global citizenship tower of babel

We are told to be careful with our words, to be aware of how our words might make other people feel, or of how we might be misunderstood. However important is this advice (and it is both important and grossly overused), these are not the primary reasons we should be thoughtful about our language. Words shape ideas and beliefs, they assist in the mapping, and even reshaping, of our conceptual terrain. Linguistic mistakes lead to corrupted thinking. Because language is social, we are responsible for the way our words work on others. We should, indeed, be careful with our words.When we latch onto inappropriate, inaccurate, or unnecessarily vague labels, we plane off the subtle contours of our intellectual topography. And the more we traffic in these handy little falsehoods, the more established the literal, as opposed to the intended, meanings of the words become in the minds of people in our linguistic networks. With increasing frequency, for instance, we are called to be global citizens—or worse, “good” global citizens. What once was the call of dangerous moralists has become part of the linguistic wallpaper of the half-educated—a label transformed from a splendid monstrosity to a ubiquitous banality.

It is easier to battle monstrous ideas than to fight commonplace idiocy. A revolutionary appeal to global citizenship may include semantic confusions, but one quickly detects an idea—a vision of the world and of healthy human relations that includes an aesthetic ideal, a moral crusade and a governing theory about human nature. The idea of all humans, knitted together by a deep acceptance (tolerance); organized in ways that distribute goods and power fairly; educated to transcend provincial differences of race, religion, clan, and tradition; and habituated to accept the thorough interdependence of all humans—the idea is something that we can understand, can critique, can challenge. When an earnest political activist or a crusading philosopher presents me with the moral imperative to live as a global citizen, then I can engage with her on ontological, epistemological, empirical, and moral grounds. Over time, we might come to understand each other, though we may not agree. And when we both develop our ideas sufficiently, the competing visions become clear and people can choose, can engage intellectually and morally, because they see clear differences. Because ideologies have form and structure, one can disagree meaningfully, using words that carry precise meanings and employing basic rules of logic to debate principles and to argue about consequences: ‘Tis a fair fight.

global citizenship quicksandBut when words become dreary or turn into semantic quicksand, they endanger ideas, making words and labels nearly useless tools for defining, for clarifying, or for expressing a vision. To the degree that precise words become banal and conceptually elastic, they enervate our thinking and undermine our capacity to see distinctions, and perhaps even our desire to see distinctions. The capacity to discriminate, to differentiate, to understand subtle distinctions is a necessary condition for judgment, for distinguishing differences that matter from those that are incidental. Because judgment is essential for defining and “seeing” a compelling political and moral vision, a keen concern for meanings is a characteristic of a free people. Banal phrases, cluttering our car bumpers and our common parlance (phrases such as “global citizens,” “coexist,” or “war is not the answer”), pander to our desire to be moral without being morally serious. In due course, a loose semantic emotiveness disarms us against evils that come clothed in moral truisms, but that are disconnected from any serious ontology. We lose a clear and compelling vision of a free people as we lose our power to define and discriminate. Semantic imprecision contributes to spiritual lassitude, making it impossible for us to defend our society’s highest principles because we can no longer comprehend them.

So, what are the banal meanings imbedded in the frequent calls for global citizenship? Because they are so commonplace now, the meanings are both too diverse and too imprecise to delineate precisely. But at least in certain academic circles, where the appeal to global citizenship often comes paired with equally elusive claims to the virtues of “diversity,” I can discern a certain loose meaning. Universities, in this view, should prepare people to live and work in an increasingly interdependent world. Perhaps focused first on economic interdependence, universities must also teach students to understand and even appreciate the diverse cultures that make up the global mosaic. Provincialism is, from this point of view, an economic handicap. Geographic mobility, instantaneous communication across our orb, deeply connected financial and economic systems, all make inherited forms of “doing business” obsolete. A university engages in educational malpractice if it doesn’t help acclimate its students to this environmental reality.

Complimenting this pragmatic view of cosmopolitanism is a moral vision where universities assume the role of shaping the affections of their students to “appreciate” the cultural diversity of the globe they inhabit. This appreciation has many different levels. For some, it really means that in order to engage in the new “global” environment, one must develop a deep understanding of the diverse and complex cultural expressions of human meaning and flourishing. For instance, a Christian university might emphasize this “appreciation” as a means of preparing its graduates to evangelize more effectively—one cannot expect to change people without understanding them properly. Or a less evangelical mission may require that those with a Christian spirit of benevolence recognize a world of opportunity to “do good,” finding “neighbors” to love across every meridian.

More often, however, university officials mean something more coercive. To make students more cosmopolitan and to foster affection for the many cultures of the world, universities emphasize a global identity that will attenuate the affections of their graduates for their own particular place and culture. Strong attachments to one’s own are dangerous, inculcating patriotism and judgmental exclusivism. Cosmopolitanism, in this view, is itself a virtue, shaping better humans and, in due course, a better, more just, equitable, and peaceful world. The preachers of this global identity often, I’ve noticed, think that the meaning and moral import of global citizenship comes in a luminous moment, a conversion experience where one suddenly realizes that one belongs to the world.

global citizenshipNo doubt, my account of the meanings that some people give to the label “global citizen” is distorted because it is incomplete. But it is accurate in the sense that many who operate in my “world” include these meanings in the label. Moreover, parts of the meaning that I’ve outlined above include objectives that I share enthusiastically. But the objectives that I endorse are not suited to the label “global citizen.” If we penetrate to grounding beliefs about human purpose and meaning, to beliefs about human nature, then we can discern why the label is, at best, nonsense, and at worse, a violation of our most basic human needs.

