Citizens, Subjects or just Ordinary Folk?

Tuesday, 13th November 2012 at 1:27 UTC 3 comments

In all forms of campaigning, there is a need to explain a common identity that motivates people to action. Whilst some campaigns automatically have an identity to appeal to (Black, Queer, etc.) and some groups make specific appeals (faith groups, for instance), the way we define generic collective humanity is important.

We appeal to the importance of “ordinary people like you speaking out against this injustice” and “our right as citizens to be heard”. We can talk about people as members of a community, a society, a nation, a global village, a brotherhood/ sisterhood, as well as a movement or more formal structure such as a union.

Did you know that use of the word ‘Volk’, literally ‘Folk’, is unacceptable in German and other North European left-wing writing? So tarred is the term by the connotations of “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer” that I’ve elicited gasps and corrections in meetings whilst speaking English and using the word to casually refer to people collectively.

This stuff matters, because, however careless we are about defining collectives, the language can have unintended implications. (I now tend to avoid ‘folks’, and debated not using the word in this post title for that reason).

I have a real issue with ‘Citizens’. On the first level, it stems from this simple thought-exercise: what is the negative of each of these terms? The opposite of an ordinary person is an extraordinary person, someone who’s life does not match our lived-reality. Ordinary people shouldn’t leave it up to heroes to act for them, nor should they allow the extraordinarily rich and powerful to take them for granted.

If the negation of “Ordinary People” is most commonly the rich and powerful, then the negation of citizen is alien, illegal, reject. There is almost an assumption that people must aspire to be citizens, that it is more than the basic level of human existence. I have an intense problem with this. Asylum seekers and migrant workers who live in our communities, for instance, are excluded by this grouping.

I suppose in one sense there is a very loose class aspect to this. We have ordinary working class people verses those in positions of privilege and power. Alternatively, we have good upstanding middle-class citizens verses what? The underclass? The problem people we’d like to exclude from our society?

On a second level, I struggle with use of the term citizen to refer to people in Britain. Unlike America, where the constitution is framed around the rights and expectations of citizens, the British are technically subjects. We use the term citizenship, but in fact it probably only properly applies to people who have been given the freedom of a city or who hold it as a hereditary title. I realise that this is overly technical, but its worth bearing the legal reality in mind, once a couple of centuries of nicety and toleration of democracy are removed.

Now, some might argue that talk of citizenship implies more responsibility than use of a term like ‘ordinary people’. I disagree. If we are to model something in our campaigns, it must be responsibility to one another, to fellow community members. As ordinary members of the community, we have collective responsibility to look out for the needs of the most vulnerable amongst us. But it also means that legal status isn’t important – that everyone is included in that responsibility as much as they are, or should expect to be, included in the community. We cannot afford to reaffirm people’s status as outcasts in our campaigns.


Entry filed under: Activism, Language.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Wednesday, 14th November 2012 at 15:50 UTC

    ” We use the term citizenship, but in fact it probably only properly applies to people who have been given the freedom of a city or who hold it as a hereditary title. I realise that this is overly technical, but its worth bearing the legal reality in mind, ”

    Err, no. Technically, I am a British Citizen, which is what it says on my passport. “British Subject” is the technical term for a different, lesser type of British nationality.

  • 2. Amanda Bickerton  |  Monday, 19th November 2012 at 15:04 UTC

    Plebeians perhaps?….
    In response to Greg, the technical status I ‘enjoy’ as a ‘citizen’ is just that. I enjoy that status based on the will of the Queen in Parliament. If the people elect a member of parliament to represent them, unless that representative is prepared to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, they cannot fulfil the will of the people – that does not sound like citizenship, or democracy – we are subjects, we have no choice in the matter – we do not have a democratically elected head of state.

    As for the wider problem, the collective description of ‘the people’, I am reminded of William Henry Chadwick, the last of the Chartists, when he said: ‘you taxed our windows and kept us in the dark, you taxed our soap and called us the Great Unwashed’…

  • 3. Greg  |  Friday, 23rd November 2012 at 23:58 UTC

    “elect … that does not sound like democracy”

    Nope, sorry, does not compute. We have one of the best democracies in the world, and the fact that we have a relic of a monarchy is neither here nor there. When you tell me how the queen has materially affected your life, I’ll believe you have a point.


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