15 December 2011 **** Front page

Identities in an insecure world

By Tapani Lausti

Gary Younge, Who Are We – And Should It Matter in the 21 st Century? Penguin Books 2011.

As the European Union teeters on the brink of an economic catastrophe, the idea of Europe also seems to be on the verge of collapse. Fewer people emphasise their pan-European sympathies or their pride of being European. Nationalist passions are on the rise in many corners of Europe. The feeling of powerlessness in the midst of economic insecurity strengthens the longing for a more or less fixed national or ethnic identity.

As Gary Younge writes: "Feeling under threat from a large world whose politics and economics we are unable to control, many resort instead to the defence of ‘culture', the one thing people think they have a grip on. In short, they retreat into identities — often reinvented as the local, the known and, above all, the traditional — as a protective mechanism against the encroaching outside world, which is often experienced as chaotic, cosmopolitan and evolving." (p. 208)

Gary Younge, whose parents came from Barbados and who grew up in England, makes the sensible point that the problem is not that diversity exists but what we choose to make of it: “In short, do we understand our various identities as being an integral part of our common humanity or as something separate, above and beyond it?" (p. 227)

People often seek a sense of personal pride from their real or imagined identity. Even when it doesn't make any sense, this feeling of pride seems to be very important for many people. Younge explains it thus: "For in order to rally people around flag and anthem, the nationalist must convince people not only that their nation has endowed them with specific and exclusive human qualities but that those qualities are also eternal." (p. 132)

The other side of the coin is that people easily become convinced that nationalities and races are placed at various levels in supposed hierarchy in terms of comparative qualities. The need to feel superior to some others is a regrettably common attitude. Suddenly the Greeks are decribed as lazy people who have only themselves to blame for their economic woes. The Roma seem to be at the receiving end of wide-spread prejudices in many countries. People may not feel superior towards the Germans but the growing power of the German economy creates resentment even towards ordinary Germans who have no say in their elite's policies. The animosities imprison people in their respective identity-cells.

Gary Younge usefully explores many supposedly fixed identities around the world, from races in the United Sates to national and religious identities in England, Ireland, Belgium, France, the Balkans, Israel and elsewhere. He points at many absurdities and sometimes hilarious contradictions in nationalistic fables.

Younge's quote from the British social thinker Stuart Hall sums up well this futile attempt to imagine fixed cultural identities: "Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power." (p. 117)

As in the case of many books which have been written before the tumultuous year of 2011 one wonders if some observations or assumptions might have to be looked at again. The Arab Spring and the Occupy movements have suddenly brought to the forefront attitudes which seem to overcome narrow national world views. As many traditional social and political assumptions are being discarded and openings for more universal ideas about humanity emerge, it would seem that almost everywhere a new generation might be ready to turn their backs on a staid old world.

Not that anything in Younge's book needs to be changed. He ends the book with this: “The choice is whether we want to succumb to [identity's] perils amidst moral panic and divisions or leverage its potential through solidarity in search of common, and higher, ground.” (p. 231)


Visit the archive: Multiculturalism and identity, Kenan Malik


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