Monday, September 14, 2009

Us vs. Them Identity

Identity is a recurring theme in this ever shrinking world. How do we define identity and decide who to identify with? Waisbord made an interesting point in discussing group identities. He said that while the cosmopolitan identity seems the one most likely to take over the national identity, it still has not done so and seems far from becoming the main way we think of ourselves. I believe this has a lot to do with something else he talked about, that group identity is defined by the inclusion and exclusion of others. In order to be a separate group, some people must be included and others excluded. There must be another group to compare yourself to. National identity easily does this pitting one country against another. It is enforced in international sports competitions like the World Cup of soccer or the Olympics. Every country cheers on its own members and wants to bring home the most gold medals to show they are the best. People create a national identity by including those who are part of their country and excluding those who live in another one. How many times have you heard politicians say that their country is the greatest in the world, no matter which one it is? This group identity is based on valuing the "us" above the "them", in this case every other country.
The problem in using cosmopolitanism as a form of identity is that it includes everyone. From my understanding of the reading, it is based on a "universalist human consciousness", there is no "us" and "them" only everyone. While in theory it sounds great to have everyone identify more as a human being than as a citizen of a country, and ideally would promote helping and caring for all humankind, it isn't how people think at this point in time. It seems to me that the European Union identity is not succeeding because there is no other similar conglomeration of states to define themselves against. Perhaps if there was a South American Union, a North American Union, an Asian Union, and so on members of the EU would be more inclined to define themselves as Europeans first and members of their respective countries second.
I think it would take some kind of other group to be in contact with the human race before we can think of ourselves in a "cosmopolitan" way. Not to get too sci-fi, but if we interacted with some type of alien race, we would likely develop a more generally human or Earthling related identity to contrast with whomever this other group was (however it would still be in contrast/opposition to another group).
Therefore it seems until humans as whole can move past the "us vs. them" mentality (whether it be nations, races, gender etc.) it group identities are here to stay and a cosmopolitan universal human identity is a future idealization.


  1. Couldn’t agree with you more! Let me bring one of favorite examples of what you referred to in the very beginning: “God bless America.” I think no further comments are necessary on this one...
    Indeed, I see the identity-formation best when there is another group to identify your own self AGAINST. You always need a reference point, and it is much easier to know what you are NOT, rather than what you ARE [just as the ancient wisdom suggests: you cannot know thyself]. However, we know from bitter history, as well as CURRENT events, identities and “the other” do not necessarily have to be “external.” In many societies, the dominant group(s) takes over the job of defining the “right” identity, inevitably leaving those who are still living within that society but prefer not to adhere to the dominant culture, as some sort of “internal aliens”. This has been the case in almost ANY country in the world, and now, with increased mobility, one may even claim that this can reach unprecedented proportions…

  2. So what is the solution?
    Thinking of ourselves as a national group is still relatively new. Many countries are still struggling to come up with a national identity in order to unite their countries. There has been some notable failures in this respect - and an on-going re-defining process that has led to the breakdown of states in Eastern Europe, with rumblings elsewhere in the world.
    While nation-states are struggling just to ensure an identity or maintain it (as in Western Europe, where the very idea of nations was created), how do we take the step to cosmopolitanism? Without something to define ourselves against, is it even possible?
    In and out groups are such a big part of culture - is it even possible to get out of the paradigm?