Symbols and Nationalism

As I discussed yesterday, Walter Lippmann’s viewed ‘public opinion’ as an entirely manufactured entity. On the individual level, we each have our biases and stereotypes which shape how we interpret and interact with the world around us. The thing we call public opinion is formed when elites use symbols to manipulate our individual stereotypes into a collective and relatively cohesive whole.

This leads to Lippmann’s theory of nationalism:

These great symbols posses by transference all the minute and detailed loyalties of an ancient and stereotyped society. They evoke the feeling that each individual has for the landscape, the furniture, the faces, the memories that his first, and in a static society, his only reality. That core of images and devotions without which he is unthinkable to himself, is nationality.

Nationality, then, is perhaps the ultimate stereotype – it is a myth expanded beyond an individual’s view, a shared stereotype which shapes our collective reality. Importantly, we hold these stereotypes not only of other nationalities, but of our own. Indeed, Lippmann argues, such national stereotypes are central to an individual’s identity. It’s little wonder we fight so hard over what it means to be a “real” American.

John Dewey seems to respond almost directly to this point in his 1927 book The Public and It’s Problems. Symbols, he argues, aren’t constructs to be warded against: they are the very thing which make community possible. Symbols “depend upon and promote communication.” Dewey argues:

Events cannot be passed from one to another, but meanings may be shared by means of signs. Wants and impulses are then attached to common meanings. They are thereby transformed into desires and purposes, which, since they implicate a common or mutually understood meaning, present new ties, converting a joint activity into a community of interest and endeavor. Thus there is generated what, metaphorically, may be termed a general will and social consciousness: desire and choice on the part of individuals in behalf of activities that, by means of symbols, are communicable and shared by all concerned.

Lippmann sees ‘public opinion’ as intrinsically a manufactured myth; constructed by elites to create the illusion of national will. Dewey sees the opposite: in the great community, public opinion would be a genuine expression of a people’s shared ethos. This vision builds on Dewey’s broader sense of ideal citizens: each an “individually distinctive” community member indelibly co-created by the citizens and society around them.

It strikes me that these visions are not necessarily at odds.

Consider Dewey’s vision applied to the microcosm of family life. It seems reasonable to argue that a person’s core identity – who they are and what they believe – is deeply shaped by their intimate interactions at a personal family level.

This intricate interconnectedness has implications for the family as a community – families share stories, signs, and symbols. Siblings develop a shared sense of identity. Family members are individual distinctive, yet deeply connected. It is a great community, albeit on a very, very, local level.

If Lippmann’s skepticism of national identity seems more accurate then, if Lippmann is the practical-headed theorists to Dewey’s foolish idealism, it is not necessarily the concept that is wrong, but rather the scale.

When we see a person we don’t know, Lippmann argues, we by necessity see that person as an object which we interpret through out stereotypes. It is contested whether we can ever really truly know another, and it is debatable whether we even truly know ourselves, but surely we can agree that no person has the capacity to truly know all other beings. As Lippmann explains:

In a circle of friends, and in relation to close associates or competitors, there is no shortcut through, and no substitute for an individualized understanding. Those whose whom we love and admire most are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us rather than the classification into which we might fit.  For even without phrasing it to ourselves, we feel intuitively that all classification is in relation to some purpose not necessarily our own; that between two human beings no association has final dignity in which each does not take the other as an end in himself. There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.

Thus, we might each divide the world into two circles: one is the intimate circle of people we know and who know us, those few “whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types.” Into the other circle we dump everyone else, not as an intrinsic judgement, but rather a practical matter. For all those “others” – the mass of humanity – we are left with little choice but to interpret their existence as best we can economically: through heuristics, stereotypes, and bias.

Dewey would like to see us consider all people as intimately and humanely as we consider our family; Lippmann argues that is just not possible.

Lippmann may have the practical edge in this debate, but throughout his work he overlooks a key detail: a critical reason we should not be satisfied with his model.

Lippmann argues that the myth of public opinion is what does the public harm. That symbols and nationalism are little more than tools for elite manipulation. I am inclined to agree with him on this point.

But his solutions to this practical reality assume a just society. If all people have equal power and standing; if it makes little difference whether most people ‘other’ me because an intimate few do not; if society really were a collection of identical objects which we each view through our own narrow lens, then perhaps Lippmann’s practical vision would do.

But the fact is, through our biases and stereotypes we do far worse than divide the world into an intimate circle of acquaintances and a mass of unknown person.

Rather we divide the world up into numerous circles of concern. We care more, generally speaking, for people who are “more like us.” White Americans are inclined to care more for white Americans than for Americans of color; to care more for Americans than for foreigners; and to care more for the citizens of white nations than for others around the world. This is problematic and can have devastating repercussions.

As Peter Singer points out, some of this prioritizing may be justifiable – loving your children more than a stranger, for example, is hardly something to be discouraged. But passed family and close friendships, Singer argues that the moral justification for these circles of concern breaks down.

Particularly, odd, Singer finds, is the fervent embrace of nationalism. For all the reasons discussed above, it makes sense to love those people you know personally. But nationalism brings this love to abstraction:

Though citizens never encounter most of the other members of the nation, they think of themselves as sharing an allegiance to common institutions and values, such as a constitution, democratic procedures, principals of toleration, the separation of church and state, and the rule of law.

Here we get back to Lippmann’s signs and symbols. Nationalism created by a false sense of shared identity.

Lippmann offers little solution but to recognize this sense as a falsehood. To disempower ‘public opinion’ and to recognize it as little more than a construct.

Dewey wants to make this shared sense have real meaning – building a global great community of mutually interdependent beings.

Singer for his part, takes a somewhat different tack. We have a constructed sense of national identity, which is false and ultimately meaningless, he argues – but it does bring a beneficial sense of community. Perhaps we cannot achieve a Deweyian vision of great interdependence, and perhaps we cannot simply destroy the constructs which govern our lives. But we can, he argues, push those circles of concern outwards.

We can reimagine ourselves not as citizens of a nation, but as citizens of the world.


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