Normally, it would be unnecessary to note the incompatibility of citizenship with something so large and amorphous as global society. But today, we must explain the obvious because we lack a commonplace language to describe key distinctions. The only way that the two concepts could be joined is by thinning out the meaning of citizen so as to refer to a vague sense of belonging and obligation. We belong to this world and we owe something to it. Because each person benefits from the natural resources that the world provides, and because those resources must be shared with the rest of the human population (to say nothing of non-humans), we ought to foster a sense of “citizenship” so that we act responsibly toward the rest of humanity (both present and future, but not past). The same might be true of the cultural resources we use, but to discuss this would require a defense of the particular and confined, of a place much smaller than the world.

It is proper, I think, to encourage people to acknowledge the unfathomable interconnectedness of all life. If we took this seriously, we would live lightly on this earth, we would love those around us with almost boundless intensity, we would recognize the limits of our capacity to know the reality in which we participate, and we would foster piety toward the dead who participate with us in a story most mysterious. But none of this entails citizenship and little of it is incorporated into the ideology of global citizenship.

The fact is that real citizenship is rare enough in our world. In so many nations, the people are “nationals” rather than citizens, belonging to their nation-state in the way a servant might belong to a household. At least in traditional (non-modern) societies, such hierarchical relationships can foster a profound sense of belonging insofar as centuries of history, a rich cultural inheritance, rituals, festivals, and other expressions of collective identity bind people together with cords of inherited memory and deeply rooted identity. One doesn’t have to be a citizen to belong.

The centrifugal forces of the modern world make such traditional forms of belonging and of social connectedness more difficult to find with every decade. Modern authoritarian regimes often work actively to undermine, or sometimes to appropriate for their own power, the institutions and traditions that serve as intricate webbing for traditional societies. Moreover, modern economic forces, in most all regimes of the world, alter social relationships and disconnect individuals from inherited sources of identity and social place. So, it would seem that social belonging and cultural rootedness that have long served human needs are no longer reasonable options.

TocquevilleAnd we are back to citizenship, which is, if nothing else, a form of membership–membership in something that people can experience as real, distinctive, and theirs. In some ways, citizenship serves as a countervailing force where democracy (and perhaps even something as elusive as “modernity”) is most vulnerable to tyranny. Equality and individualism separate people, placing them, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s image, next to each other—alike, isolated, and lonely. Fleeting contractual unions take the place of covenants, of inherited status, of fixed systems of obligation and reciprocity. Liberated from inherited hierarchy and status, modern conditions threaten to dissolve the very connective tissue that gives our individual lives purpose beyond self-interest. But among equals who choose to belong to one another, citizenship promises (depending on whose definition one uses) to cultivate virtues, to attach the individual to meaningful collective action, and to make possible the most elusive of human goods, reflective deliberation in the act of self-governance.

The ideal of combining choice (and affection) with membership makes citizenship an especially attractive modern role. Corrupted forms of citizenship abound, from citizen as customer to citizen as victim, most of which are products of large, impersonal, distant, and very powerful administrative states. The more distant the government, the less meaningful is one’s participation in it. The less that participation includes deliberation, the less that politics can be the “place” for a people to become something greater than the sum of individual parts. The highest expression of politics is when citizens become self-conscious about who they are as a society where they can foster “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection,” to quote Edmund Burke slightly out of context.

Problems of scale plague modern citizenship. It is certainly possible to find meaning in being a citizen of a nation-state, especially those that can evoke connections of blood and history or those, like the United States, that can knit together diverse peoples into a patchwork of self-governing communities. For America it matters, Tocqueville argued, that local authority developed before state or national authority. The townships, in Tocqueville’s rather idealized model of American self-governance, were the primary school of American freedom, teaching citizens the virtues necessary to self-government and fostering a jealousy for their “township freedom.” Importantly, the formative experience of freedom was not individual, but collective. Left reasonably at liberty to govern themselves, American townships taught people to be citizens and forced them to be tolerant of the liberty of other townships to rule differently.

nature fan girl with a childCounteracting the tendency toward intensely private lives, the immediacy of decision-making in the towns forced citizens to concern themselves with public matters. Moreover, because almost all governmental matters were political rather than simply administrative, the town dispersed public responsibilities widely, incorporating a great many citizens into the town’s public identity. It was their town and, for all its quirky qualities and administrative inefficiencies, membership in the town instilled pride.

A prevailing trend of the modern world has been to create efficient administrative states that require relatively little, except taxes, from their citizens. The isolating, atomizing tendencies of the modern administrative state and of globalized capitalism may foster unhealthy forms of community. Or it may thoroughly disconnect humans from the past and future (from their stories: civilizational, cultural, familial) and from relationships that foster love, meaning, and purpose. Between ersatz and collectivist communities on the one hand, and random collections of self-absorbed, lonely individuals on the other, a healthy citizenship offers hope for communities that cultivate fully-developed persons who are invested in a story they seek to comprehend and in which they discover the parts they can play.

With the aim of encouraging peculiarly human goods in the modern context, we should embrace citizenship—real and meaningful citizenship. The virtues of citizenship (loyalty, benevolence, self-sacrifice, duty, acceptance) are habituated at local levels where investing in public purposes is an exercise in self-interest rightly understood. These habits can extend to national citizenship so long as the local source of those habits remains robust. But to reverse this direction and to begin with the greatest human abstraction possible, wherein we can never have meaningful participation, where we cannot foster partnerships in science, art, and virtue, is to prepare people for despotism and to cut them off from the very sources of their better selves. Global consumers we might become, but global citizens, never.

To the degree that we attempt to create a false reality in which we can imagine such a creature as a global citizen we erode our capacity to do the very “good” that the prophets of globalism preach. If we care about the health of “humanity,” we will instead encourage the people of the world to divide, to belong to a particular place, to a culture, to a story. “Global citizens” can be only alienated masses.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the author and Front Porch Republic (December 2009).

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