Becoming A Political Citizen

This is blog six in the series ‘Politics On Ideas’. The first five parts you can find here.

To also ‘think with’ instead of only to ‘think against’ is one of the many ideas René Gude as ‘Philosopher of the Fatherland’ gave to the citizens of The Netherlands before his too early death in 2015. He was speaking to the better angels of our nature when he said:

We ourselves are politics. You do not have to remain a dissatisfied commentator, you can think with, you can make plans. And those plans can ensure that we can push something forward, and give a cause a small twist, suggest a desired direction. In this way we may know a little better how to cope with the world, with things, and with ourselves.

To think with is to give power to ideas which you want to bring into existence. To think against is to resist ideas you don’t want to see materialize. To think with is to do your best to maintain the executed ideas you like. To think against is to fight for the cancellation of the executed ideas you dislike. I believe both strategies are important. You have to be able to create and maintain initiatives, and know how to be a counter-force against plans you really dislike.

The best first step for you as a citizen into the political world is finding your own voice. You can start with this long before you become an adult and are eligible to vote. One of my main arguments is that a citizen of every age can do a lot more in the world of politics than just vote. You don’t need to be 18 years old or older to create ideas, stand for those ideas and mobilize the support needed to get your ideas executed. You don’t need to be 18 years old or older to resist ideas, stand up against those ideas you don’t like, and mobilize the support needed to get those ideas of the table. Neither do you need to be a politician to be able to do all that. Your age or position in society can have an impact on what it takes to succeed. Yes, it can be a lot harder, but a lot harder is not the same as impossible.

It is perfectly alright to be in doubt on certain issues what your opinion exactly is. You don’t need to have an opinion on everything immediately. It is often wiser to take time and think deeper on issues to get familiar with different points of view on a specific issue. Just by listening to the voices of others and thinking on what you have heard you are already shaping your own thoughts and ideas. Awareness of what is going on is a real strong sound which will feed both your soul and mind. The better you learn to listen and explore different perspectives on the same issue, the more critical your mind will get. You also will have to be as comfortable as possible to question your own ideas and perspective on the issues that matter to you. Don’t question your right to take a position in a matter. Never do that. Your voice as a citizen matters.

That you take a position on an idea now doesn’t mean it cannot evolve over time. Christopher Hitchens said: “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” The same goes for our collective mind: they way we think as a society. To understand politics is to understand people. To understand other people, to a certain extent, is to understand yourself. The way you get influenced to do or not to do is often the same way others get influenced too. That someone is trying to influence you doesn’t mean you take on their point of view. Keep that in mind. To be influenced is not the same as to be persuaded. When you don’t take your own ideas too seriously you will also be more flexible when someone else is trying to influence your thinking. You might even learn something what is new and relevant to you, because you have kept an open mind.

Bruce Springsteen held a beautiful speech at SXSW 2012, where he also talked on the ability to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at the same time. According to The Boss, if it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you stronger. “So, rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears and open your hearts. Don't take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don't worry. Worry your ass off. Have ironclad confidence, but doubt — it keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and, you suck!

It is one of the best advices I have ever got, and at times to me it feels most difficult to live up to. Not to get too angry when someone else is saying that what I am thinking is nonsense. To take in account that this might be possible. That something I full heartily believe to be true could turn out to be completely wrong. Is this not the essence of learning? The chance of being wrong or clueless and finding possible new answers. Is this not the reason why Socrates said: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” When I was a child my father would tell me that I still had to learn what he already had forgotten. What a wonderful way to express the relativity of knowledge. An important part of a lifetime of learning should be the acceptance of the fact that another word for ‘changing your mind’ is ‘learning’. That changing your mind at times is not a sign of weakness. It is an essentiality of a wise person.

Wisdom is composed of knowledge, experience, judgment and appropriate doubt according to engineer and businessman Sidney Harman. One of my favorite quotes on how thinking and feeling interact is the following one by Sir Ken Robinson:

Feeling and knowing are part of the same complex of a whole being. Our feelings are a form of perception. And they are affected by what we think. By our frameworks of ideas. They are affected by how well we can express ourselves and the languages we have available to do that.

