7 Characteristics of a Good Citizen

One of my former students asked me to help him out on a college assignment. He wants a list oof seven or eight characteristics of a good citizen. Here's my first crack at it (but I'd love to hear your additions/amendments):

1) Care. Citizens should be concerned about the good of their fellow citizens. "Empathy" is a bad word in some political circles because it's associated with advocating for big government solutions to social problems, but caring can manifest in a lot of different ways. It could be private acts of caring, collaborative work through religious institutions, civic groups, or labor unions, actions by private companies, or government activity. Regardless of the mechanism, good citizens care for one another.

2) Be involved. If a democracy is going to function, we have to remember that it's a country run by We the People. If we choose to sit on the sidelines and complain about "the government," we turn the control over to the people who are motivated to be engaged in the governing process, and their interests might not be all of ours. In fact, the fewer people who are engaged in the political process, the more those few people have an incentive to look out for themselves, since they are not checked by the broader population.  At the very least, a good citizen should vote

3) Be informed. A good citizen has an obligation to understand what is going on and how it affects her/his fellow citizens. This isn't an easy task. In our age of abundant information and even more abundant opinion, it can be difficult to wade through it all and figure out what is true and what is relevant. Sources like TV and twitter are good for up-to-the-minute facts, but twitter is also loaded with opinion and misinformation. Television, even when it isn't attempting to project a particular partisan spin, is inherently prone to emotional manipulation because it pairs information with evocative imagery. To really be informed, read books. Read long form journalism. Read newspapers from other countries to see how we can sometimes be blinded by cultural assumptions. Talk with people who have different perspectives on issues. This part of good citizenship is hard, but it's very important.

4) Be educated. This is not quite the same thing as being informed. A computer can be loaded up with all kinds of information. That doesn't give it the ability to know what to do with that information. Education involved acquiring analytical skills, philosophical understanding of one's self, and moral grounding which will allow a good citizen to use information to make decisions that benefit other citizens.

5) Disagree. This can be very difficult, especially when we have disagreements with people we care about deeply, but it's an essential part of good citizenship. We have to be willing to stand up for positions that are unpopular if the country will ever improve. We should also learn how ti disagree in a way that's respectful and constructive. And we should have the humility to recognize that we might be wrong. 

6) Belong without assimilating. This is difficult, too. It can be tempting to change one's self to be as much like the herd as possible. It's even easier to reject the whole group. What's hardest is to claim a position within a group while maintaining one's unique identity. Finding that balance is a lifetime's work. It's also a part of good citizenship.

7) Give back. No one enjoys paying taxes, but it's far more bearable when you remember that you are investing in roads, in libraries, in the firefighters and police officers who protect your home and loved ones, in the research that invented the internet I'm using to send this right now, and in the research that will one day produce the medicine that may save your life. Of course, some of those taxes (maybe even most of them) might go to things you don't agree with. Pay them anyway, and get involved to change where your taxes go. But don't stop investing your money, your time, and your energy into making this country a better place or you can't call yourself a good citizen.