On April 7th, 2019, myself and my guests gathered in Southwest Hall in Bowling Green Kentucky to discuss what citizenship meant to us. My guests were Kerby who is a fellow honors student and Kentucky Y alumni who grew up in Warren County, Nick who is a local of Bowling Green and who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Carmen who is from northern Kentucky and studies Mathematics at Western Kentucky University, and Johnathan who I did not know well but comes from the Southeast part of Louisville and studies both History and Engineering.
Our conversation began with the anticipated “Beyond the given things, what is citizenship to us?” The answer to this seemed to guide future conversation well because our conceptions of citizenship were all based around ideas of community that differed between us. Citizenship seemed to be for those in the group helping those in need when the need should arise. That help was agreed could appear in many ways, shapes, or forms, but it was about a responsibility to community. This is where the first disagreement arose as what is community. When asked, Kerby’s conception of community was shaped by her interest in global affairs and a fluid conception of unity even though she grew up knowing very few of her neighbors. Johnathan, on the other hand, had a less fluid conception of community while identifying that he knew the names of all his neighbors. While these two factors may not have a large correlation considering Carmen and Nick both agreed more closely with Kerby even though they knew their neighbors, it is an interesting idea to consider. Whether knowing a local community growing up creates a more rigid conception of community as we get older.
As the conversation simmered down on community, the discussion shifted towards considering what factors each person looked for in a leader of their community be that spiritual, political, or other. Johnathan quickly responded although he had trouble finding the right word for the characteristics of versatility or experience that he admired. In the end, the group came to consider this quality adaptability which everyone quickly said was important. Kerby chimed in saying that honesty or integrity were also important factors for her when identifying with someone as a leader. While the people at this dinner spanned the political spectrum these two qualities were agreed upon unanimously as important.
From leadership, we traveled to religion. It was important to gauge how religion affected conceptions of citizenship because I knew going in that there were more religiously inclined and less religiously inclined people in the group. I was curious to know how much of an effect each person believed religion had on their morals or conceptions. Johnathan, for example, is a practicing catholic who went to an all-boys catholic school, and he identified how many of his core beliefs or principles came from relationships he found in the church. Carmen, on the other hand, went to an all-girls catholic school but was not raised within the church as her mom is spiritual in other ways. She, too, felt that the moral values of the church were part of where her foundation came from, but that the idea of human interaction was very important. Johnathan later echoed this idea that some of our morals are really trial-and-error. The ways we fail people or are failed ourselves inform us for how we should treat others in the future. Nick and Kerby who neither have a particularly religious upbringing identified strongly with this, and it seemed that the whole table really felt a mutual connection to the idea that our experiences are the most important factors to determine our morals. This was interesting for me having grown up in a very strong evangelical moralism community in Kentucky to hear that others did not feel that same connection between religion and morals. If they did, it played second fiddle to the stronger feeling of camaraderie with the human condition.
I was curious at this point and had posed a question specifically to Nick about his identity within the LGBTQ+ community and if they had a dramatic impact on his views of both citizenship, rights, and morals. He confirmed that hearing stories about others and living his experience as a gay man has given him a better ability to empathize with others. He felt a connection with the Christchurch victims considering the similarities to Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. It really resonated the idea of intersectionality within persecution. Our lived experiences stretch beyond the literal and enter abstraction to truly connect us with people that have little shared knowledge. This conversation harmonizes with Kerby’s earlier comments about a global community that does not require one to know the existence of any one person. It is a cerebral connection that is hard to verbalize. Of all the revelations in the conversation, that really stuck out as something wonderful and important.
This is where the conversation entered aspects of political consideration. Each person responded that they had inherited at least at some point many of their political beliefs from their parents. For Nick, college has proven a challenge to some of those conceptions while Kerby has found herself constantly questioning and building a greater pool to draw from when considering the issues. It was clear that parents and leaders of different kinds have a strong impact on opinions that they may not even be completely cognizant of which seems an important conversation to tackle.
Fluidly, we shifted towards censorship, free speech, and citizenship. I brought up the recent actions by Facebook to ban not only white supremacy but also white nationalism and white separatism. Nick immediately reacted with worry that such actions may prove to be the antithesis of the American forum of debate while Kerby strongly voiced that Facebook is not a public forum and has every right to police its servers how it pleases. This raised the question of how far the government should go in restricting the actions of Americans. Is it within a person’s rights to deny service to someone because of their sexual orientation? I brought up the point that it depends heavily on whether a person recognizes sexual orientation as a natural phenomenon or a personal choice. The table agreed that just as race is not a rightful grounds to discriminate assuming sexual orientation is natural then neither should it be. Carmen brought up the point that in the Bible there are plenty of condemnations of other races just as Leviticus condemns homosexuals, so a simple argument of biblical content is not fair. It was interesting to hear this point discussed because it is not one that frequently sees discussion bipartisanly. This issue frequently results in name calling and shouting. In our conversation, we were easily able to have the discussion without the anger or upheaval, and instead actually got somewhere.
I find it still difficult now to draw one meaningful conclusion from the more than an hour-long discussion that we were able to have. I heard comments that reaffirmed my feelings on topics and others that toppled the foundation of my conception. I grew to appreciate this idea that sans religious influence or with it, people arrived at the same ideas of a golden rule that are hailed by most global religions. It interesting how strongly this conversation has made me revaluate my opinion of Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions.” I, at one point, strongly agreed that traveling to places with no connection to the people was unproductive if not counterproductive. In reinterpreting my conceptions of community, I have a stronger belief that language alone is not something that should serve as a barrier. Presence means something to others as I know it has always to me. My morals are founded by my feelings not the religion I grew up with. It feels like a revolutionary idea for me that our morals are not dependent on our faith, but rather are dependent on a human condition larger than ourselves. It is in these reserves of empathy and emotion that we find ourselves most attuned to the needs of others. It is in this circumstance where we achieve a citizenship unbound from borders. It is in the heart of this understanding that our true morals are reasoned. I feel as if in this discussion I breached that sanctum. Somewhere along the way I was finally able to grasp the ideas that usually prove elusive. Kerby, Nick, Carmen, and Johnathan helped me to better understand myself, but more importantly the community around me. A community that spreads out across the entire globe. I am beginning to believe in the need for more truly good intentions.