This column appeared in the Jersey Evening Post on the March 21 2016.
What is it that defines our identities?
There are so many possible answers to this question. Throughout the twentieth century and even today, one of the most complicated concepts remains that of the nation. Nationality is a relatively new form of identity as nation states did not fully form until the end of World War 1. And even then, a big part of the world was not organized in nations. Colonial empires persisted until well into the 1970s and the Soviet Union attempted to impose loyalties upon a multitude of peoples through an ideology that defined identity through social class, rather than the nation.
Our sense of belonging to a nation has had a tremendous influence on history. It has united and divided, led to struggles for liberation, but also to war and genocide. A sense of belonging naturally produces the idea of the ‘other.’ Do we define ourselves in opposition to those who do not share our recent histories? And how strict can we be? Is it the possession of a particular passport which ties us to our fellow nationals? Is it language? Or cultural norms and values? Whatever criteria you use, the definition expands or contracts accordingly. An identity can be inclusive, uniting different individual people to belong to a group, but it can also be exclusive, shutting out people who wish to be a part of that unit, but in some way do not fit the criteria set.
If it is the passport which makes us part of the nation, does the legality of naturalisation automatically create a necessary bond between ‘us’ and the newcomer? Is the immigrant with the Indian background as English as his neighbour, who was born there? Is our national identity just a legal construct, or rather an instinct defining our unique identity in an increasingly globalized world? Which ingredients are instrumental in defining our national identities?
This becomes even more complicated when we start looking at the history of the British Empire or the present day Commonwealth. Are the inhabitants of those entities all ‘British’? And have we given away that ‘Britishness’ as part of the transnational European Union? Is that perhaps the reason why Brexit is gaining such momentum? Is it the uneasiness of maintaining our own sovereignty within the wider structures of international organisations which unsettles us? Would the same questions be applicable to membership of the United Nations or NATO?
And where does all this leave Jersey? Are we British? Or perhaps French? Or…. Are we Jersey? Is that an identity in itself? If we are, why is Jerriais slowly disappearing? The concept of the nation leaves numerous questions unanswered. Perhaps in the 21st century we will witness its demise.