The False Utility of Civic Engagement

Civic engagement is often seen as a utility.

There are problems in society, so we need to galvanize “The People” to do something about it. “The People” have power, after all. If only they can be motivated to claim it.

But who are these shadowy Masses who could control our country’s destiny?

Well, they are us.

Walter Lippman was always skeptical of “The Public,” describing them as a “bewildered herd” liable to “arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece.”

In my opinion, Lippman didn’t say this because he was an elitist technocrat, but because he recognized the danger in formulating a “phantom public” which disempowered a key population –

That would be you and me.

There is no real “public,” just lots of individual people with individual lives, beliefs, opinions, concerns, and priorities.

So I get a little skeptical when people refer to “the public” as a tool. Want to change a law? Get a certain number of signatures or a certain number of votes. Want to challenge the status quo? Get a large turnout for a protest or rally. Perhaps a certain number of views on a video where you’ll never believe what happened next.

And perhaps this makes sense. After all, it seems reasonable to have some threshold of demonstrating public support.

But there is no “Public” and civic engagement is not merely a utility.

It is great to engage people in a cause or an issue, to mobilize “people power” in changing the way things are done.

But I believe there is real value, fundamental value, in simply having people live and work and function together.

Communities are better when people – all people – have a voice within that community. People are better when every person around them has a voice.

So go ahead and push for a change. Fight for what you believe in and try to get others to fight along side you. But always remember that true engagement is deeper than that. True engagement is more than a cause or a battle or an issue.

It is listening genuinely to everyone around you. Empowering them to have their voices heard. It is recognizing that we are all better – individually and collectively – when every person is engaged.

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