[First published on skepolitical.com on 9/12/12]
Allow me to indulge in some public self-exploration. I promise to conclude with a worthy resolution. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to react to the injustices I see in the world around me. Of particular interest are those injustices that I am ostensibly responsible for: those committed by my own government. The current reality seems to be that Americans are so far removed from the levers of power that they have, perhaps rationally, given up not only the hope of affecting their government’s actions, but also any sense of responsibility for them. Any lingering sense of civic duty in a typical American’s heart is assuaged by voting once every four years and voicing their indignant anger at those in opposition to their favored party. Over one-third of Americans didn’t even bother going that far in 2008 (37% didn’t vote).
The problem with this is that we, collectively, are ultimately responsible for our government’s actions. That is the nature of our democratic republic. The question I have been mulling over is this: how should I, as an individual, proceed when I believe I am responsible for horrific actions but feel powerless to intervene? Is it even possible to be responsible for something if I’m powerless?
I think the first part of the answer is to acknowledge a problem with my premise: I am not powerless. I certainly have at least a small measure of power granted to me in the form of my vote, but, more importantly, I can take action to gain more influence. My first step on this path was to start contributing to this blog, which so far has had 50-300 views per post. Not much, but something. I’ve used this space to highlight some of the injustices that I think necessitate civic action; to explore my own thinking about politics and how to make a difference; to share information about skepticism and critical thinking; and to promote my idea that getting skeptical critical thinking taught in our schools is an achievable goal that would pay dividends in many ways, particularly in improving our government. This has started a handful of productive discussions and even landed an interview with a major media outlet. (Nothing has come of it.) However, like voting, it’s simply not enough. The magnitude and importance of the problem of America’s corruption and injustices are too great to be solved by such meager efforts. Voting and blogging doesn’t do much more than artificially assuage the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflict between my self-image as a good person who doesn’t remain “a spectator to unfairness” and the reality that I’ve been neglecting my civic responsibility.
My next step is something I’ve been avoiding because it is so far out of my comfort zone. I’m going to try to get involved with a college campus group promoting civic agency. I recently started a PhD program in statistics at UMBC (home of a student government renowned for its efficacy). I contacted the teachers for a course called “Civic Agency and Social Entrepreneurship” in the political science department. This sounded like the sort of training I needed to get my voice heard and ideas rolling. I was able to talk with David Hoffman, who encouraged me to get involved with a new project called BreakingGround, which is focused on encouraging civic engagement. I tend to be skeptical of this sort of earnest community/campus activism group, largely because in my experience they seem to make very little difference. Also, most of my ethical concerns deal with the actions of the Federal government, not UMBC’s. However, I’m excited about this opportunity for two reasons. First, from what I know about UMBC’s culture and from my conversation with David Hoffman, it seems like they are more committed and more effectual than similar groups in other places. Second, from a personal standpoint, I feel it’s past time for me to embrace opportunities like this to increase my civic agency rather than resign myself to powerlessness.
This is pretty far out of my comfort zone, but I intend to confront my misgivings about my civic responsibilities this week and start contacting some of the BreakingGround members. I’ll ask what sorts of projects they are working on, and hopefully I’ll gain some experience with flexing some of my civic agency muscle. Perhaps I will then use that muscle to help advance education in skeptical critical thinking.