Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The constraints of national identity

I have discussed Wayne Norman's book on Negotiating Nationalism in a previous post. Here I want to talk about national identity - and why I find it so limiting, annoying and unsuitable for a world in which we would like to be mobile, to have our human dignity recognized and to challenge/ change/ sanction physical and systemic violence. In chapter 2, devoted to National Identity, Norman outlines some of the underlying assumptions, beliefs and sentiments that make the national identity. And here is exactly why I think we need to become creative, get rid of national identities and imagine new ways of mobilizing loyalties and justifying the social contract:

National identity, argues Norman, is based on the following sets of:
- beliefs: that there is a nation of which I am a member, which has a homeland. Furthermore, you cannot become a member of the nation just by moving there, although in some situations (certainly not if you are of Turkish background in Germany for instance) being born there out of immigrant parents may qualify you as a national. In other words, one remains eternally (or at least for the duration of one's life) defined by his/ her nation and his/her homeland. One is eternally doomed to be a stranger, should he or she decide to move somewhere else. One cannot never be 'part of us'. Now, I find this not only narrow-minded, but increasingly unsuitable for our contemporary world (read a very interesting article on this by Arash Abizadeh)

- still under the rubric of beliefs, national identity is informative - in that it tells something about yourself to those who do not know you. Now, again, this is not only paternalistic, but also absurd. If I tell you I'm Canadian, you'll feel you know something about me. But what you think you know are stereotypes. You'll make assumptions and you'll place a label onto me - without ever trying to get to know me. How can 33 million people be defined by some common traits?

- last, but not least, national identity means I'm morally obliged to my fellow-nationals - and more so than to non-nationals. This is what I would call a double standard: one cannot be committed to the idea of human rights, of individual dignity and respect derived from one's humanity, and to the idea of the nation. How can one believe in human rights, but apply two different sets of moral principles to co-nationals and 'others'?

- and finally, my favorite: even if I live in another country and become a citizen, I would always be a citizen of my nation.

No, I am not. I beg to differ. I realize I am embedded in a Western system of thinking, but I am who I am. I am not who the group decides for me to be. I may be marked by the things I have lived through, but the way I have experienced them is mine in a way too complex to even start describing. I share experiences, symbols and ideas with my friends, but not with 33 million people. And more likely my belonging to the middle class has marked my tastes and values more than anything else (well, class and the books I've loved to read throughout my life).

Now, before you jump and say: oh, you are so wrong, you are marked by your national identity in ways you cannot even began to grasp, through education and socialization, through being immersed in an universe of meaning and symbols yada yada... let me ask you to think of your own identity:

- You think (assuming you buying into the Western ontology) that you are a distinct human being. Do you think it's legitimate to have one morality for yourself and one for say your brother, your friend, your teacher - who are all 'distinct' and therefore 'others' to you?

- Are you exactly the same as you were 15 years ago? Have you reconsidered some of the things you believed in when you were a child?

- How do you react when others tell you who you are? When they tell you what you believe in, what are your traits, what and how you think?

Then why would you still buy into this national identity thing?

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