Patriotism: the love and devotion for one’s own country, the willingness to sacrifice for it. But at what point does patriotism become a negative? Where do we draw the line between patriotism and jingoism or nationalism? And can you criticise your country and still be considered patriotic?
Patriotism is a many-faced beast: The pride of seeing one of ‘our’ athletes beat the rest of the world; the belief that ‘our’ way of doing things is superior to other ways; the cultural elements that bring us together as a group; the definitions that separate us from others and make it clear that they are not in our group; the ability to set out who is and isn’t with ‘us’ – who is worthy and who isn’t. There can be few words in the English language that can have such strong positive and negative connotations attached to it.
The first question that needs to be asked is… patriotic to what? If we take it that people are patriotic to, for example, their nation when they cheer for a national team or believe that their way of doing things is superior, what is that thing that they are being positive about? The heterogeneity of life in any nation is so diverse that few people lead the same existence and see their nation through the same lens. This is why flags become such an important symbol in patriotism; they provide a concrete entity around which to focus that patriotism. But the nation that flag represents, the day-to-day living under that symbol, is still different for all of them.
Kateb (2000) has argued that patriotism is … ‘a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction … for what is largely a figment of the imagination’. Because that is what ‘nation’ is. It can only be an abstract concept, a creation of an idea held together by a hazy, sometimes biased grasp of facts by each individual. Take two ‘Welsh’ or ‘English’ or ‘American’ people and forensically examine their interaction and understanding of their nation and it will be different; in some cases it might be as if they were talking about different countries.
So, patriotism can be an odd beast in that respect – a positive shared belief in something that isn’t a shared actuality. But is it possible to be patriotic whilst not slipping into nationalism and jingoism (seeing one’s nation as better and thus derogating other nations because of this)? A conference paper by Blank, Schmidt and Westle (2001) highlights the problem of understanding patriotism. It has been argued that patriotism is a positive form of nationalism (Billig, 1995), although others have suggested that this is an oxymoron (Burger, 1994) and that patriotism will prove to be negative for someone and therefore cannot be considered a positive. As Blank et al., point out ‘[F]rom a microsociological point of view the term “national identity” as used in the literature covers quite different aspects and facets of the individual’s relationship towards its nation. Often it is used to describe a subjectively positive attitude towards one’s nation (Tajfel/Turner 1986). However, to this day this concepts lacks a distinct and uncontroversial definition’.
Schatz, Staub, and Lavine (2003) have argued that patriotism can be seen as blind versus constructive; an unquestioning patriotism versus a questioning patriotism that provides the opportunity to be both patriotic and to recognise faults within our nation. This can be the hardest form of patriotism possible, the least understood by others. Samuel Johnson (1756) argued that ‘[I]t is unpleasing to represent our affairs to our own disadvantage; yet it is necessary to shew the evils which we desire to be removed‘. Therefore, for Johnson, at the heart of patriotism was the ability to recognise wrongs within the country even though it may be a difficult thing to do. The recognition is not enough though – there must be a preparedness to do something about it. A true patriot not only recognises the negatives associated with their country, but also sets out to do something to address these negatives.
Johnson also argued that, just because something has the look of patriotism, it does not make the person patriotic. In his 1774 speech Johnson argued:
A patriot is necessarily and invariably a lover of the people. But even this mark may sometimes deceive us. The people is a very heterogeneous and confused mass of the wealthy and the poor, the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad. Before we confer on a man, who caresses the people, the title of patriot, we must examine to what part of the people he directs his notice. It is proverbially said, that he who dissembles his own character, may be known by that of his companions. If the candidate of patriotism endeavours to infuse right opinions into the higher ranks, and, by their influence, to regulate the lower; if he consorts chiefly with the wise, the temperate, the regular, and the virtuous, his love of the people may be rational and honest. But if his first or principal application be to the indigent, who are always inflammable; to the weak, who are naturally suspicious; to the ignorant, who are easily misled; and to the profligate, who have no hope but from mischief and confusion; let his love of the people be no longer boasted. No man can reasonably be thought a lover of his country, for roasting an ox, or burning a boot, or attending the meeting at Mile-end, or registering his name in the lumber troop. He may, among the drunkards, be a hearty fellow, and, among sober handicraftmen, a free-spoken gentleman; but he must have some better distinction, before he is a patriot (1774).
Whilst Johnson’s use of language in arguing for the higher ranks to regulate the lower may be out of place in modern society the sentiment of endeavouring to infuse right opinions into those who have the power to change the nation still rings true. Recognising the limitations of your nation is not something that would appear to come naturally to a patriot; however, this fits with Schatz et al’s (2003) notion of constructive patriotism. In this respect there are few patriots. Cheering on your national team does not make you patriotic; painting a flag on your face does not make you patriotic; believing that your country is the best in the world does not make you patriotic.
So what does make someone patriotic as opposed to nationalistic, jingoistic, or merely non-patriotic? It seems to be a combination of pride in one’s nation, not derogating or damaging other nations or their members, recognising the limitations of one’s nation, having the ability and making the effort to change those limitations (whilst still not damaging or derogating other nations).
By my reckoning that means there are very few patriots in the world…