Should citizenship define our identity?

In this week’s reading of Judith Shklar’s American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion, I couldn’t help but get the sense that what the reading actually did was exclude a whole lot of people. If the core of American citizenship is voting and earning, there are more than a few individuals who fall outside of those categories. We came up with some of them during class: elderly, homeless, felons/incarcerated, children, mentally incompetent, physically disabled, stay at home parents, unemployed, and immigrants. When your criteria exclude a significant number of your population, it can hardly be considered inclusion. And Shklar makes being included sound so desirable!

Shklar’s definition of citizenship is not the legal definition, nor is it the definition that deals with the concept of nationality. She comes up with a unique concept of citizenship that is dependent on one’s right to vote and to earn. We know that both are central to one’s standing as an American citizen, but the question I’d like to pose here is what exactly is important or valuable about being a citizen? For me, there are much better ways of evaluating yourself without ever factoring in where you fall on the citizenship scale. On my reading, there wasn’t much separation between being a good citizen and being a good person. This emphasis on the importance of citizenship onto who we are leaves out so much more of what makes people so great. So you’re not able to earn or vote, so what?

I can’t say whether it was intentional or not, but Shklar turned our citizenship into an evaluative tool of our self-worth. Shklar puts it simply when she says, “without one’s earnings one is ‘nobody’” (pg 92).  This fascination with work and producing things (in this case, a paycheck) can be seen throughout American culture. Far too often we value production over substance. We have become ants, mindlessly toiling away day after day.  Calling yourself a “workaholic” or a “multitasker” is a virtue; some aspire to sleep deprivation. As Mark Slouka put it in his essay Quitting the Paint Factory, “the dominion of the ants has grown enormously.” Slouka argues that rather than keep people busy (earning) you should actually let them have idle time. He says, “by allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it…constitutes a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press.”  Having time to think for ourselves is essential, it is when we can develop independence, objectivity, and fairness. This idle time, however, is often chipped away at because the culture we live in emphasizes earning and producing and doing.

Now, I don’t think that Shklar can be blamed for her attention to earning-it is merely a product of association. What I hoped to achieve with this blog post was to take a moment to stop and question whether being an “earner” should really matter. So you’re not able to bring home a paycheck every month, so what?! Should your value as a human being really decrease because of that?  Should citizenship define our identity?

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7 Responses to Should citizenship define our identity?

  1. What I liked best about your post is how you question if earning should be important to our society. While we both agree that it is deemed important, maybe we should value productivity itself and not how much money is made. Since you asked the question about earning, I’m going to ask a question about voting. How important should voting be to us as a society? Many people seem to value voting, but why? According to the Blais Rational Choice Theory, it is irrational to vote, so why does everyone do it and value it so highly. I do not believe that voting necessarily determines citizenship either. What about the people who choose not to vote because they recognise that it is not rational? Should we care about voting in a system that only gives us two options? Should we care about voting for a republican candidate in Arizona? We all know that this is a red state, so why bother fighting the majority, if we cannot win? I think America needs to question its current value system, and how it is working out for its citizens.

  2. anapuri11 says:

    I found your post fascinating! I think you pose a very compelling argument against Shklar’s definition of citizenship. You have addressed a fundamental issue that is tied with American ideals, that we value production over substance. We hold ourselves to a standard where we believe our country is the “best” in the world despite our poor test scores, drastic wealth disparities, and even our drastic cuts to education. If we cut education, we know that will impede on one’s ability to earn. So what would Shklar say about the government taking away citizenship as she defines it?

