As we welcome the New Year, we come face-to-face with the opportunity to make some New Year’s resolutions. The tendency is to think of these in terms of self-imposed plans of action to improve our individual lives. What wasn’t accomplished in 2011 that should have? What was overlooked? What has been put off for far too long?
This all seems obvious enough. But I would like to make a proposal for this New Year, one that I feel would benefit us collectively as well as individually: that we make New Year’s resolutions that pertain to society rather than to ourselves.
What do I mean? We are all part of some social group, and our duty as part of a collective is to help it maintain and improve its health. When we donate to charity, canvass for a local politician, vote for a presidential candidate; even when we dialogue about politics and public affairs with one another, we are implicitly enacting our personalized plan for society’s improvement. We are diagnosing a social issue and resolving to address it.
And society needs a hefty dose of vitamins.
True, ‘society’ is not a tangible person — it’s an abstraction. But it’s made up of concrete units — you and I, our families, our friends and our neighbors. The ‘United States’ doesn’t know what is best for it, and it doesn’t know what medicine to take when it is sick. It’s only us, its constituent antibodies, that possess the ability to neutralize any virus that threatens to weaken the collective whole.
It’s time for us to assume greater individual agency. I don’t mean a short-sighted and self-interested agency, but a more long-term, altruistic rationalism — a realization that every single one of us is worse off if society is worse off and that we have the ability to do something about it. That is why, this New Year, we need to put society first and ourselves second.
We don’t need another New Year’s resolution to go to the gym more often, to eat less junk food, to swear less or to get better grades. Don’t get me wrong, these are all positive objectives, but this year our priorities must be different. They must be different because society is sick and we are the only ones who can cure it.
We are faced with a broken political system — Congress seems unable to achieve consensus even for something as petty as how to sign a greeting card. Our immigration system is flawed — countless people abroad are hoping to rejoin their families or seek out opportunities in the United States but are unable to do so. Millions of Americans are out of work and many have stopped seeking employment altogether. Income inequality has reached unprecedented and intolerant levels for any democratic society. This non-exhaustive sample of pressing social problems is but a microcosm of broader, structural frictions that cut across national boundaries.
Yet it’s not my intent, nor should it be yours, to define contemporary problems for others and impose upon them our individual policy prescriptions. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore social problems that we feel need addressing. It’s time to take advantage of the agency that our democratic freedoms protect. For if we don’t make use of it, why is it worth safeguarding in the first place?
This New Year, let us not take our agency for granted. Let us realize that agency does not simply mean the ability to do what’s best for you, but to also make a social difference. All that’s required to get started is a contract — a resolution, if you will. But this year, let’s revise the terms of the contract — let us not reach an agreement with our individual selves, but with society.
We have behaved as if our duty to society is but a spectator sport. We are loud in our laments but silent in our actions. This year must be different, and it starts with the type of resolutions we make.