Your personal experiences and how you have interpreted these experiences matter for how you think and feel on issues. Your views of the world can change by new experiences, but also by interpreting your past experiences in a new way. This applies to us all. The experiences of others can influence your thinking too. The news you watch, the articles you read and the stories you are told. That it didn’t happen to you doesn’t mean you cannot imagine it from happening.

In my country The Netherlands from time to time you get discussions how some people who live in areas without Muslims could be so prejudiced against Muslims. It could be exactly for that reason, because they haven’t met any Muslims. To be fearful of the unknown is common. Or a person has had a bad experience with one or two Muslims and is projecting that on the whole group and on every individual Muslim. Another reason could be that someone only consumes awful stories from the media about Muslims and starts to believe them. At a certain point contradictory information is almost impossible to get through, because people have become so convinced of their own storyline.

In politics you will find a mixture between a call on knowledge and feelings, or on objectivity and subjectivity. Former Yale Professor and author William Deresiewicz explains the difference between scientific knowledge and humanistic knowledge in his book ‘Excellent Sheep’: “Scientific knowledge relates to external reality, to that which lies outside our minds and makes itself available for objective observation. Humanistic knowledge relates to our experience of the world, to what reality feels like.” Deresiewicz explains this further by pointing out the following: “The scientist seeks to be objective and appeals to the impersonal language of numbers. The artist speaks from individual experience. Humanistic knowledge isn’t verifiable, or quantifiable, or reproducible. It cannot be expressed in terms of equations or general laws. It changes from culture to culture and person to person. It is a matter not of calculation but interpretation.”

Becoming a political citizen is not just your responsibility: it is our shared responsibility too. In a functioning liberal democracy every individual should be able to learn the skills necessary to participate in our collective creation, execution and evaluation of our public policies. To learn those skills is a personal responsibility of a citizen. To teach those skills is a responsibility of society as a whole. This can be done via the education system or in the many other ways we as human beings transfer or knowledge and experience to others.

Some citizens are more political than others. A very political citizen is often called an activist. Every activist is a citizen, but not every citizen is or has to be an activist. That I want to engage people more with politics doesn’t mean everyone wants to engage, or wants to engage in the way I approach politics, or as often as I do. I believe you cannot force human beings to be concerned and have a passion for political ideas. You can encourage it within yourself and others. You also can, like Martin Luther King Jr. did, point out the consequences of staying too quiet and hold people accountable for that behavior. In the end politics is about choices, which includes the choice whether or not to participate in political thinking and expressing of political ideas.

The essence of my ideas in these blogs on ‘Politics on Ideas’ goes beyond disputes on the contents of specific political issues like education, work, the environment, defense, the economy and so on. I am going to talk to you about the realization of political content, action and reflection. My ideas are meant for every person regardless of their political ideology or the absence of one. Compare it to learning how to walk, swim or ride a bicycle. You learn a specific skill, but you decide for yourself in which direction you will go with what you have learned.

We don’t like being told what to do or how we should think. Unless we are explicitly asking for it. A Socrates type in your neighborhood who is consequently second guessing everything you do is annoying. It can feel like a rejection of your opinion or even worse of you as a person. Objectively speaking there should not be a difference between an opinion you agree with or disagree with. It is just a point of view. Only it isn’t, because it is personal. Behind every opinion there is one’s own life story. What is too moralistic for someone can be common sense for someone else, and vice versa.

Please disagree with me as much as you can. Be skeptical. But, there is a catch. I would also like to encourage you to formulate for yourself why you disagree with me on a particular point I am trying to convince you of. Why isn’t this true for you? You should also be skeptical about your own believes, while at the same time feel confident about the opinions you have right now. I really do hope that if I read my blogs when I am ten years older than now, that there is stuff in there that I do not agree with anymore. That I was fortunate enough to have found better or different answers. Being skeptical of your own thoughts doesn’t have to mean you will change your mind. The opposite can also happen. You might even get a deeper understanding why you believe this or that to be true. You do not change your mind, but strengthen the opinions you already have. It is my believe that the better we get at kindly questioning our own thoughts and those of others the more joy we will find in our personal and collective lives. But then again, I might just turn out to be wrong!

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