Saturday, 2 February 2008

Boundary Less-ness

My brother and I have been having an interesting conversation following a post of his on his blog. So am copy pasting the post as well as the conversation following it (in the form of comments). It is interesting and I could hardly re-write it any better. In a certain way it is not just a question of nationalism or identifying with one's country but also with how we see and understand ourselves. It is really a much larger debate and the outcome is debatable and unpredictable. It would be interesting to see where all the "boundaryless-ness" of cyberspace leads us in terms of thinking about and understanding ourselves as human beings.

Nationalism - Time to move on?

As India celebrated its 59th Republic day this last Saturday, I was struck once again, as I often am, by the fervor with which we Indians assert our "Indianness". Maybe this is just an illusion, but I do find that Indians on the whole are much more patriotic than a lot of other communities. We want to do good for India, we want to help "Indians", we want our country to succeed, become a global power, have a soaring economy... We are an extremely proud race, proud of our history, our diverse cultures, the fact that our civilization is so old, etc etc - and yes, some of these are, indeed, pretty remarkable things.

In the larger context though, I find myself less and less inclined towards nationalism/patriotism towards one particular country. I do strongly believe that, though few people realize it, nationalism really is a thing of the past, and is a largely redundant concept in today's increasingly global world. I think nationalism was a wonderful way in the past century for people to form their identities, to rise out of slavery and colonialism, to come together under the common banner of a country, attain their independence, and gain a sense of self-worth. But I think the need for nationalism pretty much ended there - and the future we are moving towards is one where I believe the concept will eventually cease to exist the way we know of it today.

There are already glimpses of this - the European Union being the biggest example, with a number of "countries" coming together under a common banner, as they realize how interlinked they really are. And it would do us all a world of good, I think, to pause for a bit and muse on how dependent we are on the rest of the world today. Every basic need of ours is met by things that are probably made on the other end of the planet. We communicate with people all over the world, exchange information at unimaginable rates across vast spaces. Really, if you think about it, our very existence is intrinsically linked to a huge network of people all over the world. And this is something that's very much a development of the last 50 years or so - one could not have said this at the turn of the last century.

So why does nationalism still linger on? Why is the first question on our minds when we meet someone still "Where do you come from?" I believe the answer to that is the fact that nationalism gives us all a strong sense of identity. It is easy for me to concretize my "Indian" identity, as opposed to my global, human one. And a sense of identity is so important to us all, isn't it? And this really, i believe, is at the root of all our forms of categorization of people - on the basis of race, religion, creed, caste, sex, nationality - this need to associate a distinct identity with oneself, and identify other people who attach the same identity to themselves. And its all right having an identity for oneself - but the problem really arises when we use it to categorize other people, judge them, and use it as a means to differentiate between people.

So where does this end? In my opinion we will see a visible decline in nationalism as more and more people steadily realize that they do share a common identity with every other human being on earth - that of being human, and a creation of God. The shared sense of a common, interlinked existence and a common spiritual purpose to life is what will truly bring people together, and break all these barriers of categories we've set up for ourselves. Countries will continue to exist - but will be mere administrative units. And preserve our diverse cultures we will, and maintain our individuality we will - but the realization that fundamentally we are all one, and that our most basic identity is the one that connects us with every other soul on this planet, and with God, will enable us to truly accept each other as part of one global family.

"We desire but the good of the world and happiness of the nations....That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled... Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the "Most Great Peace" shall come.... These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family.... Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind."

Nithya Ravi said...

Hmmm... interesting and while I agree that nationalism in the jingoistic or patriotic sense is becoming rather dated because of our interdependence on and our interaction with people from all parts of the globe, I think nations will linger on as a way of expressing cultural identities.

Also, I think the need of distinguishing ourselves as unique is very strong which is why we adopt multiply multiple identities which identifies us with some people but distinguishes us from others, making the whole combination unique and thus, setting each one as distinct from the other as an individual. So even if the identity of a nation fades, something else will always take its place.

And the problem is not with the identity or classification itself but with how we use it to discriminate, stereotype, dominate and exploit. Therein lies the problem and not in the fact that these identities exist because ultimately things like sex, religion and caste are only means of concretising the abstract known as existence.

