Panel discusses citizenship in modern society

Professors and students gathered in Ground Zero Performance Café on Wednesday to share thoughts about the role of citizenship in today’s world. The event, called “Reimagine Citizenship,” was part of the USC Levan Institute’s ongoing  “Coffeehouse Conversations On Practical Ethics” series.

Civics · Panelists Niels W. Frenzen (left), Scott Lepisto, Michel Angela Martinez and Ron Osbourne discussed historical and modern-day activism at the Wednesday event. – Arya Harsono | Daily Trojan

Moderator Sharon Lloyd, a professor of philosophy, law and political science, began the discussion by challenging the audience to think about how prevalent activism is in today’s society.

“Are there more sources of activism now, or just slacktivism?” she said.

The panel, which featured two Dornsife professors, a law professor and two Ph.D. students, weighed in on the issue of activism for about five minutes each before opening the floor to discussion.

Ralph Wedgwood, a professor of philosophy, began by defining citizenship and putting the concept of citizenship in perspective.

“A citizen is someone who has full membership in the community. In Ancient Greece, that was limited to men who were not slaves,” Wedgwood said. Historically, he noted, citizens could only be bound to one community.

“If you’re a citizen of Athens, you’re not a citizen of Sparta,” Wedgwood said, referring to the citizenship policies of typical Western  civilizations.

Another major point in his argument was that globalization has changed the way we view citizenship. Wedgwood explained that we do not live in a world of completely sealed-off bubbles.

“What happens in one country has profound and immediate effects on other countries,” he said.

He also argued that globalization is slowly making our traditional views of citizenship irrelevant and that we are slowly moving into a world of cosmopolitan ideals.

“To be cosmopolitan is to be a citizen of the universe,” he said.

Dr. Ron Osborn of USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences agreed, sharing a story about visiting North Korea and agreeing to bow to a statue of Kim Jong-il.

Despite his concerns about North Korea being an authoritarian regime that operates on dictatorship, he explained that he bowed as a way of showing respect, not necessarily to imply worship.

“North Koreans are in fact very proud of their culture, of their history, of their identity,” he said. “Perhaps we should take that into consideration.”

From there, the conversation quickly turned to activism. Ph.D. students Michel Martinez and Scott Lepisto, who were both involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and encouraged students to also be activists.

“Your voice can be so much more than just a vote. Voting is such a small part of participation,” Martinez said.

Law Professor Niels Frenzen agreed, citing the positive effects of protests by immigrants in the United States. Frenzen cited the steps President Barack Obama has taken to give temporary status to some immigrants.

“The Obama administration’s response has been, in large part, due to demonstrations that have been carried out for some years,” Frenzen said, referring specifically to the 500,000-strong demonstration protesting a proposed federal crackdown on illegal immigration in 2006.

Students who attended this event said they left with a new appreciation of their roles as citizens.

Haig Nalbandian, a junior majoring in industrial and systems engineering, said he originally came to fulfill a class requirement, but ended up learning more about other cultures.

“I appreciated the topic of citizenship, and learning about the North Korean state was interesting,” Nalbandian said.


The next Coffeehouse Conversation, “My Body Made Me Do It!”, will occur on Oct. 24 at noon.