Building cosmopolitan identities while retaining national pride

Published

Credit: Geograph / Ian S

Kevin Le Merle
Writer

Kevin Le Merle discusses the influence of nationalism on the formation of identity

“Where are you from?” My mind reels at the question. What do I answer? Should I base it on the setting I am in? Should I base my answer on the person asking?

Do I give them my citizenship? And if so, which one? I am French and Norwegian, although I have never lived in Norway. Maybe I should offer my place of birth: Switzerland, although I have never returned to that place since I was two.

If I am at a football game between France and Scotland, where does my allegiance lie? I could side with my fatherland or I could choose my Norwegian mother’s Scottish ancestry (she is a McGuffie after all). Some will say my first language should be what tells me where I come from. Well, the first language I learnt was Norwegian, but I barely speak it any longer. I learned French and English at the same time, and have the same level of education in both.

In that case, do I tell people the whole story? That would take too long: I have lived in six different countries in my 21 years of existence. Yet, how could I leave any of those countries out? All of them, and even some I have not lived in, form an integral part of my identity.

“European” has been my go-to answer for a while now. Yet, for some, it just doesn’t cut it as it’s followed up by the classic line: “But where are you really from?”.

Many people base a great part of their identity on ethnonationalist factors. This might prove harmless – until it isn’t. Let’s have a thought experiment:

Two people, one a foreigner, and one a compatriot (from the same nation-state, and with the same cultural heritage as you), are stuck in quicksand. They are both sinking at the same rate, and are both likely to die if you do not help them. You can only save one. Which one do you choose? (Some philosophy connoisseurs might recognise a variant of the trolley problem).

If your answer is your compatriot, the issue of universalism arises: aren’t they both equally human, and equally deserving of a good, full life? How would you rationally and morally justify your choice? Do you feel as though one deserves life more, and if so, why? Do you think your compatriots are better than foreigners in some respect? You might say shared experiences, a collective history, and culture are sufficient grounds for favouring one over the other.

Now, if you think a shared culture is enough, take this variant of the problem: the foreigner is a close friend of yours, while your compatriot is a stranger. Now which do you choose? Why? These are questions everyone should ask themselves when exploring their relationship to their nation.

There are two types of nationalism: one promotes inclusivity and does not contradict with the reality of having multiple national (or other types of) identities reside in one country; the other calls for exclusivity and priority of one identity over others. The first enables national values to transcend ethno-national and citizenship boundaries: anyone has a claim to participate in these shared values. The second cannot be based on the moral grounds of the universalism of human rights and cosmopolitanism. The first welcomes diversity as wealth, and attempts to spread the pride of specific cultural artefacts to people from all walks of life and all cultures. The second enacts a process of ostracisation, whereby only a limited few deserve access to these cultural artefacts, and the rest become known as the “others”. The first is inclusive and stresses the shared values of humanity; the second is exclusive and narrow-minded.

The next question should be, in the globalised society we live in, which type of nationalist sentiment is most likely to incur positive consequences? UK universities pride themselves on their international outlook. The University of Glasgow brags of its student population being composed of 36% international students, and “welcoming students from 140 countries worldwide”. This makes the question even more pressing. In the lead up to Brexit, how universities will manage to keep their multicultural outlook remains to be seen. If political theorist David Miller’s nationalism prevails in the wake of Brexit (a nationalism that is based on prioritising compatriots), it appears likely that UK universities will lose the wealth of multi-cultural identities that compose it.

Some might argue that sharing a national culture with others, and giving them a claim to it, erodes the authenticity of that culture. However, it must be remembered that one type of identity rarely negates another. Having dual citizenship does not weaken a person’s claim to either of their nationalities. Otherwise, this couldn’t account for people who have multiple national affiliations. Some might argue that having multiple national identities is a rarity.

However, with globalisation, cases like mine are on the rise. And it might be time to speculate on how we can communally build a cosmopolitan identity without negating the wealth of a specific national pride. “European” is a great answer. But what would someone who has a mother from Brazil and a father from Japan, and has lived their life in Scotland, and Slovenia, be able to answer if someone asks “Where are you from?” The University of Glasgow is home to multiple students with similar quandaries (a person that has dual Iranian and Czech Republic citizenship for instance). People often emphasise the importance of multiculturalism, but the creation of multicultural identities can only exist where the ideology of exclusivity fades away from nationalist discourse.