Thinking like a Citizen
Who do we think like: a student, a parent, an economist, or a philosopher? You may think that you don’t think “like” anyone, but just think, but it is not quite that simple. Thinking is something like and yet different than breathing. Breathing inhales and exhales the air in which we live. Thinking inhales and exhales the language(s) in which we participate. Right now we are thinking in English. How we participate in this language largely determines and is determined by how we think. Thinking like a citizen is to participate in a language in one way rather than another—as a citizen. So what is that like?
Thinking like a citizen means, for of all, to think as a member. The original meaning of citizen is a member of a city. Today, we need to replace the notion of city with that of civic, since some of us do not live in cities, but all of us have the right to belong to the civic. The civic is simply a realm or sphere created by civic conversations in which all members have moral equality, and live together in reciprocal relationships. Its existence arises from civic conversations in which we think like citizens about how we want to design their common life.
Now some may resist the very idea of someone writing about how we should think. Is there any greater freedom than the freedom of thought? This is true, of course, and yet it overlooks that our capacity for exercising this freedom depends not only on our capacity to participate in languages but also on our choice of how to participate. Thinking like a citizen, in other words, is not a behavior that we should reward but an action that we should choose.
Universal membership in the civic may sound like socialism, and it does continue the principle of solidarity that is one hallmark of socialism. It also differs. Socialism, for the most part, resides in the conflicts among social classes and groups. It is grounded in the social. Civicism, if I may use the term, is grounded in civic conversations. We should acknowledge different languages, different cultures, different engagements, different backgrounds, and different social identities. This is the stuff of our social life. Thinking like a citizen does not erase these differences and conflicts, but it can provide a platform for dealing with them. Thinking like a citizen, in other words, is something we can do with others who are different and who disagree with us.
To think as a member of the civic is different than to think like an American or like any national culture. The civic is global. The family in Africa is as much a member of the civic as a family in Europe. American thinking, in fact, has been influenced much more by commercial thinking than civic thinking. Early on, citizenship was restricted to property owners, and there is a deep legacy in the United States of thinking like owners rather like members. In fact, I see the current contest as a contest between two ways of thinking: as owners or as members. This contest has a long history—from the Civic War to the civil rights movements to the occupy movement—and who gets the upper hand this time will have enormous consequences for us and for future generations.