Civic Engagement and the City
Civic Engagement and the City

Civic Engagement and the City

Public spaces support social engagement and then provide the necessary buy-in to sustain moral engagement as well.

March 12 th 2012

Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement by Ben Berger. Princeton University Press, 2011. 216pp.

The Common Good and the Global Emergency by T.J. Gorringe. Cambridge University Press, 2011. 322pp.

As another election season in the U.S. begins to wear on everyone's nerves, there are a lot of things that we would like less of—less negative ads, fewer candidates flip-flopping on important issues, less spending on campaigns. But there is a part of us that feels a bit guilty about resenting the election season. We are glad to be part of a democratic society and understand that free elections are foundational to our cherished system of government. The elections may be a hassle, but they are also an opportunity for us to exercise a little civic engagement. And we all know that civic engagement is a good thing.

Or is it?

According to Ben Berger in Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement, "civic engagement" is a popular but problematic term that may have outlived its usefulness. The problem with civic engagement, according to Berger, is not necessarily with many of the activities that we associate with it, but rather that the term itself means too many things to too many people to be of any use as a normative value.

Berger believes that it is confusion about the term "civic" that is largely responsible for the confusion around civic engagement:

When sociologists laud civic engagement they commonly mean what I call social or moral engagement, people's attention and energies invested in social groups and networks or focused on moral reasoning and follow through. When political theorists and political scientists laud civic engagement they often focus on what I call political engagement, people's attention to and activity in political issues and processes.

Berger's first move, then, is to distinguish between social, moral, and political engagement and to carefully note the distinct contributions that they make to a flourishing democracy. For instance, he feels that a democracy can flourish with low levels of political engagement if there are high levels of social and moral engagement. Or, on the other hand, a society that has soaring rates of political and social engagement with little or no moral engagement can fall prey to nationalist extremism.

Berger likes the term engagement, but thinks that it, too, needs to be clarified in order to be put to maximal use. Engagement, according to Berger, is a combination of attention and energy. And what is novel about Berger's thesis is the notion that engagement is strongly influenced by our tastes:

Attention generally precedes energetic activity; if a topic does not capture our attention it will not enduringly attract our energy. So to attract our energy and form social or political capital, a subject must first attract and hold our attention. Attention, in turn, is shaped by many factors, including ideology, habituation, culture, and perceived threats or dangers. But it is strongly influenced by individual taste, and as the old saying goes there is no accounting for that.

By linking engagement with taste, then, Berger hopes to avoid the elitist argument that leads to more grousing about how little engaged people are and hopes to propose pragmatic suggestions for increasing the right kind of engagement and for avoiding the dangers of acute disengagement.

Berger wants to be clearer about the meaning of some of the waning levels of disengagement. He is wary of attempts to see these trends as a symptom of some negative social forces and would rather understand them as a simple trade of competing goods:

We may value a sense of community, but we also value economic opportunity, privacy, and mobility, which helps to explain why we relocate frequently, spend considerable time alone or with intimates, and find it difficult to feel rooted in any particular place.

Of the three distinct types of engagement, Berger spends the most time working with political engagement. He identifies two types of arguments in favour of political engagement—intrinsic and instrumental. The intrinsic argument, which he traces back to Hannah Arendt, claims that political engagement is good for us in and of itself. Berger claims that the intrinsic argument leads to an unhelpful elitism, but sees value in its articulation of the negative consequences of certain populations becoming acutely disengaged from the political process.

Berger uses Alexis de Tocqueville to make sense of the instrumental argument, which claims that political engagement is good because of the good things that it affords. Berger finds Tocqueville's argument more persuasive, but also clarifying as to why Americans have such a hard time staying focused on political issues: "political affairs must compete with commerce, entertainment, and the pleasures of private life for the scarce resources of attention and energy."

In his final chapter, the specific reason for Berger's issue with civic engagement becomes clear. He is concerned with what he calls the "full monty" approach, which tries to increase all kinds of engagement for all people at all times and ultimately ends up in failure. Berger wants to be more targeted and pragmatic. He makes four concrete proposals for increasing engagement:

First, we citizens can attempt to attract more attention and energy toward political affairs, process, and institutions by making politics seem more attractive—in other words, by appealing to citizens existing tastes. Second, we can attempt to attract more of our attention and energy toward politics by making our tastes more political through education and habituation. Third, we citizens can economize on existing political attention and political energy, making them more efficacious by channeling them through more responsive institutions . . . [Fourth,] we can shift some of our resources from promoting political engagement among college students, who are already the most likely to be politically engaged as adults, and instead target the attention and energy of specific demographic groups (including the poor and poorly educated) whose members are most prone to political disengagement and most likely to be misrepresented when inactive.

