Beyond God and country
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AUGUST 13 — Who are you?
If asked to describe themselves in a few short sentences, most people would provide similar pieces of information.
Firstly, of course, your name. Then your job or occupation, marital status and family, town or region of residence and perhaps an important hobby or pastime.
There would also, without doubt, be another badge of identity which most people would readily proclaim as one of their key life facts: nationality.
As a Briton living in Spain, I can attest that “Where are you from?” is generally one of the first questions asked whenever strangers from different countries meet.
More often than not, natives can guess my nationality from my accent and are merely seeking confirmation, but either way the fact that I am English seems to matter.
I’ve always done the same thing. Upon meeting a stranger from a strange land, whether they are French or Spanish or Indian or Malaysian or Canadian feels like it should be important, as though it tells me something fundamental and significant about their personalities.
The more time I spend away from my birth country, however, the more I am starting to believe that nationality does not really mean anything, intrinsically, at all.
Of course there are surface differences such as language and cultural references, but behind those superficialities lies a common humanity which is the shared from Tipperary to Timbuktu.
I made a big step in this direction of thinking around about this time last year, when the decision of British people to exit the European Union made me realise that I don’t “know” my fellow countrymen at all.
I know some of them, obviously, and there are many Britons with whom I would quickly and easily identify. But there are just as many with whom I have less in common than some natives of Barcelona, New York and Kuala Lumpur.
The Brexit vote was a major shock to the system, and one personal consequence is that I have mentally renounced my nationhood. Being British now means nothing to me.
Although that sounds rather extreme and petulant, I don’t mean it as a negative, pompous criticism. I don’t regard myself as superior to Britons or believe Brexiteers are stupid for voting the way they did — they have their reasons, just as I have my reasons for opposing it.
Rather than being a judgmental matter, I have just come to regard nationality as being irrelevant. Nationality is an accident of birth and tells you little other than when somebody happened, for circumstances beyond their control, to be born.
Being British, for me, is neither a matter of pride or shame; it’s just a peripheral fact which no longer plays any role in defining me.
It turns out a lot of people feel the same way. An increasing number of people regard themselves as global citizens rather than identifying themselves by the country of their passport, and a movement called post-nationalism captures the sentiment that borders are becoming redundant in the increasingly inter-connected modern world.
Perhaps the most prominent champion of that viewpoint is the historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari, whose recent books Sapiens and Homo Deus have called for mankind to move away from nationalist perspectives and adopt a more global outlook.
That kind of thinking was never really possible in the past. Until relatively recently, the country you were born in was the country you lived in for the rest of your life, with little opportunity to meet or mingle with people from other places.
But technological advances have changed the way we see our place in the world. Digital communications, in particular, have no regard for artificial man-made boundaries such as national borders, and the mass usage of email and social media has quite literally opened up a completely new world for millions upon millions of people all over the planet.
If the concept of nationality is under threat from the new world order, so too is another former cornerstone of identity: religion.
The declining influence of God and gods stems partly from science, which demonstrates that many old beliefs are simply inaccurate, but also from the mingling of cultures which has resulted from globalisation.
In the past, people would follow the faith of their home nations and have little to do with any other belief systems. Christians and Muslims could fervently follow their own beliefs without ever coming into direct contact with each other and so, the occasional zealot and crusader aside, on the whole there was no real problem.
Now, though, everyone and everything is intertwined and intermeshed and pretty much every large city in the world contains Christians and Muslims and Hindus and atheists, all with different national backgrounds, living side by side.
This new reality presents some obvious problems and challenges, not just in terms of social cohesion but also personal identity. Humanity does not exist in a vacuum and life needs some kind of framework. Rejecting two old forms of categorisations – nation and religion — still leaves open the question of “who are you?”
If the age-old pledge to “serve God and country” loses its meaning, what should be served instead? If you don’t follow the teachings of the Koran or the Bible, and you don’t feel moved by patriotism, should you instead follow the United Nations charter? A personal creed? A political movement?
I don’t know. I’m new to this way of thinking, and am still working out my place in a world which, for me, is no longer defined by religion or nationality.
But as humanity delves deeper into a mode of thinking where traditional belief systems are increasingly losing their meaning, these are questions we will all have to spend more time answering.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.