responsibility for the invention and sustenance of the community in which you’d like to live. The idea of engagement, then, boils down to sharing responsibility for the world outside one’s individual household.” It also means cultivating a mindset that everybody — under one roof, in one city, in one country — is an asset who can positively contribute to society.

Clearly, we are missing this mark today. When we prioritize products over people — or treat people as products themselves — we’re left disconnected from any sense of community. Without community, there can be no citizenship. To fully embrace the new opportunities that this new era of citizenship represents, we will have to rethink our roles as mere ‘consumers’ and understand that we are — and are capable of — so much more.

Neither Cheerios nor Cocoa Puffs. Community, not consumption. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

There are no rights without responsibilities

This is probably the issue upon which passports will be mistakenly granted, more social unrest will foment, and true leaders will be tested.

For its entire history, citizenship has entailed a bundle of rights and responsibilities. In exchange for the right to live, work, vote, raise one’s children and benefit from a given location, citizens have the responsibility to (among others) obey laws, pay taxes, behave appropriately and contribute positively to society. Normally, being a responsible citizen also includes looking out for one another and helping when you can. In today’s digital and virtual era, however, a trend towards getting the rights while shirking responsibility — as well as an absence of responsibility outright — has taken over and is gaining speed daily.

Responsibilities can be legal, or codified, such as the responsibility to pay taxes or obey traffic laws. They can also be ethical, a sort of moral compass for humanity. While you may be required by law not to disturb your neighbors with noise, violence or a thousand other transgressions, it is usually only implied by norm or custom that you’ll help a fellow human being in need. Today, as we face a dearth of moral responsibility, it puts the very concept of citizenship — and by extension civilization itself — in peril.

What is the responsibility of an individual to his or her neighbors? How far does the concept of neighbor extend? Does it matter if that neighbor is in real need? (Won’t you be my neighbor?)

What responsibility does one nation-state owe to the citizens of another? Does it matter if those citizens are children who have lost everything?

What if a citizen of one nation-state feels a responsibility to others, or a call to serve others even halfway around the world, that’s greater than what his or her government believes?

What might a future look like in which citizens can unite based on degree of responsibility: a race to the top for those who see the world as one place, and a race to the bottom for those who only see “the other?”

Neighbors? (Photo courtesy Mitch Lensink)

Companies are citizens too

“Corporate citizenship” is a term that’s used often, typically in press releases about a philanthropic endeavor. But when things get real for for-profit companies in market economies, it’s quarterly earnings over quality of life, financial returns over social responsibility, cap tables over citizenship.

Many businesses understand globalization quite well, but they mistakenly believe that globalization means global citizenship. Globalization is about physical presence; it says nothing about values. Global citizenship is the opposite: it is all about values, and rights, and responsibilities. It entails a global mindset, but it doesn’t require a passport.

To be genuinely successful over time, businesses must be great corporate citizens. This does not mean having a corporate social responsibility (CSR) team and agenda; it means something profoundly deeper and etched within a company’s DNA. Simply said, it means placing social impact and the environment on a par with financial returns. Not marginalized, but central to its core mission. There are examples, from B Corps to the B Team, but they remain few and far between. These companies deeply understand that the right to conduct business exists only in concert with the responsibility to protect the planet, serve society — not with advertisements and apps, but with services that truly matter — and uplift the human spirit. It has never been more imperative to realign the arc of history, and commerce, towards responsibility.

Is this really the best humanity can do?! (Photo courtesy Dylan Nolte)

The world is going glocal, with citizenship stuck in the middle

From networks to neighborhoods, the world is simultaneously more global and more local: it’s “glocal.” It is ever-easier to connect with a global diaspora or community of kindred spirits, irrespective of physical location, while the power of local relationships has never been more clear. Yet this reality is increasingly at odds with the Westphalian order of nation-state sovereignty, which remains the arbiter of citizenship today. We’re in a messy middle phase, with allegiance to the old order waning and a collection of potential replacements taking shape. Nations of choice, city-based passports or crypto-countries, anyone?

History changes when legitimacy changes. When it comes to citizenship, we have yet to see this change, but the citizenship paradigm that has held up for much of the modern era is fraying. Today’s institutions, expectations and symbols of citizenship are behind where the world is, and where it’s heading. It’s time to usher in a new era, with a renewed sense of participation and responsibility.

Readying for change. (Photo courtesy Artem Bali)