January 31, 2008 11:33 PM

Blogger Nikhil said...

Agree totally with all that - and i agree that nations will continue to exist as administrative and cultural units. But I must again reiterate that over time I do think it will cease to be the strongest part of our identity - which it still is for a lot of us. India is a difficult example because even at the micro level these things are a strong part of our identity - not only does it matter to us that we're indian, it also matters which state we're from, what religion we are, etc. A better example is the US - Americans can be very very patriotic and nationalistic. But it doesn't matter that much which particular state they're from, for example. That for me, is a reflection of what nationalism will (or at least, should) become one day - where all these boundaries still exist, but they don't matter that much. And it would still be a part of our identity as we see it, but we would not allow it to discriminate against others, as our shared common identity as i described it would be more valuable to us.

February 1, 2008 7:12 AM

Blogger Nithya Ravi said...

Sure... but my argument is essentially this that if not nationalism, there will another identity that will become equally powerful, evocative and discriminatory because identities or ideas of the body as a social construct is how we identify ourselves.

So it is, from a purely philosophical and academic point of view, not important which identity occupies that position but that AN IDENTITY does.

History has seen a long succession of such identities from caste to religion to language... the nation is probably the most abstract of these identities so far because you can't really define it (it transcends the geographic definition of a state as well). Blood has been shed in the names of all these identities sometimes to a greater degree and sometimes to a lesser degree. There is a certain cyclicity to it only that the level of complexity increases with the level of abstraction that one invests into the identity.

February 1, 2008 9:50 AM

Blogger Nithya Ravi said...

PS: this conversation makes for an interesting post in itself... maybe you should copy paste it beneath your original article... or with your permission i will do so on my blog.

February 1, 2008 9:51 AM

Blogger Nikhil said...

sure there is something that does and always will form our identity - but its not just circular. Let's take an example. Fifty years ago, in India, your identity was not just that you were an Indian, but also included which part you came from, what your religion was, what your caste was, your subcaste, your family name, etc. Today we've shed some of the more micro-level identities, but still hold on to some large ones. You and I dont hold on to all the things our parents hold on to as a part of our identities. So its not just cyclical - but sort of spiraling outwards, where our identity is, as you said, becoming more and more abstract and high level. So the next stage in that, I think, is developing a global, human identity. And who knows what after that... :)

I'm not contending, therefore, that we will lose things to hold on to as part of our identity - I just mean that what we hold on to will eventually become more high-level, and hopefully reach a stage where we won't have to discriminate amongst each other on the basis of that.


This comment has been removed by the author.
Deepak Gopalakrishnan said...

It's true that the internet has brought people from all over the world closer together. But the tag of nationality still remains - people are still proud to be identified as Indians, Americans, French, Burkino Fasese, whatever.

But the dilution of boundaries appears when you come together for a common cause a take for example, at work. Accenture Services Pvt Ltd does not identify me to be an Indian, or someone else to be an American, or (fingers crossed for the day they set up shop in Ougadougou) Burkino Fasese. We are employees.

Another classic example - the English Premier League. When Eidur Gudjohnsen dons the jersey, he is a Chelsea player first who happens to be an Icelander. Wayne Rooney is Man United first, English next. So commercialisation (if I may take the liberty of using a rather extreme term) has diluted boundaries - and it really is more than that - anything that sets people towards a common goal is responsible for eroding any points of difference. Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu might be squabbling over the Kaveri water issue - but things come to a halt when Dravid, Sreeshanth and Badani play for India together.

To paraphrase what Mr. Aratukulangara Francis Mathew told us, a community will fight for its right against a common enemy. But once that end is achieved, they will start fighting among themselves. India fought as one against the British. After Independence, they started breaking up into over forty different states. Today, the residents of the Telangana region are fighting the rest of AP for a separate state. After that is achieved, what will happen next? Will Andhra brahmins and Reddys fight with each other over something else?

'Identity' is all-pervasive. When you represent your BSchool, you are a MICAn first, an engineer next and a Keralite third. But when you represent your state, you are a Keralite first... Oh well, you get the drift.

Desperate Comment Participation (DCP) again,