There is a great deal to commend about Berger's novel approach to this overworked subject, as well as the prescriptions he puts forward. I think that it is both accurate and immensely helpful to distinguish between political, moral, and social engagement. And by demonstrating the ways that our tastes lead to various kinds of engagement, Berger paves the way for more pragmatic approaches to engaging citizens.

I even agree with Berger that the term "civic engagement" has been grossly over-used in recent years. However, unlike Berger, I am not yet ready to throw out this term simply because it has been misused. As Berger sees a lot of untapped potential in the word "engagement," I see a lot of untapped potential in the word "civic."

Early in his argument, Berger passes over an opportunity to discover latent meaning in this rich word: he says that "civic simply means that a subject pertains to citizenship or a city, so it can easily be subsumed under the rubric of political without any loss of conceptual clarity." It appears as if Berger saw the word "citizenship" and went right to "political," but missed the term "city" altogether.

In light of this oversight, we can now consider another book that explores the theme of civic engagement from a completely different angle. Tim Gorringe's The Common Good and the Global Emergency: God and the Built Environment builds a case for civic engagement with the precise concept that Berger left unexplored. Gorringe begins his book with a comparison between two very different cities. He compares Siena—a beautiful and gracious city that was carefully built up by a group of nine magistrates seeking to encourage the common good through Thomist thinking; and Exeter—an ancient city that was rebuilt after a WWII bombing raid largely based on commercial interests left it sterile and devoid of public spaces.

Gorringe's book is a comprehensive exploration of the intersection between the built environment and the common good. This juxtaposition allows Gorringe to bring a unique perspective on hugely important global issues such as resource depletion, climate change, and the problems of providing shelter and other basic necessities to a burgeoning world population. For the purpose of this review, however, we will restrict ourselves to Gorringe's unpacking of the word "civic."

Gorringe uses Siena and Exeter as a jumping off point to explore the idea of the common good. The forms that these cities take are not indifferent or random, but ultimately they are an embodiment of the scope of vision of those responsible for governing the people. The magistrates of Siena met in the Sala dei Nove, which was adorned by Lorenzetti's allegory of good and bad government. In these allegorical paintings, the effects of good and bad government are visually depicted:

Good government provides security: within the city walls people get married, build, go to school, weave, make shoes, bring in food and drive in sheep. A group of girls perform a dance to a tambourine. Outside the walls, presided by Securitas, who hands an offender, people farm and grow the crops with which the city will be fed, hunt and carry goods in peace.

The opposite wall depicts the effects of bad government. A scroll over the painting says, "where justice is bound nobody struggles for the Common Good or fights for law, but rather permits the rise of tyranny, which has no desire to do anything against the base nature of the vices which are here united with it, in order to give fuller rein to evil." Tyranny here is flanked by the vices—Cruelty, Treason, Fraud, Fury, Division and War. While Pride, Avarice and Vainglory take the place of the theological virtues. Justice is bound and there are looting, rape and destruction. Fear replaces Security. Under bad government the land is uncultivated and then, of course, the people starve.

The magistrates of Siena, therefore, had a clear and concrete depiction of the common good that not only shaped legislation, but also literally shaped the physical form that Siena would take. They deliberately chose to follow the good model and to avoid the bad.

The city of Exeter provides a contrast, not because its governors deliberately chose the bad model of government, but rather because no conscious choice was made. The period in Exeter's history that Gorringe focuses on is not its founding, but rather its post-war redevelopment, and at that time philosophical notions of the common good had been overrun by market forces: "Land Securities redeveloped Exeter, like hundreds of thousands of redevelopments over the past forty years, to make sure its shareholders got the best return on their investment."

Gorringe believes that there is a direct link between the lack of "common good" thinking and the sterility of Exeter's redevelopment. He cites David Mayernik to elaborate this point:

Is there a connection between commitment to the common good and the beauty of cities like Siena? David Mayernik thinks there is. "What Florence and Siena most deeply share," he writes, "is that they saw their urban forms, and especially their skylines, as directly representing the hierarchy of their collective civic values."

