The Individual and Society

Often the relationship between individuals and society is a two-way street. Certainly, it’s obvious that the society one is born into makes a lasting impact on the development of one’s self and moral ideals. For example, the individuals that Kozol focuses on in his narrative in the South Bronx often explain the society they live and how it affects them. Just as Reverend Gregory Groover explains to Kozol the conditions of the South Bronx and how individuals attempt to interact with their society. “People protest specific actions of the city. They protested the waste burner but there’s a sense of powerlessness that makes it hard to keep up a momentum. The reality of the streets is a continuing reminder and compelling reenactment of despair” (Kozol 91). The society in which they live in makes it hard for everyday people to form together in groups for a common goal. All they have observed in this environment is the pain and suffering on the streets.

Perhaps as Paul Loeb describes in the second chapter of Soul of a Citizen, titled We Don’t Have to Be Saints, the foremost issue of becoming socially active is that we often think the great political changers must be greater than ourselves and heroes of a society. As Loeb describes the ideas of Sonya Vetra Tinsley an Atlanta activist and what she sees as the greatest obstacles that face activism today and how others have attempted to deal with it. “…Before we will allow ourselves to action on an issue, we must be convinced not only that the issue the world’s most important, but we understand it perfectly… and that we ourselves have perfect moral character” (Loeb 46). It appears that individual is forced to think that their cause is the greatest and it requires the complete and perfect person to accomplish the goal in mind. In this mindset, it appears that the individual could never hope to change society, humans by nature are imperfect and in this theory, could never bring about change that they deemed so worthy of a cause to pursue.

To avoid the trap of perfect moral or perfect person concept, we should first start out by engaging in smaller, more local, issues. The idea of starting out smaller allows the individuals who became engaged in the issue to follow any potential possibilities that may resulted in the first initial step. This concept isn’t widely shown in Kozol’s Amazing Grace, one may argue that giving out clean needles may be a first step; however, I would argue that do so is only making the conditions of the drug addicts worse. It only enables them to continue down their misguided path without solving their issue. This issue is also raised in another context in Amazing Grace. The individuals living in the housing often don’t seem care enough to bring about changes of their living conditions. “The Stairway smells and its walls are smeared with something green-ish…The kennel where I leave my dog where I leave my dog while I am in New York is cleaner and smells better” (Kozol 119). Granted this example shows how a corporation, the kennel, has a vested interest in keeping its surroundings clean, but shouldn’t the individuals living in the South Bronx feel the same way? Perhaps this is the society they’ve grown accustomed to and feel the conditions are just for the area in which they live in. However, I would argue instead of feeling content, they should be trying to better themselves, just as the rich or powerful attempt to do.

The dynamic relationship between individuals and our respective societies could potentially weigh more on us than what we initial thought. The actions of individuals directly affect the society in which they live, whether that’s allowing drug dealers to conduct their business in front of your apartment, or taking a vested interest in the crisis of addiction to drugs in some areas. However, our culture and society also puts pressure onto the individual, perhaps even shaping some the actions that we deem as possible. If we live in squalor and assume that is all we will ever get to live in, we assume nothing can be done about it. However, I would argue that instead of assuming things can never change, it would be more beneficial if one was to organize others into taking on the issue or attempting to solve it individually. The first action that some individuals take can open many more possibilities to accomplish, or at least attempt to, their goals.

Citizenship

Citizenship, especially here in the United States of America, is comprised of rights and responsibilities that all citizens have equally. Rights that United States citizens have include the freedom to express ourselves, fair trial by jury, vote in elections for public officials, and run for elected office. Whereas Citizens also hold responsibilities like supporting and defending the Constitution, staying informed on issues that affect us individually and our community, participate in our local communities, and defend the country if needed. These components make up the responsibilities and duties of being a citizen entails. Being a citizen also means being respectful other’s right to expression and generally being civil when discussing or debating issues or topics. Most importantly, every citizen has the power to run for some sort of elected position. Government positions are not necessarily for those with power or money, there are no monetary or societal status requirements to run for an elected position.

Having a representative democracy like ours in America allows ordinary citizens to become engaged in political issues and voice their opinions freely. We’ve allowed free and open discussions with anyone and everyone in recent history and there plenty of different modes of communication in modern times. Having new inventions often shift our culture and our understanding of the world around us. Today with the advent and mainstream accessibility of the internet, communication around the globe is almost instantaneous compared to what was previously used. Whether that is telephone or telegraph lines or even in the old fashion days, written forms of communication being transferred and ran across the globe. With information being so close to our fingertips on mobile devices, we often forget to interact with that information. We can make a change on issues around us affecting our community and better our community and surroundings.

Our cultural perspectives lead us to believe that only the powerful or rich in our society can make changes to our surroundings and governmental laws. However, this is not case, as citizens we should be looking and reflecting on ourselves to make these changes possible. In Soul of a Citizen, chapter 8 Village politics a point is made about how some communities are inherently easier to approach, mainly because of the smaller scale. By challenging others around us we can build more connections between others and raise important issues. “Each neighborhood, business, fraternal organization, or church group represents a potentially fertile field for public discussion…When we use these networks to promote humane social visions we can build on existing bonds of human conviviality and connection….” (200). Small ordinary citizens can have lasting impact on others around us and potentially have a majority agree with a specific issue or idea.

