Better together?

In the dark aftermath of Brexit, my troubled mind keeps turning to the problem of togetherness. Putting aside the shambolic campaigning for a moment (and the cold, seemingly irreversible fact that we must now leave the EU), the biggest shock comes with the realisation of just how divided the United Kingdom truly is. And not just shock at England’s disproportionate power to make decisions of great cultural, political and economic magnitude, but shock at how little we know our neighbours, friends and family members. In most parts of the country people are left with a horrible feeling that we don’t understand each other as well as we thought we did, or indeed, at all.

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The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

The idea of togetherness often ends up on the warm fuzzy side of serious debate about how diversely populated neighbourhoods, regions or nations should be managed. As a resident of a cooperative community, I’m confronted with the challenge of togetherness a lot. On the one hand, working with other people to make things happen is a deeply satisfying and mutually supportive experience. On the other, making decisions collectively can be difficult, frustrating and time consuming. Consensus decision making helps with this tremendously, as it ensures that everyone has been heard and that everyone is happy with, or can at least live with, the final decision. In the best cases, I find that my position been has changed through the process, having taken in the collective views of my neighbours and gained a deeper awareness of an issue or problem that effects us all.

In a recent meeting, a wise member of my community suggested that in order to truly listen and understand someone else’s views, you must be willing to change sides, to walk around in another’s shoes as if they were your own. Another member half-jokingly asked, ‘but can we keep our own socks on?’. It’s a fair question, because getting on side with someone who thinks, acts and lives differently from you can be a big ask. Impossible, in some cases. I thought about the people who voted Leave for reasons that I will never be able to relate to, and how hard it would be to sit down and really listen to them without being filled with anger and resentment. I feel in my heart that not only were they wrong in voting out, but that they were acting from a place of selfishness, ignorance and fear, and now we are all paying the price. I am angry because I simply cannot empathise with the intolerance and insularity that seems to have moved so many to vote Leave. Even if I agreed to try on their shoes, I doubt they would fit.

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Guardsman collapsed during Trooping the Colour for Queen’s 90th birthday, 11 June 2016 (London Evening Standard)

What’s happening in Britain right now is partly about individuals and groups not relating to one another, but it’s also a measure of how much residents identify with the loaded categories of Englishness, Britishness and Europeanness, if at all. The referendum results show that a very large proportion of English and Welsh citizens do not see themselves as part of a larger European community unless they have the political and economic upper hand, and a firm control of British borders. But the UK cannot have its cake and eat it too (as Angela Merkel has made clear); being part of an international community means compromise. It doesn’t mean being greater or richer or more powerful. The global political landscape is rapidly changing, and we must be joined up to be able to operate within it, as countries and as individuals. We need to humble ourselves and see the potential in pooling resources to help poorer nations, even (or especially) at our own expense. In the words of another very wise friend, it is ‘time to become citizens of where we are heading’.

In the 3rd century BC the Cynics coined the term ‘cosmopolitan’, imagining for the first time a citizen of the cosmos. Since then, at key places and points in time, the word has been revived to evoke an idea of ‘world citizenship’. Cosmopolitanism underwrote the 1789 ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ and Emmanuel Kant’s proposition of a ‘league of nations’. Back then, it reflected the Enlightenment idea of a ‘universal reason’ that philosophers believed united all cultures and nations. In a postcolonial context, cosmopolitanism is applied in a more critical way, as a way of attending the plural and displaced cultural identities in the wake of empire, ongoing war and oppression.

For most of us, when we speak of a cosmopolitan city, we are describing a place rich with languages, colours, styles and tastes, co-mingling and cross pollinating. Growing up in rural Canada, one of my first memories of such a place was Toronto’s Chinatown, full of unfamiliar smells, foreign tongues and pagoda archways. I was entranced, and inspired that this, too, was my home country. I’ve always been attracted to the differences that make our behaviour and appearance so distinctive, and am proud to hail from a country that, at least at its urban best, has achieved a strong mosaic multiculturalism. I thought the UK, at its best, was working toward the same goal; to live together as a diverse population that changes and evolves over time, as all societies do. As cultural theorists know, there is no such thing as a pure, singular cultural origin. As humans we are always borrowing, appropriating and syncretising – taking bits from other cultures and making something new. It’s what makes us interesting.

