The hopeful side of nationalism

In the 21st century, the world ‘nationalist’ is often used as an insult. From the rise of National Socialism in Germany a century earlier, nationalists are seen as narrow-minded individuals who put their nation ahead of others. They are seen as people whose world-view is limited to the narrow boundaries of their country and will go to any length to preserve their own privilege ahead of the rights of the people of other nations.

Seen from another perspective though, nationalism offers much hope. Evolution has hard-wired animals to feel a sense of kinship with only those with whom they share blood ties. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans were similar. We only felt a sense of belonging with a tribe of a hundred people at the most. With nationalism we have managed to push that number up to hundreds of millions. A nationalist feeling kinship with another person from her nation who may live thousands of miles away, doesn’t speak the same language, doesn’t practice the same religion and doesn’t have the same cuisine is already a marvel. Two such people uniting under one banner for a common cause goes against the grain of our evolutionary conditioning. Further, nationalism is very much a concept that has taken root merely in the last two hundred years. There is nothing inherently ‘natural’ or ‘human’ about it.

Nationalism should give us hope because it allows us to feel a sense of kinship and cooperate closely with a hundred million people rather than merely a hundred. Nationalism gives us reason to be optimistic for it might just have made the next leap – from hundred million to the 7 billion people that inhabit the planet – one that is easier to achieve.

Inspiration: Yuval Noah Harari

2 thoughts on “The hopeful side of nationalism

  1. Is it fair to say that nationalism is zero-sum? The reason the word is used as an insult is because of its denigrating characteristics (“other nations are bad”). If it’s a zero-sum game, can it be viewed as a step away from globalism? Perhaps there’s a different path for 100-something communities to feel kinship with 7-billion global humans without needing the 100-million nationalist milestone?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the crux of the matter is zero-sum thinking.

      As hunter gatherers, our purview was our own band, tribe or clan. Other bands, tribes or clans were opponents with whom we played a zero-sum game. Along the way, through community, religion, empires and finally nations, we progressively increased the size of this unit from 10 to 100 to 1000 to millions of people. At each stage, we progressively hacked our genetic code through social and cultural means.

      There are two sides to every person – a sense of tribalism and an ability to feel kinship with other beings. Nationalism (like any other movement) is useful to the extent that it suppresses the former and amplifies the latter.


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