Brexit and the human problem

Though I enjoy posting Bill Ayers thoughts on a variety of different topics, his political science expertise is in ethnic conflict and identity.  Thus, I found his take on Brexit particularly compelling.  Really good stuff, so I’ll excerpt and highlight liberally…

While he doubtless disapproves of spitting on people in parking lots, George Will signaled his approval for this sort of nationalism in a recent column (which you can read here), which he titled “Britain’s welcome revival of nationhood”. He couches his argument in terms of the political centralization of power and control in Europe, but it’s really an argument about identity and community. He rails against “cultural homogenization” and lauds the desire “to live on our land, under our laws, our values and with respect to our identity”.

What Will is blithely assuming here, of course, is that we have a common understanding of who is “us” and who is “them”. Moreover, he is also assuming (without saying so) that the best way for humans to live is for all of “us” to get together in our community, and all of “them” to go live somewhere else. [emphases mine]

This notion of homogenous, exclusive communities is popular with some (though not all) “conservative” thinkers. It’s usually rooted in an unexamined base of primordialism – the notion that “nations” have an “essential” character that is deeply historical, often ancient. Britons are British, therefore, because … well, because they’re British. The history behind these groups is usually fantasy and myth, but people like it anyway.

The instinct for gathering communities of like-minded people with whom we are comfortable is an understandable one. Social psychology has long established that this is in the nature of the human-as-social-animal: the desire both to be connected to others and to be distanced from others, which social identity theorists identify as the primary purpose of groups. If I’m in a group, by definition there must be some other people who are NOT in my group – there is an “us” and a “them”.

While he doubtless disapproves of spitting on people in parking lots, George Will signaled his approval for this sort of nationalism in a recent column (which you can read here), which he titled “Britain’s welcome revival of nationhood”. He couches his argument in terms of the political centralization of power and control in Europe, but it’s really an argument about identity and community. He rails against “cultural homogenization” and lauds the desire “to live on our land, under our laws, our values and with respect to our identity”.

What Will is blithely assuming here, of course, is that we have a common understanding of who is “us” and who is “them”. Moreover, he is also assuming (without saying so) that the best way for humans to live is for all of “us” to get together in our community, and all of “them” to go live somewhere else.

This notion of homogenous, exclusive communities is popular with some (though not all) “conservative” thinkers. It’s usually rooted in an unexamined base of primordialism – the notion that “nations” have an “essential” character that is deeply historical, often ancient. Britons are British, therefore, because … well, because they’re British. The history behind these groups is usually fantasy and myth, but people like it anyway.

The instinct for gathering communities of like-minded people with whom we are comfortable is an understandable one. Social psychology has long established that this is in the nature of the human-as-social-animal: the desire both to be connected to others and to be distanced from others, which social identity theorists identify as the primary purpose of groups. If I’m in a group, by definition there must be some other people who are NOT in my group – there is an “us” and a “them”…

But there is an argument here which goes beyond the economic to the moral and social. Simply put, what kind of society do we want to live in?And what kind of citizen do I want to be within my community? Do I want to only interact with people like me and avoid others as much as possible? How do I think the stranger, the “other”, should be treated? Is it OK if I draw the boundary of my identity narrowly and reject everyone outside of those lines?

These aren’t “liberal” questions or “conservative” questions – they are fundamentally human questions. The answers have political implications, but the questions are not essentially political, they are moral and social. In my view, I cannot square narrow nationalism with any understanding of the Christian faith, and any attempt to do so would simply be selfishness on my part. The value and worth of every human is the same in the eyes of God. How we negotiate living nearby and interacting
with each other is a matter of details, based on (hopefully) mutual respect for a common humanity.

The only other alternative, despite Will’s attempt to deny it, really is isolationism. If you want to be honestly isolationist and not interact at all with people who are different, that’s fine – have at it. But if you want to live in modern society, you don’t have much of a choice. And being angry at, or afraid of, other people is simply a recipe for violence.

Great stuff.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Brexit and the human problem

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    This seems too simple to me. Isn’t it corporate globalism itself that is driving humans toward homogenization? The economic current is driving us to be “citizens of the world”, meaning we can go or be sent anywhere to work and fit in. Labor must be free to move where needed or away from where not needed. More people mean more consumers. Nationalism and even religion can get in the way of that free movement, as they divide the larger world community.
    Look in the U.S and see that we are told we must develop the skills for the jobs which need workers, we may have to do this multiple times, and we must be ready to go to follow the job market. What happens to communities when most inhabitants are actually temporary?
    How much easier it is to maintain this movement of people when their cultures are smoothed and blended into the larger mix?
    Nationalism and xenophobia are tactics that can be used to fight globalization. If we don’t want globalization or if we want to mitigate its ill effects, we must find more positive tactics. We need globalization to feed the world’s people today but we need to think about how we slow it down so people can preserve their humanity.
    The means determine the end, not the other way around.

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