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Where you think you're from, and why it matters

November 26, 2019

Where are you from?

 

 For most people it’s a simple question, usually the first one asked after learning someone’s name. For many people the answer is also simple.

 

Dig a little deeper though, and the question reveals a lot about how humans relate to each other. Your answer tells the other person how they can relate to you. Do you share a mother tongue? Do you share a culture? Do you have similar experiences or interests?

 

In other words, who are you?

 

Our national identity is at the core of how we see ourselves. It is shorthand for the group we most identify with - and make no mistake, we all identify with a group of some kind. A sense of belonging is a foremost psychological need, coming only after basic physical requirements like food and water and a sense of security.

 

It is also a primary determinant of our behaviour. Most national identities are intertwined with culture, which itself goes a long way in determining how you feel and how you behave. Japanese people, for example, self-report more feelings of shame and guilt than Americans, who report more anger and irritation. When negotiating, British people are less confrontational and more emotionally un-expressive than Israelis.

 

 

In short, who you are is largely based on where you’re from.

 

But if we met a few hundred years ago in Europe, I wouldn’t necessarily ask you where you’re from. I’d be more concerned with what you believed; whether you were Christian or Jewish, Protestant or Catholic, or any other number of religious identities.

 

Religion was the way we tried to find meaning in our existence. It allowed us to view chance as the product of some kind of eternal system rather than as cold, meaningless coincidence. It gave us traditions and ceremonies that united communities and shaped our behaviour. It told us who we were.

 

Then the Enlightenment happened. Religion lost its grip on our collective sense of self.

 

But our need to belong didn’t go away. We still needed a way to connect chance to something larger, some kind of long-lasting community that could bring us together, shape our behaviour and tell us who we are. Sound familiar?

 

Luckily, the Enlightenment also meant that many of us learned to read and write. Now we were able to talk to each other in print, and suddenly we became aware of the millions of others that shared our language and culture. We also became capitalist, and early book printers quickly expanded into new markets in search of profits.

 

In losing our religion we became aware of our nationality. The former morphed into the latter. It became the new tool we used to unite ourselves.

 

Once you understand this link, national traditions and ceremonies start looking more and more like a sort of rebranded religion.

 

Photo credit: Defence

 

War memorials are our cathedrals, pilgrims travel to distant battlefields, our most prominent leaders are revered, our constitutions are our sacred texts, the rule of law is the rule of God. We are brought together by ceremonies and tradition; dawn services on Anzac Day, turkey on Thanksgiving, celebrations of our collective birth on Australia Day, Bastille Day or July 4th. We venerate those that sacrifice their lives for their country in the same way religions once venerated saints who died for the cause, and we retell the story of our collective origin to children.

 

The trouble is, your nationality is a figment of your imagination. 

 

As historian Benedict Anderson put it, nobody will ever meet all other members of their nation, or even learn of their existence. Humans aren’t actually capable of remembering more than around 1500 faces. In fact, we’re only able to maintain about 150 friends and acquaintances, a number that pops up in everything from office sizes to Christmas card lists. Groups larger than 150 tend to split into smaller groups. This is known as Dunbar’s Number, and it is believed to be a product of the relative size of our brain’s neocortex compared to our body. The fact that our upper limit is a multiple of five is actually something we share with other primates.

 

So nations, like religions, are grounded in personal faith. We each believe we are part of a group that is bigger than any of us can actually comprehend.

 

Yet while the nation is imaginary, our faith in its existence has very real effects: we get together to celebrate it, we are all shaped by it, and often that faith motivates us to do good, to care for each other and the land we're on. 

 

But there is a dark side. Just as faith has motivated innumerable people to fight and die throughout history, our faith in where we’re from is also used to motivate us to go to war. Groups become nations, nations become states, states raise armies, and armies use the group's self-identity - the sense of ‘us' and 'them’ - to motivate people to kill. Then we build war memorials.

 

Maybe that’s getting too dark. This is a blog - let’s keep things casual. So tell me, where are you from?

 

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