January 24, 2008

Is Identity Relevant for Citizenship? An Instinctive Approach

Writing the above question down, I feel almost instinctively inclined to say: yes, of course, how can we be citizens if we don’t identify ourselves as such? But what does “identifying with” mean? Three meanings come to my mind: the relationship between me and this citizenship, the relationship between my small group and this citizenship, and the relationship between my small group and other small groups which are also granted this citizenship. Is there enough common ground for us to unite as citizens? Does it serve our interests evenly? Is the language in which this citizenship is defined couched in the words that the other groups feel comfortable with, or have I also had my say, and can identify with its rights and obligations? And then, how much do I need to agree with it, which part of my identity is called upon to identify with my citizenship?

Although “part of my identity” may in fact already appear significantly less instinctive, this certainly isn’t the case. Although we are at all times citizen, we are only so often reminded by it, which means that at all times we are not, our identity must be focussing on something else. It may be with our village, our student community, our group of indie friends or our climbing club mates. It this which is meant by: “multiple identities”, a concept in fact significantly less post-modern than it may at first glance appear to be. More than anything else, looking at the individual as a posessor of multiple identities, we apply on this individual a sophisticated, fluid mechanism, in which points of reference and focus vary in time and space. All of these identities have their own context, and might not even be coherent, or in the most extreme cases even mutually exclusive. In everyday language, this would mean that in some instances, you are something which at other moments, you will have to conceal. Not an ideal situation, of course, and it would seem preferable to possess a set of identities that is roughly referentially coherent. You then become a thing that at every moment reveals another facet, but at least of the same thing.

So citizenship? In a small community, it can require “thick” characteristics of coercion and obligation. In ancient Greece, city officials would walk the streets with a rope drenched in paint to force their citizens to the meeting. In our time, citizenship has tended to focus more on delivering, i.e. rights, than on coercion. Apart from the absolutely necessary (e.g. taxes and public order) it has tended to enforce little. This is a necessity deriving from the sheer size of our conglomerates of citizens (democracies), asking of the state to respect diversity. This citizenship is “thin”, a thing we have tended to praise, as it is a liberal and tends to value the individual.

Unfortunately, although citizenship in the modern state (or in the current EU, for that matter) does not ask of you to walk and talk in line, it’s requirements of identification are reified in no other way than other identities: they require renewal and participation, they need reshaping according to needs of time, and understanding for the diversity across space, to go short, citizenship needs affiliation. When citizens begin to demand without wanting to contribute, the nation state will start to tear. When citizens are asked to affilliate but are effectively barred from participating, the EU will eventually disintegrate.

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