Some might argue that because of a greater degree of cultural homogeneity, the magistrates of Siena would have had an easier time articulating and building for collective civic values than those responsible for the much more pluralistic culture at Exeter. In response to this charge, Gorringe points to the possibility of "cultures in common":

We should not underestimate the possibility and the power of the emergence of "cultures in common" . . . Cultures in common run much deeper than merely shared citizenship, and include many aspects of taste, including food, fashion, film, music and views about architecture . . .Thus in Cape Town, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, black and white, can agree on those aspects of the city which need change (townships), and on what adequate and gracious provision for everyone might look like . . . I believe that the Thomistic idea of the common good, in terms of shared vision, is still possible . . .

On the other hand, when the leaders of a city like Exeter simply allow market forces to shape (or eradicate) the public realm and the aesthetic elements of the city as a whole, it is nothing less than a failure of leadership that is endemic in the modern era:

The failure of modernity is a specifically cultural one, namely the inability to decide what people should value, what they should believe in and what sense they ought to make of their everyday lives.

At this point in Gorringe's argument, we can already hear Berger accusing him of elitism, but that is to miss the larger point. Gorringe's main subject is the built environment. When we think of his comment above with that focus in mind, or even recall his description of the "good government" painting, we can see that the values he is wishing the leaders articulated more clearly have to do with shaping a public realm that brings grace and beauty to everyone's lives and maximizes freedom.

What sets Gorringe's approach off from Berger is that Berger assumes the political public to be a collection of context-less individuals whose tastes determine what they will give energy and attention to, which in turn defines the limits of political participation. Gorringe, on the other hand, sees having a gracious and accessible built environment as being crucial to forming mature taste and cultivating the communal connections that are essential to a healthy political culture. Quoting Christopher Alexander:

The net effect of beautiful, well designed, high quality physical environments is that they feel restorative, more care is taken of them, feelings of stress and fear of crime is reduce, and social mixing increases, as does hope, motivation and confidence in the future and thus well being. By contrast ugly environments increase crime and fear of crime and lead to stress, vandalism, untidiness, feelings of depression, isolation, loneliness, worthlessness, a lack of aspiration and a drained will. The consequence is a self-reinforcing negative cycle, the likelihood of less employment, reduced social capital and less social bonding.

Alexander's use of the word "cycle" here brings to light an important difference in methodology between Berger and Gorringe. Berger's methodology is linear and fairly static. He sees tastes as directing where we will put our attention and energy, which leads to engagement that in turn will build up social and political capital. Many of Berger's solutions, then, have to do with getting as far upstream in this progression as possible. For instance, he sees MTV's "Rock the Vote" campaign as a good example of encouraging political engagement by appealing to the tastes of the target population.

Gorringe, on the other hand, sees engagement as a dynamic cycle. Gorringe wants leaders to have a clear sense of values—not for the purpose of autocratically dictating all political outcomes, but rather to shape beautiful and engaging public spaces that honour embodied humans and human communities. Because of his understanding of cultures in common, Gorringe believes that such leadership can appeal to tastes across a wide cultural spectrum. Using Berger's terms, we can say that such public spaces support social engagement and then provide the necessary buy-in to sustain moral engagement as well. These interactions help form a citizenry who can in turn lead politically with an innate sense of the common good.

Both Berger and Gorringe make helpful but very different contributions to the conversation about civic engagement. Berger pulls the term apart and encourages us to be clearer about the distinct costs and benefits of social, moral, and political engagement. Gorringe reminds us that, for embodied humans, the inescapable context of the built environment means that we cannot keep the social, moral, and political aspects of our lives separated into distinct categories. Both, perhaps, also provide some relief during what looks to be a particularly annoying election year in the U.S. I think that both authors would question the "civic engagement" credit of our passively watching negative political ads—for Berger it is political, but not social or moral, and for Gorringe it is too disembodied. Both, I think, would encourage us to turn off our televisions, get out of our houses and seek some social and moral engagement with friends and neighbours.

Eric O. Jacobsen
Eric O. Jacobsen

Eric Jacobsen is the author of The Space Between (Baker, 2012), and Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a participant in the Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?