Following a heated debate on Scottish independence with a friend I was asked what nationality I consider myself to be. For an over-thinker, like me, this is a nightmare question to answer. I don’t even know what a nation is; let alone which, if any, of them I belong to. This seemed like a glaring oversight in my cultural education since nationality plays such a massive role in contemporary politics and particularly with reference to the question of an independent Scotland. After a quick retreat into my own turbulent thoughts about language and identity, I came up with a couple of serious issues with the whole idea of nationality. I should point out that though I use the example of Scotland and being Scottish throughout this article, what I am saying applies equally to being British or English or any other nationality.
Nationality makes a claim to be based on meaningful things in the world while, at the same time, it determines the way that we divide up the world as meaningful. People with a strong sense of national identity often refer to homeland, ancestry or inherited culture as a basis for claiming nationality. They see their place in the world as an extension of who, where and what they descend from; they are, for example, Scottish because they were born and raised in Scotland, their parents were Scottish and their culture is most strongly influenced by the cultural Scots. The problem with basing nationality on any of these things, however, is that it is only through the eyes of nationalism that they have any determinative power. A person who sees no intrinsic value to Scottish culture, ancestry and geographical borders would not see them as determinations of nationality but as ‘mere’ facts, as nationalistically arbitrary as shoe size. People are not born Scottish because the world is a certain way but rather, facts like birthplace, parentage and culture are meaningful categories which only the nationalist thinks are important. Instead of nationality being grounded in reality, reality is based on nationality.
Nationality is inauthentic because it always seeks to define itself by what it is not. Finding identity in a nation is not an honest and genuine way to see oneself because by trying to do so, one will always be defining oneself in reference to something which does not yet, and never will, exist. It is only because there are borders and limits that Scotland has any claim to nationhood. In absence of artificially imposed limits, there would only be one nation, and thus no-one would need to define what they were by reference to it, thus nationality would not exist. Inherent to the meaningfulness of being Scottish is an implicit understanding that one is not English, British, Irish, etc. Yet the true nationalist wishes always to be free from the slavery of defining oneself with reference to anything outside the nation. This is the whole point of national identity – to have a fixed and fundamental value source as an individual. So to escape the burden of ‘the other’, the nationalist fights against it. But if the only true way to be nationalistic is to fight against ‘the other’ then a nation can only exist in reference to the thing which it fights against. So in the present, the nation can never authentically exist independent of what it is not. In the future, too, the nation will always be striving to eliminate the other until there is only the nation and its meaning becomes lost as it becomes universal. The inauthenticity of nationality can never be free from its own failure to be what it is not, and to become what it can never be.
Where does this leave the over-thinker? Is there any way to meaningfully respond to the question of national identity? It seems to me that when we try to fall back on nationality as a defining characteristic we are really fleeing from something that we know to be true: that our cultural limits constitute an impossible mountain. Socially created structures like gender, race, nation, language, etc. can never be overcome. We all want to be ourselves but we encounter obstacle after obstacle which stop us from escaping our social constraints. Instead of struggling to no avail, at some point in our upbringing we fall prey to the world and accept its rules and so perpetuate the structures that we want so desperately to be free from. Even when, in moments of rebellion, we question the rules we cannot escape them but instead reinforce them by creating yet another ‘other’ within ourselves. We have a fundamental desire to be more than just a ‘mere’ human in a meaningless world. We want to be a part of something that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Nation, religion, politics, and a thousand other strongholds try to claim this function but fail to do so in a solid and lasting way – we need something greater than these. In the words of Martin Heidegger, “only a god can save us.”