Philosophers tend not to argue about their views, either in the quarrelsome or the lawyerly sense of the word. We strive, and usually succeed, at giving each other “a fair and sympathetic hearing” before trying to take apart the other’s claims.
Such an approach has not been anymore generative of clarity than argumentativeness or legal battling however. In the Western tradition it has produced the arcane, hidebound philosophical systems that are the mainstay of academic philosophy.
There is another approach, which involves holding a space, deep listening, and sharing and following a question with questions as they unspool into mutual insight. Given the individualistic assumptions of American/global culture however, questioning together is extremely difficult to initiate, much less sustain.
That being said, I’m engaged in a good old-fashioned philosophical dispute with the Danish philosopher Lena Rachel Anderson, over her claim that “nationalism does not need to be a bad thing.” To my mind, that is simply false.
In her book with Tomas Bjorkman, Lene Rachel defines “ten circles of belonging, through which people must be able to feel a sense of belonging and responsibility.” Its central premise is, as she wrote to me, “that belonging grows from smaller to larger.”
“We love our family before we love our neighborhood, and our country is generally the biggest legal entity where we can speak our mother tongue and engage in political debate.”
“Without this type of belonging and nationalism,” Anderson writes, “we cannot function as a nation-state.”
Both premises appear commonsense, but are simply untrue. Humankind has entered a new phase of history. As the coronavirus pandemic/panic illustrates, everyone lives in a global society and economy now. It is not only possible, it is essential to begin with a feeling for the whole of humanity before the part, as my people and my country.
Therefore it is unfitting to make the crisis of human consciousness more complex than it already is by fabricating a distinction between nationalism and “chauvinistic nationalism,” as Anderson and Bjorkman do. Philosophically and practically, that is a distinction without a difference.
Besides, the identification with our family, folk and nation has become dysfunctional, increasingly preventing the harmonious functioning of nation-states.
As we can attest in America, when a people are no longer intact and minimally cohesive as a people, it is worse than futile to speak of belonging in terms of nationalism, for it feeds into the right-wing extremism that is sweeping the world.
It’s galling to label these truths as “either-or thinking,” as opposed to “both-and thinking.” Both-and thinking amounts to trying to have things both ways.
Identification with particular groups, which is the wellspring of nationalism flowing from the ancient pattern of tribalism, lies at the root of the human dilemma in the present age.
For tens of thousands of years, identifying with particular groups was not just a matter of belonging; it was a matter of survival. Identifying with particular groups is no longer necessary for individual survival however, and it has become divisive, dysfunctional and destructive in the human present, much less the human prospect.
It simply runs counter to reality to say, “As we expand our circles of belonging, the nation is an important and manageable first step beyond our concrete in-groups.” Anderson and Bjorkman thus make a Procrustean bed of nationalism, cutting it to fit a supposedly nuanced redefinition.
On one hand, she and Bjorkman say, “nationalism is a cultural process that is the fundament of thriving nation-state democracy. On the other hand, they acknowledge, “Nationalism is how we identify with our nation-state.”
“Many people are not ready to identify with all of humanity and the planet,” they mistakenly say. Identification is taken as given, when in fact it is precisely the problem. Identification with particular groups, however small or large, is the source of division and fragmentation.
Human beings do not “identify with all of humanity;” human beings emotionally perceive that each one of us is humanity in microcosm.
All over the world, “the circles of belonging” are breaking down. Whatever necessity and validity it had in the past, we simply can no longer go from the smaller to the larger. “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on.”
So what can we do? As individuals in the best sense of the world (not divided human beings) we go from the whole to the part, from humanity within ourselves to our families, our towns and cities, and our nations.
As things are, from America to China, from Europe to Russia, from Latin America to India, nationalism is once again rearing its ugly head. Twice in the last century it produced world wars in which tens of millions were killed. Why haven’t we learned?
Despite Trump and his ilk’s atavistic nationalism, or the nostalgic nationalism extending from family and folk, enough people can begin with the fact of humanity in our irreversibly global society to end the tribalism/nationalism that’s tearing the earth and humanity apart.