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According to Kwame Appiah, cosmopolitanism acknowledges obligations to others beyond kith and kin and shared citizenship, and takes value in human life and particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that give them meaning [1]. This sense of belonging to something greater and more encompassing than nationhood, religion or creed, comes in and out of focus and is fraught with historical contradictions. Victorian Britain saw its fair share of intrepid travellers and diplomats, who moved freely within and across the colonies. However, rather than being seen as intrepid and open minded, many of these nineteenth-century interlopers were accused of being disloyal to the state, wealthy elites who resided ‘everywhere and nowhere’ [2]. As it expanded its borders, British imperialism required an ‘inevitable loss of cultural certainty’ [3], a contradiction that has clung on throughout the twentieth century and lingers on today, like the foul stench of something dark and misshapen that’s been left in the back of the fridge.

Transnationalism, especially in post-Empire, Postwar Europe, has never been more complicated, and we all struggle to define ourselves in relation to the ever-shifting identity formations that characterise us, and the cities and towns we inhabit or travel to. While many of us hope this diversity will inspire unity and peace, for others it is a warning bell to return to cultural ‘origins’ (imagined or otherwise), to build walls and raise flags, to stick fingers in ears and sing the national anthem loudly and obnoxiously. At its worst, the fervent support of Brexit can be interpreted as nostalgia for empire, a return to the certainty of Britishness as it was imposed the world over. As T.J. Clark has recently observed, ‘Britain’s endless replaying of its finest hour stands in the way (as it is meant to) of any real reckoning with the past of empire’.

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Yinka Shonibare, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square, London, 2010.

The tragicomedy of all this is that Britain can no more return itself to an imagined pure state, than it can deny its intrinsic, self induced internationalism. One of the results of the British Empire and its dissolution is that the UK (and not just London) became a polyglot of multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith and multinational citizens, many of whom are now fully integrated and undeniably British and European (what constitutes being English at this stage is another thing entirely). What’s more, Stewart Lee reminds us with his antagonistic humour that, despite what UKIP might have us believe, things were not better before ‘foreigners’ arrived (watch the whole thing, it’s worth it).

It seems that we’ve reached a similar deadlock in the history of British identity formation, where curiosity and open mindedness is overshadowed by terror of losing one’s own identity. As the world’s economic superpowers descend into tribalism, with squabbling leaders lost in a game of career building (with all its shameful scapegoating) and neoliberal strategising (with all its subtle, sinister exploitation), we have lost sight of what it might mean to belong to something more universal, more human. It’s as if an acceptance of diversity undermines a sense of self, rather than giving it extra dimensions and added richness. We are afraid our identities will be lost if we subscribe to a bigger picture, that we might be swallowed whole, losing our distinctiveness. Somehow we’ve forgotten that these differences and variations are precisely what make us human.

At a time when we can see and communicate with each other across the world with unprecedented ease, our cultural divisions appear to be deepening, our impulse to draw lines in the sand growing stronger by the day. For those who wish to Remain, the answer isn’t simply to scramble to the nearest moral high ground, but to build from the wreckage, to remind people of the power generated by a shared project, of the excitement we feel when we connect with someone across, through or around difference. It’s equally important though, to remember that this is not an easy or straightforward path. Rather, it is one of difficulty, discomfort and compromise. What we need now is diplomacy and a willingness to listen to each other, to dampen the flames and depolarise the debate. This means hard work and sacrifice, and leaving our shoes (and socks) at the door. Only then do we stand a chance of being better, together.

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[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. London: Allen Lane, 2006.

[2] Kobena Mercer in Cosmopolitan Modernisms. Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press, 2005.

[3] Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

 

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  1. Pingback: False fronting | folly matters

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