Nationalism, Discrimination, and Human Rights

What nationalists all have in common is the belief that the nation must have its own state; a nation-state. Some extreme nationalists assert that their own nation is superior to others and should have priority over others. Moderate nationalists do not go that far, but they do still express loyalty to their own nation-state and, sometimes, to the rights of other nation-states as well. An example of a statement expressing loyalty to one’s nation is “we should look after our own people first”, one which I have heard more than one person express recently when giving their opinions on the current refugee crisis. Typically, this is not just a social sentiment but a political one: it means that the nationalist also thinks that their nation-state’s policies should give priority to the people of its own nation.

But what is a nation? Nations are generally conceived to be some particular segment of humanity which is distinguished from the rest by at least some of the following factors:

  • Common Ethnicity
  • Common Language
  • A shared view or experience of history
  • Common Culture

If the description of nationalism that I have given above is correct, then it follows that nationalism is a form of discrimination. To discriminate is to make a distinction between one part of a group and another. Nationalists do so when they distinguish between their own nation and the rest of humanity. To discriminate is also to attach some more value or priority to one of these groups than the other, for example when somebody discriminates truth from falsehood, or a sexist discriminates against women and in favour of men. Thus the sentiment “we should look after our own people first” is a form of discrimination in some respects akin to other forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious prejudice.

Some nationalists may claim that they do not discriminate against foreign persons. They may disavow the belief that their nation is superior to others and the view that “we should look after our own people first”. Rather, they merely believe that the nation-state is the best form of political organization, so it deserves their support. However, supporting the institution of the nation-state, it seems to me, inherently involves attaching a certain priority to fellow nationals which is not extended to foreigners. If we support the nation-state, it follows that we support bearing a certain relationship with our fellow nationals, namely being a member of the same state, which we will not bear with foreign persons. Furthermore, since the nation-state’s citizens are predominantly or wholly its own nationals, its policies will invariably be designed with promoting the national interest rather than the general interest in mind, since all governments need to maintain a level of domestic support. Thus, if we support the nation-state, we are attaching certain priorities to our fellow nationals which we do not extend to foreigners. Hence, any form of nationalism is discriminatory.

If some particular variety of discrimination is to be defensible, it seems to me that its proponent must show two things: A) that there is a genuine difference between the group discriminated against and others, and B) that this difference also justifies the difference of treatment which the discriminating person practices.

One reason for requirement A is that treating people who are in fact the same as though they are different invariably has negative effects. It often fosters negative feelings of jealously and resentment in the group arbitrarily discriminated against. Also, if persons D and C are equal, then there is equally good potential for a positive relationship with both. If we discriminate against D, then some of this potential is squandered. Generally speaking, strategies for dealing with other people based on illusions, such as the illusion of there being a difference between people where there is none, are bad strategies because they do not match up to reality, and hence fail at delivering their targets.

Requirement B is necessary because there are some differences between persons which are clearly irrelevant to how they should be treated. For example, it would be ludicrous for an examiner to discriminate against candidates writing in blue ink, because ink colour does not affect the quality of one’s answers.

I suggest that nationalists cannot satisfy requirements A and B and that therefore nationalism is a wrongful form of discrimination. Let us examine the four criteria of nationality (1-4) given above to see whether they do satisfy A and B.

Ethnicity does not satisfy A, because most nations to my knowledge are multi-ethnic. Most people in a given state or part of the world are related, and usually not too distantly, to people from very different parts of the world with very different ethnicities. In any case, discriminating against somebody on the basis of ethnicity is tantamount to racism, so it fails to satisfy B.

Language does not get over the hurdle of A because languages and nations are not co-extensive: many states speak the same language as each other and many states are multi-lingual. In the past, difficulty of communicating with foreigners made international cooperation difficult, but today so many people are multi-lingual, and the world economy is so globalized, that the principle of discriminating against those who do not share your native language is outmoded.

Shared historical experience does not satisfy A because in many important cases people of different nationalities share historical experiences together. For example, people of many nationalities fought together in the two World Wars and many different nationalities experienced subjugation by the British Empire. More generally, many people around the world have similar historical experiences of poverty and war.

The idea that there is a unified culture within nations is also, it seems to me, a myth. One way of seeing this is to consider how a great deal of culture relates to class and not nationality. For instance, I dare say that a person living in a council estate in Manchester is likely to have just as much, if not more, in common culturally with a person living in a council estate in Munich than they are with a rich person living in a mansion in the Cotswolds.

For these reasons, the reasonable conclusion is that nations are, as Benedict Anderson writes, “imagined communities”. Therefore, discrimination on the basis of nationality is wrong, and nationalism is wrong.

What are the implications of this argument and its conclusion, assuming that it is correct?

For as much as we might want to oppose the nation-state system, the fact is that its institutions are firmly embedded. Everything from our media to welfare spending is organized around national lines and that doesn’t look likely to change. People of a conservative persuasion might well argue that the nation-state might not be great, but that, pragmatically speaking, we have no choice but to support it.

We should, however, be wary of pragmatic arguments in favour of nationalism. Remember that, at least if the above argument is right, it is an arbitrary form of discrimination. And as I suggested in the course of that argument, arbitrary discrimination cannot be a strong strategy for practical success. Just as racism and sexism suppress the great contributions people of certain groups do and might make to society, so nationalism hinders the cause of international harmony and co-operation, which would benefit everybody.

Moreover, there is a way of expressing anti-nationalism in the political sphere. For the age of nationalism in the first half of the 20th century, when nationalism went largely unchallenged – not only in Germany, Japan and Italy, but in colonial Britain and France – led to disaster in the form of violent international wars. Some people and politicians realized that nationalism was the source of the problem, and thus sowed the seeds of international political institutions: the EU, the UN, and human rights laws, among others. These institutions need the allegiance of anti-nationalists, since they are under attack from many politicians in Europe, especially from centre-right and far-right parties.

We need to be careful how we frame the debate about the virtues and vices of EU membership. Arguments made by pro-EU campaigners often stress the benefit of EU membership to Britain’s economy. From the anti-nationalist perspective, though, that is not the right issue to focus on. The bigger question is whether Europe and the world as a whole is safer and more prosperous with Europe united rather than disunited and nationalistic. The course of the 20th century indicates that it is. It is by tackling these bigger issues that we can find the faults with eurosceptic arguments.

Of course, our conclusion also affects how we should respond to the refugee crisis. If my argument against nationalism is right, then it is a mistake to say we should look after “our own people” first.

Finally, the debate about nationalism provides vital context for the subject which Jack writes about on this blog, human rights. The very idea of rights which apply universally, irrespective of nationality, is an important challenge to the dominance of the nation-state system. Again, if we are swayed by the argument against nationalism, human rights deserve our political support at a time when many politicians and citizens are hostile to them. Although the EU and the European Court of Human Rights are separate institutions, we can see that a single idea, anti-nationalism, runs as a common thread lying behind both. The Human Rights Act even prohibits discrimination on the basis of nationality. Although so far that clause has mostly been used to prevent things like choosing one job applicant over another on the basis of nationality, if my arguments above are correct, then perhaps it has a much wider potential application than has so far been conceived.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jack very much for giving me the opportunity to post for the Human Writes blog, and I am looking forward to receiving your comments, questions and criticism!

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2 thoughts on “Nationalism, Discrimination, and Human Rights

  1. Pingback: Supplementary Post on Nationalism | donovan93

  2. Pingback: The Human Writes Blog

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