Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Patriot

I have always been intrigued by the way people react to the Olympics.  There are the wild, unrestrained celebrations when our athletes do well and the paralyzing sorrow and anger when they underperform.  Announcers spend huge amounts of time pumping the chances and stories of the home country athlete while trying not to actually advocate other people falling/failing/crashing.  I am not entirely comfortable with the onset of such rampant patriotism.  The Olympics themselves are relatively harmless I think, but the attitude of placing people in one's home country far and above anyone outside it is troubling.  I am proud of my country, the morals the laws of my country support and much of how my country is governed and yet when this pride is taken to extremes it disturbs me.

Some time ago I was talking to one of my wife's uncles about Afghanistan and he strongly advocated removing all of our troops from that country.  His position was that any troubles the Afghan nation is in or got into without foreign troops maintaining order were their own problem and that Canadian lives should not be wasted protecting people outside our country.  I attempted to convince him that 1.  The people that would be most negatively affected in Afghanistan would be those who flat out had no say in their situation and 2.  That simply letting violence explode in other nations has been tried in the past and is a failure of foreign policy.  In the end those problems have a tendency to spill outward and bring strife to one's own doorstep.  I did not succeed in changing his mind.

This type of attitude does not sit well with me.  While we have to prioritize people within our social group for assistance I do not think that those sorts of reciprocal agreements translate well to a nation.  We each have no reason to think we know more about how to help a particular Canadian (or whatever your nationality is) moreso than someone elsewhere and we also can hardly be said to have significantly more in common with a random Canadian than a random person in many other countries.  I should clarify that I do not think it a bad thing to help a fellow Canadian, but rather that placing Canadian lives so dramatically above the lives and wellbeing of others is something I cannot support in good conscience.

I have been thinking about parallels between racism and patriotism.  In both cases people support others based on who their parents were, what language they speak and what culture they exhibit.  In both cases no merit or connection is needed to justify that preferential treatment.  Racism is frowned upon in our society and yet patriotism is supported and encouraged.  I do not think that racism and patriotism are exactly the same, yet the similarities are problematic.  Surely patriotism is useful to nations and racism is not (particularly in Canada), but should that define our moral choices?  Why is it okay to show preference to a Canadian when it is surely not okay to do so to a Caucasian?


  1. I've been reading your blog for quite a while now, and you write about some interesting topics. I would like to share some of my own insights into this particular subject.

    For one, the primary difference (above all else) between patriotism and racism is connotation. Patriotism suggests loyalty to and hard work in support of ones nation. While this may or may not be a good thing, it is reflective of human nature, in the sense that we as a species tend to gravitate toward social groups and identifying as part of that group.

    Let me provide several examples other than on a national or international scale. A student at a university or an alumnus of a university typically identifies themselves with that university frequently, often very proudly. People identify themselves based upon the province in which they live (or in my case, as a citizen of the United States, the state in which they live). Family is probably the most basic example: it is so important to us to identify with our families that it is a part of our very name, and often the only name spoken in formal situations.

    Patriotism is merely this taken to a larger scale. Being patriotic means you are showing pride at being part of something much larger than yourself, and it is a method of proving yourself to others. As you wrote in a previous post, people like recognition. By being patriotic, you are both seeking recognition from your neighboring citizens and showing support to your nation as a member. This is something that I believe is important to people intrinsically.

    To take this one step further, one could argue that the reason we support our close social groups is that we expect support from those same groups for ourselves. That is, you help family because family will help you when you need it, and the same goes for your friends, town, school etc. This same principle can easily be extended to a national scale. You help citizens of your nation even if you don't know them personally because they will do the same for you. (If they didn't, your nation wouldn't last long.) Mind you, this support can be incidental or forced through taxes, but the principle is the same. One applies for citizenship and pays into the system so that one can receieve through the system.

    In the end, patriotism is merely a method to show one's enthusiasm for being a part of the social network known as a nation.

  2. In response to Joel, I don't think that really demonstrates any difference between racism and patriotism at all.

    We have a great reason to really get our hackles up about racism because we have seen time and again how damaging it has been in the world. I'd say it is a good thing that when we hear someone say something about "white pride" alarm bells go off in our heads and we think they really mean "I hate people who aren't white."

    But that doesn't mean that everyone who was raised in a racist community feels that way. It is perfectly possible - I would not be surprised if it was common - that people raised to be racist don't particularly hate any other groups, but feel the same sort of loyalty to their own race as you describe feeling towards your country. Such a person might watch the Olympics and hope that a white person wins the medal. They could still hope it is a good competition; hope that whoever wins does so on their merits and not because someone else fell; certainly not want any of the other competitors to be injured; and feel all the same ways a patriot feels when they are cheering for their a member of their own nation. It's the same way you might feel if you were cheering for a person from your hometown, or from your university, or even if you were cheering for your sibling. You want them to win because you feel an affinity for them, but you don't wish any ill on anyone else.

    And yet still that thought it odious. If someone was cheering for white people at the Olympics we would all be pretty appalled by it. But all of these come down to the same thing: Preferring one person over another person because of your connection to them. Almost everyone would agree that it would be kind of silly if you weren't cheering for your sibling or your spouse were they at the Olympics but somewhere we draw the line about which connections you are allowed to feel an affinity based on and which ones you aren't. Race: no, Country of Origin: yes (apparently).

    But country of origin has just as much potential to create hate as race. In the blog post you have an example of a person who basically doesn't think that the lives of people from other countries are worth saving. Mainstream American commentators get to go on TV and openly call for the assassination of foreign leaders and then enjoy open affiliation with presidential candidates. Patriotism can become just as ugly as racism, our minds just don't automatically go there.