While the internet is a great form of communication, it still has its draw backs. Most the information on the internet is found in some sort of textual format. Removing ourselves from the flow and rhythm of speech and often leads to wrong interpretations. The ultimate form of communication is still meeting face to face with others. To build better trust and understanding it often requires us to get out of comfort zones and attach faces to names. As Soul of a Citizen describes modern times by continually needing to meet people and engage with others around rather than the anonymity of online interactions. “’Then someone actually called me. I was just so surprised because people almost don’t do that anymore. It’s easier to get involved when you’re actually talking with another person’” (221). The internet is a vital piece for gather or organizing information and people, however as individuals we still need be engaged with actual communities around us. Just as our responsibilities of being a citizen state that we should at least attempt to do.

Soul of a Citizen – Nelson Mandela

In the second chapter of the Soul of a Citizen, the author describes that there is something fundamentally more unique than self-interest goals going on inside humans. Instead of selfish private affairs, we humans want to, or prefer to, find ways to connect with others around us. Expressing our own feelings and purpose to others and encouraging their wants and goals as well. However, there is something stopping us from doing so. “Chief among the obstacles to acting on these impulses is the mistaken belief that anyone who takes a committed public stand … has to be a larger-than-life figure….” (Soul 42). The author describes how Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t defend his clients as a lawyer because of shyness and timid nature. However, as we all know he became a leader for social change in India.

The author of the Soul of a Citizen Sonya Tinsley stating seeing the failures of many the great leaders it is reassuring because they’ve achieved so much. Eventually stating she was inspired by those same failures. “’But I’m much more inspired learning how people succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties. It’s a much less intimidating image. It makes me feel like I have a shot at changing things, too’” (Soul 45). Society does place an unachievable status that normal people couldn’t achieve. Especially when the examples of those leaders failing are not discussed. A barrier appears that stops people for reaching that point, separating in our minds the difference between leaders and followers, like Martin Luther King. Thus, similar to what the author states, everyday people can’t imagine how they can make a difference or impact in the world.

Nelson Mandela also had similar idea in connect to Soul of a Citizen. Mandela, while forced to be a political prisoner, created connections with other members inside the prison. According to him, the greatest mistake was allowing them to connect with each other because together their determination was fortified. However, Mandela also wanted to be friendly to everyone around him even the prison guards, and attempted to educate them as well. “It was ANC [African Nation Congress] policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies; we believed that all men, even prison service warders, were capable of change….” (Mandela 79). At times, no one wanted to speak to the prison guards because they seemed harsh, but eventually they got know one another and eventually relaxed. Even to the point where they could educate some of the guards on their different points of view.

Mandela also describes his life inside the prison system and how he aimed to educate people. He claimed since most were working for the government, they had likely been brainwashed. So, Mandela and group of connections he made, explain their idea of non-racialism, equal rights, and so forth. Having spent years in prison he realized his oppressors also needed to be liberated as much as he did. “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness” (Mandela 81). I agree with Mandela on this point those who decided to have charged and sentenced to prison were also locked behind bars figuratively. The unwillingness to accept a different point of view, would have created a similar situation for those involved.

Democracy

Aristotle states there are only two forms of governments in which people adapt and make variations of. These two forms are Democracy and Oligarchy. Aristotle defines Democracy as a form of government in which those who are free, are generally the rulers of that culture. While he defines Oligarchy as a form of government in which the rich are rulers. He also states that it is by pure chance that the free make up a majority while the rich are a select few within a given society. Aristotle states there will be as many variations of these two governments as there are combinations of different classes within a community.

Pakistan is another variation based off Aristotle’s ideas. Starting out as a democracy, Pakistan faced numerous issues with military coups and domestic terrorism at home. Benazir Bhutto who served as Pakistan’s Prime Minister twice attempted to spread democracy to her home country as her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, attempted to do. Following Bhutto’s dismissal of her post amid corruption allegations, General Pervez Musharraf seized power in October 1990. He named himself President while still commanding the Pakistani military. Bhutto stated in 2007 before she was going to run for reelection for prime minister seat that she feared what consequences could result from a dictator running the country. “It is my fear that unless extremism is eliminated, the people of Pakistan could find themselves in a contrived conflict deliberately triggered by the militants who now threaten to take over Pakistan’s nuclear assets… My people could end up being bomb, their homes destroyed, and their children orphaned simply because a dictator has focused all his attention on containing democrats instead of containing extremists….” In which Bhutto is later assassinated at political rally in 2007, forcing Musharraf to resign among allegations that his administration played a role in the assassination plot.

While in present day American society there isn’t a fear of assassination like the one Bhutto was tragically acquainted. However, American society doesn’t get off so easily. The burden of spreading democratic values to our neighbors and the world remains. Especially when western society hasn’t always nurtured democratic growth in the middle east. As Bhutto points out western society supported a dictator in Pakistan for other reasons. “During this time the west showed a cold indifference toward supporting democracy among Muslim states and leaders for reasons that were either economic (oil) or political (anti-communism).” At the time, Russia had invaded Afghanistan, and thus, the United States supported Musharraf the current dictator of Pakistan. Resulting in the United States seeming self-contradictory to our previous stances of politics and human rights.

It was a great shame that United States did not try to intervene in Pakistan until a Russian threat had come along. At which point, it was already too late. As a world leader, America should be attempting to nurture democracy wherever it happens to reside. As Americans we should be outraged that a military dictator grabbed political power over a civilian democracy. As American’s we’ve been blessed that this sort of action hasn’t happened before. While it is easy to reflect on the past and blame ourselves, we only caused part of the issue. As Bhutto also states there are problems within her own religious culture that only sparked issues further. “…theological fight among factions of Islam that also often seeks raw political and economic power at the expense of the people.” While America can be blamed for not nurturing democracy in other parts of the world, we are not the only the ones who can be blamed. Some citizens within Pakistan must also come to realize that there are different claims within the Quran that what they may have previously been taught.