Monday, November 08, 2010

The group a person belongs to

A few years ago Mark Rutte, the new Dutch prime minister but then the leader of his parliamentary party, objected to the fact that one of the state secretaries in the government had a double nationality: she had both a Dutch and a Turkish passport. However, when he presented his new cabinet two weeks ago, it turned out that also one of the state secretaries in this cabinet had two passports: a Dutch one and a Swedish one. When asked how this was defensible in view of his former opinion, the prime minister answered that he did not mind that the state secretary had a Swedish passport but when she had had a Turkish passport, it would have been a point of discussion. No wonder that some accused him of discrimination. Apparently a minister or state secretary (and many other people) is not judged here by his or her personal loyalty to the government and the Netherlands but by the group s/he officially belongs to.
But why is just having a certain nationality so important? In the end a person belongs to many different groups and they can all have influence on one’s loyalty to the state. One can think of groups related to gender, class, language, profession, community, race and so on. And isn’t it so that in the past class belongingness was said to be international and that labour leaders often have stressed that workers from different countries would not fight against each other? (So sad, that this did not really happen). Doesn’t this imply that class membership can be by far more important than one’s passport? Or what to think of the language group one belongs to and the many separation movements in this world based on language? And isn’t it so that through the ages the belongingness to a religious group has also been important in determining loyalty to the state? And, to take another example, who cares about the international loyalties (and the loyalties to their own pockets!) of the fraudulent bankers, despite the recent bank crisis?
Amartya Sen argued in his The Idea of Justice that seeing a person “merely as a member of just one particular group would be a major denial of the freedom of each person to decide how exactly to see himself or herself. The increasing tendency seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ … is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups …” (pp. 246-247). And that is what often happens. The case of the Dutch prime minister is only one instance. He did not doubt at all about the loyalty of the state secretary with the Turkish passport. It was just that she had a Turkish passport (and apparently not a Swedish one) that counted. So we often do: we judge people not by what they say and do, but by their belongings, even if they cannot help that they have them and even if they cannot change them (like gender, race, but often also the passport). Actually people are then judged by mere formal qualities. We see it, as Sen warns, “particularly … in the present intellectual [and I want to add: political] climate in which individuals tend to be identified as belonging to one social category to the exclusion of all others …, such as being a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu, an Arab or a Jew, a Hutu or a Tutsi, or a member of Western civilization … Individual human beings with their various plural identities, multiple affiliations and diverse associations are quintessentially social creatures with different types of societal interactions. Proposals to see a person merely as a member of one social group tend to be based on an inadequate understanding of the breadth and complexity of any society in the world” (p. 247). And isn’t it so that in this time of globalization there is a tendency to get international and supranational group belongings? That it has become more likely that one has several nationalities, maybe not formally but actually in the sense of having different national roots? In this age of globalization having other-national group belongings is just an asset. It helps giving a person a wider view of what is happening around him or her. Seen this way, membership of a big number of groups, especially those crossing the national borders and those on the other side of the national border should have to be praised, including having a double nationality.

No comments: