Engagement, dissent and criticism of government are part of good citizenship in a democracy. There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.—Ralph Nader
What distinguishes democracy from autocracy and oligarchy is that sovereignty resides collectively in the people, not in a single ruler or a small group of leaders who wield exclusive power.
Putting it succinctly to emphasize the point, US President Theodore Roosevelt declared, “The government is us, we are the government, you and I.”
To make democracy work practically, representatives of the people are elected periodically, and they in turn appoint officials who perform the many functions of the government bureaucracy. This is the common characteristic of democratic systems, whether parliamentary, presidential or their variations.
But what often happens is that elected or appointed government officials begin to acquire an entitled attitude, identifying their temporary positions with “being” or “owning” the government.
The present PNP chief has been quoted as calling out students of state universities, saying that they were already being given free education, but still “go against the government” (as if the government and its resources did not belong to the people). This statement arose from the AFP’s unsubstantiated report of a nebulous “Red October” plot in which students from 18 leading schools were allegedly being recruited by communist elements to overthrow the government.
The support for this allegation were activities conducted in some of the schools, fora and film showings highlighting the abuses under martial law, to coincide with the anniversary of its declaration.
Using legitimate educational exercises as reason for publicly putting the 18 schools under unwarranted suspicion was ominous for academic freedom, to say the least. Instead of being branded wholesale as breeding grounds for subversion, those schools should be commended by the government for teaching their students to be good citizens by opening their eyes to the reality of shameful historical events which should never be allowed to happen again, especially by the military and the police.
After vigorous protests from the administrators of the identified schools, the Defense secretary conveniently declared the plot “neutralized.”
Knowing, practicing and defending one’s rights under a democracy are vital to good citizenship. But this is only one part of the equation. Along with such rights, the individual has to also know and practice the basic duties and responsibilities that come with a democracy’s benefits.
Civic duties are acts a citizen must perform, and failure to comply comes with financial penalty or criminal punishment, i.e., obeying the laws of the land; paying the right taxes; complying with mandatory legal procedures; and, depending on the country, doing compulsory military or civic service for a specified period, or during emergencies.
Equally, and sometimes more importantly, civic responsibilities are those acts, where noncompliance does not entail legal sanctions, but which are the hallmarks of good citizenship, after the basic duties have been complied with. They can be summed up in what I call “engagement with the community at large.”
Foremost among these: voting in elections (also a basic democratic right) for national and local officials; participation in barangay “pulong-pulong” (aka town hall meetings); cooperation in community projects and initiatives, e.g. health, sanitation, environment security, etc.
But more than these “standard” civic responsibilities, there are many more civic acts, voluntary in nature, which distinguish the individual citizen in society.
Helping during calamities, not only by donating food, clothing and money, but also by active personal participation. I know of a group of off-road vehicle enthusiasts who rode to the devastated area right after the tragedy, accompanying the transport of necessary equipment and supplies to help in rehabilitation.
Reporting a crime one has seen committed, and volunteering to be a witness despite the inconvenience and the danger.
Keeping the community clean and preserving the environment. Filipinos are famous for their personal hygiene and cleanliness but notorious for ignoring their surroundings and the broader environment. An extreme example: Until recently, informal settlers living along the Philippine National Railways railroad tracks have been known to dump their waste onto the roofs of passing trains.
In sharp contrast, the Japanese fans in this year’s football World Cup in Russia, after their team had lost and had been eliminated, were shown on CNN going back to the stadium after the game with brooms and empty bags, and thoroughly cleaning up their litter.
But perhaps the most important responsibility of a citizen living in a democracy is precisely to help preserve the freedom and the rights he enjoys under such a system, which people in totalitarian states would die to have. He must be constantly aware of political and social developments, ready to proactively engage any threat, and have his voice heard, individually or together with other concerned citizens.
Warned the political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, “As soon as any man says of the affairs of state, ‘What does it matter to me?’ the state may be given up for lost.”
In a similar vein, when the government welcomes criticism and engages its citizens in open and productive dialogue, democracy flourishes. As the illustrious statesman W.L. Mackenzie King wisely observed, “Where there is little or no public opinion, there is likely to be bad government, which sooner or later becomes autocratic government.”