It’s time to take citizenship seriously again
The conditions of virtuous and good citizenship are growing more elusive. However Tim Soutphommasane says our present moment is the perfect time to reset.
Citizenship isn’t often the stuff of inspiration. We tend to talk about it only when we are thinking of passports, as when migrants take out citizenship and gain new entitlements to travel.
When we do talk about the substance of citizenship, it often veers into legal technicalities or tedium. Think of the debates about section 44 of the Constitution or boring classes about the history of Federation at school. Hardly the stuff that gets the blood pumping.
Yet not everything that’s important is going to be exciting. The idea of citizenship is a critical foundation of a democratic society. To be a citizen is not merely to belong to such a society, and to enjoy certain rights and privileges; it goes beyond the right to have a passport and to cast a vote at an election.
To be a citizen includes certain responsibilities to that society — not least to fellow citizens, and to the common life that we live.
Citizenship, in this sense, involves not just a status. It also involves a practice.
And as with all practices, it can be judged according to a notion of excellence. There is a way to be a citizen or, to be precise, to be a good citizen. Of course, what good or virtuous citizenship must mean naturally invites debate or disagreement. But in my view, it must involve a number of things.
There’s first a certain requirement of political intelligence. A good citizen must possess a certain literacy about their political society, and be prepared to participate in politics and government. This needn’t mean that you can only be a good citizen if you’ve run for an elected office.
But a good citizen isn’t apathetic, or content to be a bystander on public issues. They’re able to take part in debate, and to do so guided by knowledge, reason and fairness. A good citizen is prepared to listen to, and weigh up the evidence. They are able to listen to views they disagree with, even seeing the merit in other views.
This brings me to the second quality of good citizenship: courage. Citizenship isn’t a cerebral exercise. A good citizen isn’t a bookworm or someone given to consider matters only in the abstract. Rather, a good citizen is prepared to act.
They are willing to speak out on issues, to express their views, and to be part of disagreements. They are willing to speak truth to power and willing to break with received wisdom.
And finally, good citizenship requires commitment. When a good citizen acts, they do so not primarily in order to advance their own interest; they do what they consider is best for the common good.
They are prepared to make some personal sacrifice and to make compromises, if that is what the common good requires. The good citizen is motivated by something like patriotism — a love of country, a loyalty to the community, a desire to make their society a better place.
How attainable is such an ideal of citizenship? Is this picture of citizenship an unrealistic conception?
You’d hope not. But civic virtue of the sort I’ve described has perhaps become more difficult to realise. The conditions of good citizenship are growing more elusive. The rise of disinformation, particularly through social media, has undermined a public debate regulated by reason and conducted with fidelity to the truth.
Tribalism and polarisation have made it more difficult to have civil disagreements, or the courage to cross political divides. With the rise of nationalist populism and white supremacy, patriotism has taken an illiberal overtone that leaves little room for diversity.
And while good citizenship requires practice, it can all too often collapse into curated performance and disguised narcissism: in our digital age, some of us want to give the impression of virtue, rather than exhibit it more truly.
Moreover, good citizenship and good institutions go hand in hand.
Virtue doesn’t emerge from nowhere. It needs to be seen, and it needs to be modelled.
But where are our well-led institutions right now? In just about every arena of society — politics, government, business, the military — institutional culture has become defined by ethical breaches, misconduct and indifference to standards.
And where can we in fact see examples of the common good guiding behaviour and conduct? In a society where public goods have been increasingly privatised, we have perhaps forgotten the meaning of public things. Our language has become economistic, with a need to justify the economic value of all things, as though the dollar were the ultimate measure of worth.
When we do think about the public, we think of what we can extract from it rather than what we can contribute to it.
We’ve stopped being citizens, and have started becoming taxpayers seeking a return. It’s as though we’re in perpetual search of a dividend, as though our tax were a private investment. As one jurist once put it, tax is better understood as the price we pay for civilisation.
But our present moment is a time for us to reset. The public response to COVID-19 has been remarkable precisely because it is one of the few times where we see people doing things that are for the common good. And good citizens, everywhere, are rightly asking what post-pandemic society should look like.
The answers aren’t yet clear, and we all should consider how we shape those answers. It may just be the right time for us to take citizenship seriously again.
Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Sydney, where he is also Director, Culture Strategy. From 2013 to 2018 he was Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. He is the author of five books, including The Virtuous Citizen (2012) and most recently, On Hate (2019).