"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
I’ve always loved this quote from Margaret Mead. I don’t know why, but the word “citizen” is the one that most jumps out at me.
The traditional definition of a citizen is anyone who’s a legal, permanent resident of a nation or locality. It’s a label broadly applied based on where you’re born, or where you live.
But every time I see Mead’s quote, I’m struck by the fact that she’s using the word in a different context. Citizenship isn’t just a legal construct here, but something deeper.
When I started this publication, I knew it would revolve around expanding the definition of citizenship. It’s baked right into the name, after all. I wanted to explore what it means to be a thoughtful, committed citizen—not just of your local community or nation. But a citizen of your inner world, the planet, and the internet.
Basically, I want Citizen (it’s capitalized on purpose) to be a label that actually means something, and that we’re proud to adopt. I want it to be an identity that takes root in individuals, then spreads to groups, and pushes ever outward to the whole of humanity, regardless of state boundaries or creed.
So what does it mean to be a Citizen? Who do we have to become to live up to Margaret Mead’s sentiment and push humanity forward?
My thinking on this is still evolving, but here’s the best answer I’ve come up with so far.
A Citizen doesn’t take for granted the world we’ve built and the progress we’ve made. They see how far we've come, and honor the tools and traditions that have served us well.
Nor are they satisfied with the status quo. They understand that the world is still unjust and imperfect, due in large part to the shortcomings baked into our primal, tribal psyche.
The Citizen knows that without continuous, virtuous work, there’s neither safe haven from entropy and disorder, nor a guarantee the world will be a better, more fruitful place for future generations.
So the Citizen works to understand what it takes to build such a world. They work to understand their own nature, the systems they live in, and the values that are worth upholding at all costs.
But it gets deeper than that.
A Citizen doesn’t just understand the deeper values at play. They also have the courage to uphold those values, even when it’s inconvenient, even when social incentives don’t reward it, and even when it’s dangerous.
That's the crux of it. Citizenship is virtuous courage. Because if we only value something when it’s easy, we don’t really value it.
These days, the underlying principles of rule of law, freedom of expression, and democracy itself are under attack. Illiberalism is having a moment, as the culture war poisons our collective psyche with brutal, totalitarian, us vs. them instincts.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not just concerned about where this leads if left unchecked. I'm mortified. Watching these trends pick up momentum during 2020 was the impetus for building this publication. It was my "call to action" in storytelling parlance.
My sense is that without courageous Citizens who are willing to stand up for the principles undergirding Liberalism (as it’s classically defined), it’s entirely possible that we’ll be ushered into a future where authoritarian dominance is the norm instead of the exception. It’s possible that the future will be much, much worse than the present.
In a world where institutions are crumbling, the best bulwark we have against this decline is Citizens, who seize every opportunity to uphold our most sacred values, in ways both large and small.
There are rhetorical and ideological battles fought every day. Not just in the halls of power, but in internet comment sections and at family dinners. Not just in our institutions, but in conversations with friends and internet strangers.
The job of the Citizen is to recognize these small moments of values conflict, and to stand firm for what they believe is true and right. To hold the line, even if it’s unpopular. Especially when it’s unpopular.
The Citizen isn’t interested in winning short term political battles, though. For them, it’s about playing the long game, the Infinite Game, and doing what it takes to ensure that humanity moves in a constructive direction.
I don’t know about you, but this is a definition of Citizen that both inspires me and scares me. Because the truth is, I’m not a Citizen by this definition. At least not yet.
I’ve been working my way through life in a state of self-absorption, taking most of my advantage for granted. And hey, I've made it to a place where I’m fairly comfortable, and I'm set up to prosper well into the future. Even if the world goes to shit in the next few decades, I’ll probably be fine.
But there’s a sense of incoherence and irresponsibility lurking behind this path through life.
I believe in a set of values that could reasonably be summed up as Liberalism, but I haven't been fighting for them. I haven’t been doing a damn thing to push back against the surge of illiberalism sweeping the land. And I haven't been playing my part, however small, in shaping the future in a positive way for the generations ahead.
And frankly, if I don’t change that, I'll live out the rest of my life in a constant state of regret, and reach my deathbed knowing that I blew it. And that's unacceptable.
So from here on out, that’s what this publication will be dedicated to. Learning how to be not just a citizen, floating idly and selfishly through this world, but a Citizen, fighting for a future that’s better than the present. There will be stumbles. It won’t be graceful or perfect. But I’m committed to undertaking the journey and sharing what I learn along the way.
Care to join me?