The Problem with ‘Civic’ A Snapshot of Young People’s Civic Engagements in 21st Century Democracies Dr Shakuntala Banaji, Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media, Institute of Education, University of London: [email protected] Aims •To touch on some of the political and civic action being taken by youth on and offline with a view to problematising: a) the lack of differentiation between young people and b) the constant differentiation between young people and ‘others’ in this discourse •To problematise the notion that civic knowledge, engagement and action are ends in themselves •To question the idea that civic and political engagement and action are always benign (democratic) and hence desirable goals for young people Methodology/Theory: speculative questions Based on: 1. A survey of eighty UK civic websites and their associated organisations, groups and campaigns (60 percent youth orientated, 40 percent more general in reach) 2. Qualitative interviews (in London and Bombay) with young people aged 7-25 following the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and the July 7th London Bombings 3. In-depth interviews with young Indian and British-Asian cinema-goers about films, gender, politics and ethnicity 4. Seven years teaching 11-19 year olds in London schools ‘Young people’ - disengaged from civic life and politics? an idea that is often expressed at the beginning of books, funding proposals, research articles and projects - my current project, Civicweb: Young People, The Internet and Civic Participation is a case in point: There is growing concern about young people’s apparent lack of interest and involvement in politics and in civic society. Of course young people are not a homogenous category True, research suggests that (especially working-class) young people hold few positions of power in government and corporations aren’t hugely enthusiastic about voting in elections and sometimes are poorly represented in voter turnout express varying degrees of anger, mistrust, cynicism, scepticism or boredom in relation to formal politics (government and political parties) While predictable, the first two findings are worrying. The third is more complicated. Do these findings add up to the kind of overwhelming lack of interest in a broader politics and civil society that has frequently been attributed to young people? We don’t want to be the “fossil generation”: French green campuses campaign [Civic] issues engaging young people in the UK include… The environment eating disorders social discrimination children’s rights war terrorism gender rights youth justice school and pedagogy bullying students’ rights racism climate change employment and justice systems sexuality fox hunting global corporations development animal testing sustainable voting age immigration and ‘white rights’ Young people are part of a range of civic organisations: some are run by youth, for youth Some lobbying and campaigning on youth-specific issues Some are run by experienced adult campaigners; some left-leaning, some conservative others are tied in to international evangelical religion But are young people more imaginatively engaged and active? “What we are seeing is a mass generational migration from old-fashioned forms of participation to newer, more creative forms.”. They’re certainly not less involved - but perhaps its more fruitful to ask where civic/political involvement leads…. The case of the anti-Iraq war protests As opposed to asking what the effects of civic action are on youth, let’s ask: ‘What often happens when youth take challenging civic or political action?’ What did all the anti-war protests prove about how ‘democracy’ works in the UK? When governments ignore civic and political protest, the result can be frustration, anger and cynicism Three years later: still protesting… What’s the connection between ‘civic’ engagement and democracy? • Calls abound for young people to ‘get involved’ in politics and civil society organisations; civic action is seen as a marker of ‘good citizenship’. • But who is a ‘good citizen’? And is all civic action benevolent? Or rather, does it necessarily contribute to democracy? Predominant analyses hold that civic action is by definition benevolent and democratic Our definition of civic activity encompasses the notion of the public good: The end result of a community’s civic education activities should be to engender within the community’s residents a commitment to participating in the betterment of that community. [This] must also include an attachment to justice, a willingness to serve beyond selfinterest, an openness to all those who share the rank of citizen... Activities that are designed to harm, diminish, or exclude others, or deprive them of their rights, are not civic activities, even when conducted in the public realm by groups of active citizens. (Montgomery et al, 2004: 17-18) The case of an Indian ‘civic-political’ movement: the VHP (World Hindu Organisation) youth wing and RSS (National Volunteer Corps) youth cadre Self help Community Health and education schemes Training for unemployed Youth; anti child-labour campaign Who are the RSS Youth? • Created around 68 years ago, along the lines of the Hitler Youth, the RSS runs training camps for young ‘volunteers’ • Practice martial arts, listen to speeches about pure Indian blood and ‘sewa’ or ‘community work’ • Undertake local initiatives like literacy for rural (Hindu) children • Volunteers insist that they want to ‘help their community’ (defined as Indians or Hindus); and to help their motherland/nation – India • They have a strong ethos of obedience, hierarchy and discipline • These youth do not get into trouble with their parents; and are often highly motivated at school and in community work. Civic activity is not necessarily pro-democratic Website of a related fascist youth organisation RSS youth – many teenage boys – demolish centuries old Babri Mosque in North India. ‘Those visions of obedience and patriotism that are often and increasingly associated with the personal citizenship agenda can be at odds with democratic goals…Indeed, government leaders in a totalitarian regime would be as delighted as leaders in a democracy if their young citizens learned the lessons put forward by many of the proponents of personally responsible citizenship: don’t do drugs; show up to school; show up to work; give blood; help others during a flood; recycle; pick up litter... These are desirable traits for people living in a community. But they are not about democratic citizenship. To the extent that emphasis on these character traits detract from other important democratic priorities, they may actually hinder rather than make possible democratic participation and change.' (Westheimer, J. & Kahne, J. ‘What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy’: p 6-7) Real democracies rarely live up to ideals • 1) Should we endorse political involvement per se, in any political ‘community’, however exclusive or authoritarian or aggressive, as being better than ‘apathy’, ‘mistrust’ or ‘cynicism’? In tandem: Is reactionary civic involvement better than no involvement? • 2) Do most governments in most democratic nations actually behave (as opposed to speak) as if they want an engaged, challenging and critical citizenry or are many ‘channels of communication’ on offer merely apparent, rather than real? • 3) Is there ever just a single ‘public’ for whom one can define a notion of ‘the public good’ and on whose behalf all civic/political actions are urged and taken? How, then, is democracy strengthened by defining CIVIC action as de facto benign, altruistic and democratic?