  3. alphaomegawords says:

    I really appreciated your attention to the question of identity in relation to the conception of citizenship. I, too, think that identity is an underlying element that in Shklar’s American Citizenship that is generally assumed, though not blatantly stated. Identity is one of those concepts that is rather difficult to fully develop. However, for many Americans, identity is often wrapped up in those things that a person does. A great example that comes to mind is the scenario that plays out when meeting a person for the first time. Invariably, the question of ‘What do you do’ is posed by one or both parties in the introductory conversation. This often reflects our outlook of conceptualizing a person in light of their activity, like work. It would seem that this philosophical outlook is operative in Shklar’s development of the earning portion of her citizenship proposal. What is an interesting about identity is that more often than not each of us finds our identity in one thing (or multiple) that we do leading to the over work or inefficient multitasking. It would seem that the development of any sort of identity based on what one does would result in discovering ones identity would ultimately result in an ever-elusive task, pun intended.

  4. azucenagonzalez598 says:

    First off, thank you for such a thought provoking post! I love that you end your blog with the question, “Should citizenship define our identity?” I believe that citizenship should not define our identity, especially in the way that Shklar defines it. Citizenship is a role that we can take and should take in order to ensure that we are each taking responsibility in the society we live in. However, our self-worth should not be determined by our output in terms of earning and voting. As you pointed out, it leaves out many individuals, which I believe is done intentionally. This type of mentality paves the way for a disposable society in which those who cannot contribute in a way that benefits others deems that individual, rendering them useless.

    I could not agree more with Slouka’s emphasis on being allowed to figure ourselves out. A quote I like ends as follows, “…knowing yourself is true wisdom.” To have the understanding and experience and being able to apply it allows us to reach our potential. I could argue that telling people they are only worth the paycheck they do or don’t receive is a systematic way of discouraging them to pursue their interests and passion, which can ultimately be a way to diminish their potential. As Bob Dylan so eloquently states, “What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants.” The counter argument could arise stating that money is needed on a day to day basis, which is true if not thinking of alternate solutions. Focus on the solution, not the problem, so think outside the box.

    Take several minutes to refocus and follow the link below for an inspirational YouTube video about passion.

  5. gchanneyla says:

    Your post really got me thinking about the way in which our society functions and how we adapt or try to fit-in. I think you bring up a valid point as far as what really defines us as productive citizens. The idea of citizenship I think has a lot to do with giving people the ability to have an identifier and functions almost as a form of exclusivity, but in reality we create a broken up system that is only exclusive or beneficial to one group rather than every member of society. You bring up a great question regarding productiveness being an identifier of citizenship and this is the central issue within our society. People strive to be better than their neighbor instead of providing help for their neighbor.

  6. mbstanton says:

    Should Citizenship Define our Identity?
    First of all, I really appreciate the comic relief in the form of that Charlie Chaplin skit. Nice touch making a point in an unexpected medium.
    So you pose a couple of rhetorical questions to conclude your blog post. “Should your value as a human being really decrease because of that? [Earning] Should citizenship define our identity?”
    I can see the problems within Shklar’s argument in the omission of a large percentage of the population. Generally speaking, it is reasonable to see how this argument would not stand very strongly in political science. However, I can see the validity her thought process and believe it was relevant reading material for us as it can be a social hypothesis in political theory. Looking through how status has played a significant part in the socially oppressed history of African Americans (or any minority race really) and women, I do see how citizenship impacts our identity. It is a natural, human behavior to want to categorize by similarities and differences in our world. Among the primitive homo-sapiens population, we would determine the value of an individual of our community based on the benefit they were to us and to the group they wished to be associated with. If a person was unable to contribute to the shared experience, they were neglected or cast out. The value system based on what someone earns is engrained in our psyche, so it only makes sense that as we became more civilized these standards continued to affect our judgments.
    Thank you for continue the thought provoking discussion.

  7. wdaghist says:

    Great post Cindy! how do we identify ourselves is a very important question because there are many factors that shape our identity such as ethnicity, race, class status, age, and nationality and allow us to understand and experience the world around us. Identity is a historical and a social concept and helps us understanding how we fit in with other groups of people, being aware of the fact that some groups have more social, political and economic power than others. Also, I think citizenship has a set of rights and obligations governing the members of a political community because citizens share the rights and obligations arising from the concept of equality. Therefore, I do not think that citizenship defines our identity.

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