Canada is my home country. For many Canadians, maple syrup, hockey, and Tim Hortons represent our common nationhood, bonding Canadian citizens through a shared understanding of the importance of these cherished icons. The word ‘nationhood’ implies a group of people who are united by a shared culture. However, while I love maple syrup, I detest hockey, the epitome of the Canadian identity. Does my lack of ability to show even a speck of interest in hockey make me less Canadian? How do these symbols of nationhood create any sort of meaningful bond between me, a British Columbian woman, and say, an aboriginal man from Nunavut? Is hockey and maple syrup really what unites us?
Masquerading as integral to the national identity, maple syrup and hockey are nothing more than symbols serving an important purpose. It’s not a new idea in sociology that nationalistic symbols play a role in uniting people in their homeland. Nationalistic symbols and their socially constructed meanings are elaborate stories which act as mechanisms to indoctrinate a citizenry into the idea that we are a bonded group because we share and take pride in these common things. Worshipping the symbol of a maple leaf is meant to make me feel like I belong in Canada.
I’m not saying that I don’t believe in the importance of cultural identity. But culture can change regionally across the same nation. The culture of British Columbia is quite different from the culture of Newfoundland, a province within the same nation but on the opposite side. Nationalistic stories about beavers and lumberjacks – other Canadian symbols – don’t make me feel more united with people literally 5000 kilometres away from me. When I talk about nationalism, I am talking about a process of social control, which is different to a set of practiced traditions comprising a culture.
So what? Is it really terrible that people like to bond over nationalistic symbols imbued with socially constructed meanings? It’s just maple syrup!
The problem with nationalism stems from its effects. Within the same nation, some people are made to feel welcome, while others are made to feel like they’re unworthy and unwanted. Nationalism shapes our understanding of belonging in relation to geographical location. Academic Nandita Sharma1 explains that nationalism has become such an ingrained, taken for granted feature of modern society that the unquestioned idea that some people belong and others don’t validates and normalizes the unequal treatment of people. Think about it: some people are actually punished just by taking up space and trying to start a new life in a nation different to the one they were born in. This is because more than just ‘belonging’ or having a home, nationalism shapes our understanding of who deserves to be treated justly as a respected human being and who can be treated unjustly like tortured animals. Sharma calls it the distinction between a nation offering inhabitants either sense of homeyness or a reality of homelessness.
Border control is the tangible and forceful way that nations protect themselves and remain sovereign. Borders are believed to be real because people participate in their perpetuation as if they are as enduring as the sun and moon. But borders between nations are also socially constructed, and are really just a very formal way of drawing a line in the sand and saying you can stand on that side while I stand on this side, and if you want to stand on my side, then you have to ask me (i.e. passports). Sharma points out that the intensified protection of national borders occurred during the colonizing era of the 1800s for an important reason; borders demarcate which nations have power and control over the resources and people of certain areas. To police the borders of a country is to safeguard whatever is worth protecting inside the nation from ‘outsiders’.
The consequences of intensified border control are painfully illustrated in Australian immigration detention centres. Detention centres have shown to be a heinous example of the socially unjust outcome of mass acceptance of nationalism. Initially, detention centres were allowed under the Migration Act 1958 to allow “discretionary detention of unauthorized arrivals.” Today they are places where so-called illegal immigrants as well as asylum seekers are detained. However, many of them, such as the one on the island of Nauru, have been criticized for their inhumane conditions and treatment of detainees. One only needs to read a couple of stories in the news of sexual assault, cockroaches and rats, attempted suicides, and the intentional swallowing of razor blades as protest in order to gain a glimpse into the terrors some humans are enduring in the beautiful nation of Australia. Detention centres such as Nauru illustrate how accepted ideas of belonging within nationalist ideologies have had the effect of normalizing the forced placement of humans into conditions of squalor and abuse. (Other examples of unjust practices legitimized by nationalistic discourses include migrant farm workers in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker’s Program (SAWP) and Canada’s Live in Caregiver Program).
Can you imagine a world where nations and nationalism didn’t exist? A true anti-nationalist hero is the extraordinarily inspirational Garry Davis, the man who created the World Passport and fought for global rather than national citizenship. In 1948 he renounced his United States of America citizenship and pronounced himself a “citizen of the world.” During the post-World War II period in the late 1940s, Davis’ claim was that sovereign states divide humanity, and have the capacity to “lead us to the abyss of Total War.” In 1949 Davis inaugurated the International Registry of World Citizens.
For me, the atrocities spurred by uncritical adherence to nationalistic ideologies could be remedied by changing the way we relate to other humans. I could write a master’s thesis about this topic, as I haven’t even begun to dissect the inherent racism woven into the fibres of nationalistic practices. However, I will keep this to a minimum and urge you to read on by checking out the references and hyperlinks. Now to address my initial question of what really unites people (not just in a nation). For me, it is not the socially constructed symbols shared by those within one geographical area. I don’t want my sign off to be interpreted as nothing more than a warm and fuzzy bedtime story, but in all seriousness: it’s our heartbeats, our need for safety, clean air, pollution-free habitats, and for adequate food and shelter, that unite us as humans. It’s not maple syrup and hockey. It’s our shared humanness.
1 Sharma, N. (2012). Nation states, borders, citizenship, and the making of “national” difference. In D, Brock, R. Raby & M. Thomas’s (Eds.), Power and Everyday Practices (pp. 321-342). Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Education.