Today we celebrate International Youth Day. As society we come together to look at and reflect on the role that young people play and to put emphasis on youth-related issues. This year’s topic is Youth Civic Engagement.
Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon made the following statement on this year’s Youth Day:
As the world changes with unprecedented speed, young people are proving to be invaluable partners who can advance meaningful solutions. Youth movements and student groups are challenging traditional power structures and advocating a new social contract between States and societies. Young leaders have contributed fresh ideas, taken proactive measures, and mobilized through social media as never before. (…)
Volunteerism is an ideal way to improve society – and it is open to virtually everyone. Youth can also join forces with the United Nations as we move from forging the new sustainable development goals to implementing them. That spirit of action is embodied in the theme of this International Day: “Youth and Civic Engagement.”
The advertisement for a university I saw on the train on my way here read:
You have ideas.
You have energy.
You have ability.
This expresses that society is looking towards young people as a source or driving force for change and societal renewal. At the same time young people are seen as requiring education to become or be responsible citizens and to prevent delinquent behaviour and destructive life choices.
We have now talked about youth, but do these points resonate with young people?
I think they do. While a lot of youth policy is focusing on how young people can be or ought to be heard, young people also seek purposeful ways to express themselves. We seek answers to questions like: “How can my life choices have purpose and contribute to the world?” Many feel that there must be an answer to that question that goes beyond egoism, nihilism or dogmatism.
How can political education and education provided by religious/local communities foster civic engagement?
I hope that we will be able to come up with suggestions an how young people can become more engaged in society and in our local communities, with the young people we know and relate to on a daily basis. I want to ask myself on this Youth Day what I can do to provide my friends with solid encouragement to get involved in the issues our societies face and utilize their power to transform.
For this purpose let me put forth two perspectives on this questions reflecting on religion and politics in our contemporary societies.
(1) Digitalisation. Young people’s lives are to an enormous amount shaped by digital media. People grow up with their devices and virtual identities, being online literally all the time. There is no point in asking whether this is a good or a bad development. It’s a reality. (See also Does the Internet make us Global Citizens?)
The amount of Media young people consume has definitely increased and we are in the process of figuring out the consequences of that. Concerning engagement: What I know is, that initiative, action requires, finding my calling also requires quiet moments of being reflective and disconnected of the world and entirely connected to oneself. Autonomy requires having the freedom to disconnect from and re-approach situations.
In a connected world we become more aware of the role of the unconscious workings of our minds and brains. However, media companies, advertisement companies, political parties and spin-doctors do as well. The Royal Society in its 21st Century Enlightenment initiative touches upon this issue. One of their principles is self-aware autonomy. Matthew Taylor writes about the concept of self-aware autonomy:
I have used the simple metaphor for human behaviour of an elephant being ridden through a cultivated jungle, in which the rider is our conscious thought, the elephant our automatic systems and the jungle our social context. The skilful elephant rider is not under the illusion he can take any route at any speed but understands the habits of elephants and the advantages and pitfalls of different paths through the jungle.
For democracy to work in 21st Century knowing how to ride that elephant is crucial. Especially if our young minds are being formed in the environment it is today.
I do think religious practices like prayer, contemplation and meditation can play in combination with the theoretical knowledge provided by science a crucial role in understanding ourselves as agents and empower young people to engage with society in a self-aware and autonomous way.
(2) Vision. Political engagement requires, next to autonomy the vision and the belief that one’s contribution matters. Fairness, equality and justice are central themes (you may call them values or virtues) in policy making and are ideas that we need to re-explore time and again in new social circumstances and re-apply to the problems and situations we face.
Religious texts and traditions are great resources that we can return to and use to re-discover how these human virtues should be understood in our time. To give a short example from Christianity: “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25) allows Christians as well as Non-Christians to reflect on the extent and limit of the state’s power (e.g. police) and its relationship to individual autonomy and conscience.
Of course religious revelation and policy making are two different things and in multi-religious society “translation work” needs to be done. I believe religious communities should be encouraged or even challenged to discuss these issues with their young people and formulate their responses to current challenges young people are facing.
Asmaa already spoke about how for the young people she studied, religion was a motivating force for volunteering. I could experience myself that with a deep love for God a lot of good and difficult work benefitting society can be done. I would like to thank you all for joining us today on this Youth Day and look forward to discussing, networking and working with you!