[Note: This post is a “sticky” left at the top of the blog’s home page as an introduction to my writings on this site.]
The phrases “civic participation” and “civic engagement” are so often used interchangeably. To my mind there is a very important distinction, though, in the role taken on by individuals when they “participate” in civic structures and activities, versus when they “engage” with each other to innovate and accelerate change in ways not contemplated by, perhaps not even sanctioned by, existing mechanisms, laws or social mores.
“Participation” implies cooperation within already existing, “agreed-upon,” institutionalized structures. To the extent that a system (e.g., political, educational, economic) is “working,” to the extent that participation within the system as it exists has the potential to benefit the individual, the collective population and future generations, certainly such “participation” is desirable and important both as a right and as a civic responsibility. Further, to the extent that a system provides mechanisms allowing the public to effect (or at least to influence) improvements to the system itself, “participation” in the process of evolving regulations and social protocol is also a crucial role to be fulfilled by individuals. Exercising the power to vote is a prime example of “civic participation.”
However, this brand of “participation” that stays dutifully within the parameters of the existing social contract will by definition serve best those who hold power, wealth and status within the system, while suppressing opportunity for, and creative change that might be devised and enacted by, others in the society. No matter how well designed a social contract may be, no matter how ideal its language that may guarantee full voice and equal rights to all persons living under it — application of the contract, the meting out of the benefits it provides, the protection of rights it bestows upon individuals, and the enforcement of controls it sets out, are under the dominion of selected members of the society.
The natural desire of those who have obtained such power is to maintain their power and, thus, within any society there will be imbalances, unjust conditions and dangerously short-sighted practices. The severity of these problems will vary from nation to nation, from group to group, depending upon the degree to which the collective social conscience has evolved; but no matter how much “more perfect” is the encoded social agreement these problems will always exist. The power to control, and the power to create change, can be conferred equitably on all individuals and groups only “on paper,” and never in practice.
Power seeks homeostasis so as to preserve its rule. The conscious or unconscious instinct of the powerful to preserve their dominion (often pitched as providing “stability,” “order,” or “expertise”) results not only in the suppression and oppression of their contemporaries, but also impedes important changes that need urgently to be set into motion to protect the health of the planet, the conservation of its finite resources, and the well-being of future generations.
The inequities and destructive behaviors in the day-to-day functioning of a society often cannot be changed by “participating,” by playing according to the established rules of the game. If these problems are to be addressed by the human race, it is upon the individual, then, and upon groups of individuals working together, to create change in ways that may bend the rules, that make an “end-run” around the system, that may be loud and confrontational, or that may involve “working outside the system” to enact change via ad hoc local actions that “fly under the radar” of those who would control and suppress.
“Civic engagement,” then, is the act of working to better the life of the individual, the overall health of a community, and by extension the state of humanity as a whole, even if the work to be undertaken of necessity involves violating accepted norms. Even if the actions to be taken will involve personal risk or sacrifice. Even if the conscious choice is made to not participate via, but instead to boycott, officially endorsed channels. And, yes, “civic engagement” also includes, as a subset of ways in which change can be brought about, “participation” in the sanctioned exercise of political rights and the accepted modes of individual and collective behavior.
To reduce or eliminate oppression and exploitation of individuals and communities within a society — in fact, in the broad view, if humanity as a whole is to avert impending doom — individuals and communities will need to be awake to the power they do possess to change things not only by working within the given systems but also by working around and against those systems.
In fact, the most important and effective movements for social change in America, from the American Revolution itself to the civil rights and labor movements of the past 150 years, have begun with individuals and groups who were willing to challenge the rules and change the game, who took possession of the playing field, who were willing even to put their bodies on the line, to risk punishment and imprisonment by those who held disproportionate power and unfair privilege.
This sort of accelerated change need not happen, necessarily, via mass movements. Change can also be enacted by an individual whistleblower, by a single worker who speaks out about unfair or unsafe conditions and thus inspires others in the workplace to join together, by means of an individual or collaborative work of art that makes a challenging or defiant statement, by a community that takes possession of a neglected plot of land and improves it for the benefit of local residents. Massive protest and action, though sometimes the only way to achieve critically needed changes, will meet with massive resistance. Massive movements for change can only be set in motion and can only succeed when a certain massive pain-point is reached, and then only “when the time is right.”
But every single day, in every workplace and every community, there are opportunities for smaller, stealthier, locally effective changes to be made directly by the members of the community itself — whether in the form of “participation” such as a voter registration drive or attendance at a town hall meeting, or in innovative, original ways not already laid out by society at large. And those changes, when witnessed by the neighboring community, may be replicated in a self-propagating model. And when the larger society begins to notice what is happening, what has already happened, collective thinking will shift, the norms of acceptability and notions of fairness will evolve, the vision will expand of what is possible for everyday people to achieve, tolerance will grow, fear of change will fall away and the groundwork will be laid for broader social progress. This is what I mean by “Bubble-Up Change”.
[Author’s note: While this piece of writing represents my original thinking as evolved from my own experience, random exposure to the thinking and writing of others, and then as the result of my own train of thought, likely nothing here has not been said before by better thinkers, better educated in the field of social theory. My purpose in writing this essay is not to break new ground, necessarily, but only to establish my “starting point,” my personal philosophy about social contract and civic engagement that I bring to my studies. –i.n.kazar]