Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

NOTE: This is part 1 of a multipart series. More to come over the next few days. See Part 2.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

If you want to strengthen communities, it helps to ask: What defines a community, really? Is it mostly a matter of “where” (geography)?

Last week I got into an interesting discussion with some folks at the Knight Foundation and elsewhere about whether “local” is the only (or most important) defining characteristic of a community. This was sparked by an event held last week by the new Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy — an effort to recommend both public and private measures that would help US communities better meet their information needs.

From the time I first heard of this project, I thought it was an excellent idea. It bothers me deeply that many (perhaps most) Americans routinely “tune out” to issues of law, regulation, and government that not only affect them, but also that they can influence — at least to some extent. (I say this fully aware that I often fall into the “democratically tuned out” category on several fronts.)

The problem then becomes, of course, that when citizens don’t participate, their interests are easy to ignore or trample.

Why do so many Americans abdicate their power as citizens in a democracy? It seems to me that many are too quick to “blame the victim,” pointing to widespread apathy, ignorance, or a prevailing sense of helplessness as common democracy cop-outs.

I think there’s a different answer: The way our democracy attempts to engage citizens actively opposes human nature. That is, it just doesn’t mesh well with how human beings function cognitively or emotionally.

Fighting human nature is almost always a losing battle — especially if you want people to participate and cooperate….

Face it: It’s hard to stay motivated about participating in democracy when your attempts usually leave you feeling like you’ve been bashing your head against cloudy plexiglass, struggling to read documents written in Latin. In 5-point type. In bad lighting. With the pages lacking any discernible order or context. And you only have time to read a tiny fraction of them.

…I’m not kidding. As a journalist, I’ve covered energy and environmental policy at the federal, state, and local levels. So I’m intimately familiar with such civic info-inspired headaches. I’ve wrestled with obtuse legislative information systems. I’ve probably sacrificed years of my life to decoding cryptic legalese and bureaucratese, to learning the dialects and idiosyncratic processes of various governmental bodies, and to collating conflicting or seemingly unrelated information from disparate sources. I’ve sat through many, many mind-numbing public hearings and meetings. And I’ve interviewed public officials and employees who treat transparency primarily as a threat to their fiefdoms.

I expect would-be newcomers to the democratic political process (people who want to initiate ballot initiatives, or run for office) face even steeper learning and procedural hurdles.

My experience is why I suspect that apathy, ignorance, and helplessness are probably not root causes of US civic inaction. Rather, these inhibiting emotions are totally natural effects that occur when human beings repeatedly encounter overwhelming obstacles to participation.

As things currently stand, simply finding and staying informed about relevant issues brewing at all levels of government — as well as understanding the processes of, and forces at work in, a huge multilevel representative democracy — is damn hard work! I don’t expect it to be effortless, but it’s certainly much, much harder than it needs to be. Or should be. Or could be.

We could do much better by developing civic information systems that work with human nature — our abilities, our constraints, our preferences, how we relate to each other, and how our brains work.

In the rest of this series, I’ll sketch out some ways we might achieve this goal.

(NEXT: Part 2, Beyond Government…)

9 thoughts on Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

  1. Pingback:   Local: Just One Set of Ripples on the Lake of News and Information —

  2. It would be nice if that legalese translated into 140-character tweets. But if journalism in its turmoil can reconnect (re-create community) in meaningful ways to its followers — through tweets, texts, rss, blogs, reader-submitted content, etc. — it could go back to serving one of its primary roles by fostering discussion and understanding.

  3. If you accept the premise that the responsibility of journalists is to increase civic participation, then you open journalism up to many roles that journalists have traditionally been reluctant to adopt. In some ways, the public journalism movement was about this problem.

    Essentially, you’re arguing that journalism is floundering not just because of business models, but because public life is floundering. When baseball players went on strike, newspaper circulation fell. That’s not a problem with journalism — it’s a demand problem. And as you point out, not demanding news about civic life has serious consequences for quality of life. But it’s easy to lose the connection to community and public life given our current models of participation and information.

    Cole Campbell used to say that when people claimed the public is apathetic, he always substituted the word “alienated.” That makes it a different problem. Web 2.0 technologies, citizen journalism, interactivity, etc. aren’t going to make people who are alienated necessarily more civically minded. But used in conjunction with a re-oriented journalism, one that moves beyond transmission of information to engagement in public problem solving, these tools could make a difference in reducing the barriers to participation that you identify. If our mission is to deliberately facilitate public engagement, and not just deliver information, we will necessarily develop different roles, different practices, different methods and distribution.

  4. Human nature, yes – definitely the first point. What other points you have in mind?

    Under Human Nature, you are talking about obstacles to participation – we should also look at the willingness to participate. And the paper should detail this part: “developing civic information systems that work with human nature” … the whole idea is how to achieve this. And, how can we get this idea into Politician’s minds.


  5. Thanks, Donica

    Actually, one really interesting part about the Knight Commission’s effort is that it doesn’t actually require that journalists or professional news organizations be involved in “civic media” or “civic info” at all! They’re just looking at the larger issue of what kind of info do communities need in our democracy.

    That particular lack of assumption is one key reason why I find this effort so intriguing.

    More later,

    – Amy

  6. Thanks, Anand

    To clarify,my goal here is not to write a formal academic “paper” — I’m no academic, and I loathe academic writing 🙂 I envision it to be more like a long-ish essay with resources and examples.

    – Amy Gahran

  7. I think there are a couple factors affecting people’s willingness/unwillingness to participate:

    1. Generational attitudes: Up through the 60’s most Americans, by necessity, had a different attitude around civic obligation. The Depression and World War II in this century was a common hardship that bonded people together to fight/endure.

    As someone born in the 60’s, I realize how lucky I am to have grown up with so much freedom. But without a common hardship or “enemy” there’s less incentive to bond with my community to deal with problems. I’m definitely guilty of sitting in my house and letting other people deal with the problem.

    2. Changes in what engages people. Like it or not, people have shorter attention spans. You can blame it on computers or on MTV or whatever. It doesn’t matter. My feeling is: to engage people you have to give them information at a level that’s pretty effortless. If we could educate and engage people on civic issues using computer games, comic books, and reality shows, I’m all for it.

    The point is not to trivialize these issues by the delivery methods but to find ways to encourage people to take action in ways that work for them.

    Glad you’re writing about this, Amy. The election rhetoric is making it excruciatingly clear how desperate we need to ways to get people involved beyond gut level nastiness.


  8. Pingback:   Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 2: Beyond Government —

  9. My memoir Blind Spots, about “growth management” in 1990s Puget Sound, is a case study in what you are talking about. I condensed this in an essay titled Reign of Terror on my blog Skookum. The gist of the story is that when a statewide citizens’ initiative to involve the public directly in all growth decisions was enacted, both political parties subverted its intent by throwing up procedural barriers. Once these were knocked down, the Building Industry Association hired goons to organize violence against community activists, thereby foreclosing the opportunity for grassroots democracy to develop. The electoral and civil rights crimes committed were not only not prosecuted, they were not even reported in mainstream media.

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