Who signed me up for this?

Friday, November 6, 2009
A few years ago I lived with a large and variable group of roommates totalling between two and twelve people, all of whom are now lifelong friends. It sounds silly to have twelve roommates, I know, but that's the nature of the military sometimes-very little private space.

Anyway, the nature of the boys I lived with being what it was, we spent a whole lot of time trecking around the Big Sur coastal mountain region just south of Carmel, California. It was a fun little group to be a part of. Lots of hiking and backpacking and other outdoor activities. It was always neat to be a part of such a neat social clique.

My friends and I did everything together. That's another thing about being in the military. You are usually on the same exact schedule as everybody else. We went to classes together, ate together, slept together, showered together, got haircuts together...we did everything together.

It was always fun...until it wasn't anymore.

I distinctly remember the event that blemished the fun I used to have in the mountains with my dearest friends. It was a Tuesday, and we had gathered at our daily supper ritual. Tuesday nights were typically when the most enthusiastic of our clique began planning the details of the next weekend's activity. I typically avoided these discussions and spent my time devouring a pile of sliced cucumbers, but this particular week I listened carefully, because I was trying to find a point in the conversation where I could notify the group I wouldn't be coming along. I didn't have a particular reason. I just didn't feel like going anywhere that weekend. I would probably just stay home and walk around post, or bounce from room to room hanging out with barracks rats.

I finally found a chance to say it during a lag in the planning. "You know, I think I'll probably just kick around here this weekend. I'm not going." By the time I had finished getting that off of my chest, I found myself facing about five confused and incredulous faces.

"What do you mean you're not going? ...You signed up."

What followed was a lot of dickering and negotiating but this "you signed up" argument kept resurfacing and became a formidable beast to fight back. I'll spare you the blow-by-blow of this argument because its not important. Let me just skip to the end of it all so we can move on. I wound up going on that hike. I'd signed up.

In my best recollection this was the first time I heard the term, "you signed up." It was used often in the following months to challenge dissenters who didn't feel like coming on the hike, and I hated it when it got me into hikes and shopping trips and things that I didn't necessarily feel like doing at the time. But it became such a regularly used challenge, that even I used it to demand compliance from pals, despite my disdain for it.

A few weeks ago, I ran across this quote from the writing of Mikhail Bakunin, who was a Russian Army officer and large Collectivist-Anarchist. This quote tossed me back into memories of an era of being "signed up" with a particular social group of friends who conducted weekly outdoor activities with its members, whether they felt like it or not.
A tacit contract! That is to say a wordless, and consequently a thoughtless and will-less contract: a revolting nonsense! ... For it assumes that while I was in a state of not being able to will, to think, to speak, I bound myself and all my descendants - only by virtue of having let myself be victimized without raising any protest - into perpetual slavery.
Bakunin is railing against the "tacit consent" aspect of social contract theory. The social contract is what theoretically establishes a government or other framework for social organization (like my gang of pals) and tacit consent refers to being affiliated with a government or social organization without ever actually having to sign your name to its founding "contract", if there is such a thing that even exists (how many citizenship contracts have you signed?). Tacit consent often means that since you enjoy the benefits of being in that group, you are obligated to follow its rules, just like everybody else in that group.

If I'm drawing this analogy right, I can stop with the political theory lesson and move back to my metaphor, and apply Bakunin's criticism.

Being part of this group of pals was like being tacitly incorporated into a social contract. I benefitted greatly from being a part of it. To this day my dearest friends are from this same clique, including my new partner here at S.C.C., Matt. At the same time I was expected to go along with it and make things fun for everybody else by showing up and playing along. The tricky bit was trying to jive my sudden dissention about this hike with my tacit consent or "signing up" identified by my buddies.

This was Bakunin's problem too. He's upset that this whole tacit consent business is just a coersive technique to demand compliance with a majority action. He uses some nasty words on tacit consent (that's why the elipses) in this quote, but that seems to be the hallmark of an Anarchist writer. The whole coercive aspect of a tacit social contract is a little easier to see in my little story than it might be to notice in a familiar modern state, but I think it's the same in both arenas.

But here's the trickier bit. He's right. My participation at that point was "wordless", pretty "thoughtless" and "will-less". It wasn't until I demonstrated my own will that I met with any confrontation, and while the consequences of this confrontation are minor in a group of friends, it could lead to some larger issues at the scale of national citizenship.

Now the next thing you might expect me to say would be that I should have broken away from this group immediately, lest I be made subject to their coercive methods again and again. At least that's the road I've been leading you down, but that's not what I am here to say. I loved those guys. I loved being a part of our group. Ordinarily, I liked the activities we did together. It was just this one time I didn't want to participate, and I did anyway. And it felt rotten. I felt rotten for saying I didn't want to go, and they made me feel rotten for saying so. I felt rotten going on the trip and was happy when it was over.

What's the solution here? We are all part of some sort of social state. How does the effect of tacit consent become coersion so quickly?

The duty of a citizen is to actively participate in a social state, so there is no avoiding this. I think there are two lessons here.

(1) Since it is the duty of a citizen to actively participate in order in improve the state, perhaps I should have made a larger effort at shaping the future weekend's activities. Perhaps directed the effort towards something I would have found preferable to one more weekend in the woods. Making the jump to the modern state, a citizen should be a little more proactive is shaping the direction of his organization. I think this means more than voting or contributing campaign money. It means reading and getting smart on what's happening, communicating with civic leaders, teaching the next generation the trails of civic participation, and more.

(2) It was probably not wrong for that group to have expectations from me. I had up until that point happily participated in all activities and had not raised a complaint. I hadn't ever had a reason to complain. What was probably wrong were the coercive tactics we regularly used to demand compliance. In a society, this kind of compulsory cooperation cannot be right. Participation in a society should be deliberate and willful, and should not be assumed merely by participation.

So I've been thinking about my role as a friend in this group. What were my responsibilities? What were the group's responsibilities? What were the roles and obligations, if any? Starting with a look at a clique of friends, and a little help from an anarchist, I think I've got one more sense of what it means to be a citizen. A thoughtful, willful, participating citizen.



Matt Purvis said...

I can't get more than a form letter out of my senator and congressional representative. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have open door policies. Short of making major monetary contributions, how do I get my voice heard? Civics is a class of the past. Is it coincidental that school children are no longer taught their civic duties?

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