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Thursday, March 20, 2008

That Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does

I just finished reading this article, and I asked the boys about the title- 'Mandatory' volunteerism?Is it time yet?" T1's response was something along the lines of "if it's mandatory, then it isn't volunteering." Smart kid.

Before I rip into the article, let's talk about the words. After all, words mean things, right? So... after a quick check with , we have the following information:
man·da·to·ry [man-duh-tawr-ee, -tohr-ee] adjective, noun, plural -ries. –adjective
1.authoritatively ordered; obligatory; compulsory: It is mandatory that all students take two years of math.
2.pertaining to, of the nature of, or containing a command.
3.Law. permitting no option; not to be disregarded or modified: a mandatory clause.
4.having received a mandate, as a nation.
vol·un·teer·ism [vol-uhn-teer-iz-uhm] –noun
1.voluntarism (def. 2).
2.the policy or practice of volunteering one's time or talents for charitable, educational, or other worthwhile activities, esp. in one's community.

vol·un·teer [vol-uhn-teer] –noun
1.a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.
2.a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

Sorry to take up so much space with something that seems painfully obvious to everyone (except Rhonda B. Graham, evidently). The moment you make an activity compulsory, it cannot be considered voluntary- the terms are mutually exclusive.

I'm not arguing the concept she's supporting (yet). I'm arguing words. Call it something else, but not "mandatory volunteering." That's just sloppy use of the English language.

The concept of compulsory community service isn't new, and it isn't necessarily bad in all cases. Israel requires service of some sort (either in the military or in some other capacity if they are religiously unable to serve in the military). It works. Many high schools in the US are now requiring a certain amount of community service in order to graduate. But no where does any of there ever even hint that this is a voluntary process- it is a mandatory requirement (for citizenship or graduation , whichever the case may be).

There are those on both sides of the political aisle who would love to see some type of compulsory service go into effect. Liberals want "compulsory service" to mean almost anything but military service and either see it as a way to feel good about their country (as Ms. Graham feels) or as a way to strip away all classes and make that communist Utopia they so desperately long for. Republicans ( I can't really call them conservatives) seem to either want some kind of responsibility to go along with the privilege of voting or just want today's young people to think about someone other than themselves for more than a nanosecond. Some would go so far as to invoke Robert Heinlein when it comes to military service and voting privilege. (The "Service guarantees citizenship" in Starship Troopers boiled down to "if you want to vote, you must be a citizen, and if you want to be a citizen, then you must serve in the military," and some folks today agree with Heinlein on that subject.)

Ms. Graham points out that Ronald Reagan coined the phrase volunteerism (I suppose to get Republicans to actually pay attention to her writing). The problem with her invoking Reagan is that I doubt she ever read what he thought about volunteering.
"No matter how big and powerful government gets, and the many services it provides, it can never take the place of volunteers."

"The work of volunteer groups throughout our country represents the very heart and soul of America. They have helped make this the most compassionate, generous, and humane society that ever existed on the face of this earth."
Does that sound like mandatory service? What makes America great (and what Ms. Graham has missed by a mile) is our giving spirit. We want to help others. Show a need, and Americans will fill that need. We are a caring, compassionate lot for the most part.

That's not what Ms. Graham is talking about. She's not endorsing compassionate responses to seen needs. There is another term for what she's advocating, and I'm not sure she'll be thrilled to hear it- slavery. Forcing people to work without payment for the benefit of others is a definition of slavery, is it not?

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