    But it wasn't that long ago that being racist was in the same category, and frankly for many people of older generations I think it still is. I deal regularly with people who clearly have ideas about race that I would call racist, but they are clearly racist in the way that most people are patriotic when they watch the Olympics. They don't advocate harming anyone and would be very upset if people were harmed regardless of their race, but they just have ideas that races are different and they are more like people with the same coloured skin as them than they are people with different coloured skin.

    And that's terrible. We can certainly live with it, but it's still terrible. Patriotism is the same. We are getting by with it, by the standards of any time in the past we are doing very well with it, but it's terrible.

    Unlike Sky I am not proud of my country. I recognize that in some ways we are doing pretty well considering the times we live in, but I can't really bring myself to forgive us the times we live in. I judge us against what I imagine we could be rather than what I know is realistic, and we fair quite poorly. But I don't think there is anything wrong with loving your country. I just think that there is something wrong with not loving people who are not from your country just as much.

    The majority of us will behave as moral monsters simply because we do not have the capacity to do better, and that is the best we can do, but that doesn't make it okay.

  3. Sthenno: I agree with what you have said, in fact many of the points were wandering around inside my head as I contemplated a reply to Joel. One thing to note though is that pride in my country is not the same as believing that my country's policies are all correct or that we could not do better. I grudgingly accept that the attitudes of the populace and the policies of a enormous bureaucracy take time to change.

    I think Canada is doing a better job than nearly every other nation of letting go of old prejudices and working towards a better future. Perfect, certainly not. Superior to nearly every other option? In my opinion, yes. Just as in the Olympics we don't insist that the runners complete a 1 minute mile before receiving recognition, we can celebrate the successes we have while acknowledging that we have a long way to go.

  4. I see several logical missteps with this argument, let me see if I can properly lay them out.

    Allow me to explain what I mean when I say racism, it's possible that we are using different definitions.

    From "a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement,usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others." or "hatred or intolerance of another race or other races"

    You say:
    "But that doesn't mean that everyone who was raised in a racist community feels that way. It is perfectly possible - I would not be surprised if it was common - that people raised to be racist don't particularly hate any other groups, but feel the same sort of loyalty to their own race as you describe feeling towards your country"

    By the definitions above, this isn't racism. "I prefer white people to black people" may look racist, but it isn't by definition. On the other hand, if you said "People who aren't white don't deserve to win this because they are worse" or some variant, that would be racism.

    You also say:

    "They could still hope it is a good competition; hope that whoever wins does so on their merits and not because someone else fell; certainly not want any of the other competitors to be injured; and feel all the same ways a patriot feels when they are cheering for their a member of their own nation"

    You argue that there is no distinction between this and patriotism, I'd agree. I would take it one step further and argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is not racism. There is no discrimination taking place here, no negative effects. The individual is merely thinking "I hope this guy wins."

    I believe it is important to realize exactly what these issues are before trying to think of a solution for them, and the issue with racism is with the negative effects on those discriminated against. As long as there is no discrimination, there's nothing strictly wrong with preferring that a white person wins or a black person wins, or anyone else for that matter. As long as everyone is given an equal shot and these preferences don't play into actual decision making there is no issue.

    Now I do realize this is not the case, the preferences often do take part, and that racism and discrimination is often a serious and common issue. I'm merely laying down a theoretical argument for why Patriotism and Racism are not the same thing.

  5. @Joel:

    You seem to be making the argument that preferring a person of a particular race to win a medal, get a job, or succeed in other ways is not a problem and that only the actual act of preventing them from succeeding is racism. I feel like you are ignoring some fundamental aspects of the human condition when making this argument.

    People are not capable of preferring a particular race or group without causing actual discrimination to occur. Certainly it is true that many people have racial preferences but refrain from extreme expressions of those preferences; lots of people dislike other races or have prejudices against them but are never involved in violence or overt oppression. The problem is that we as a species aren't capable of drawing a line between belief and behaviour and never crossing it, despite the fact that many people believe they can do this.

    There have been studies done on racism that showed that even people who by all normal standards of measurement are neutral in regards to race have built in heuristics that make slightly racist decisions. The study I remember best asked people to read words while looking at a face and across the board people looking at a black person were able to report words like criminal faster than when a white person was showing. Even though the subjects believed themselves to be non racist their unconscious minds had strong negative associations with specific races.

    The point of all this is that people cannot stop their behaviour at the 'just hoping my guy wins' point. When you have a strong preference for a group you are going to tend to make small, unconscious decisions favoring that individual even if you do not intend to. Defining racism as only beginning when the actual discrimination starts is denying the reality that humans cannot draw that line and stick to it even when they try. I strongly feel that any definition of racism that does not define strong racial preferences as racism is failing to represent the reality of the situation.

    Another point I think is telling is the fallacy that we can hope that 'our guy' wins without disadvantaging anyone. The reason we care who wins the gold medal is that only one person can. Whenever you have a limited resource and people are competing for that resource you have winners and losers. There is no way to root for your team without rooting against the other team. When you want the Canadian/White to win the gold you are implicitly stating that you do NOT want the American/Black to win the gold. This is always true when there is competition; for each winner there must be losers and you have to root against people if you root for anyone.

    People may wish to prefer a race without that actual hurting anyone, but that wish is not reasonable given how people's minds actually work. We may wish to root for a particular person with hurting other people, but despite this myth being popular it is not true in any situation where we compete over limited resources. Just the act of wishing success to a particular group creates discrimination whether or not the wisher chooses that, and this is true of racism and patriotism both. Even if someone were somehow able to master their own mind and prefer a race/nation without ever discriminating in their own life (impossible) they are expliciting endorsing that preference to others who will rarely possess those same scruples.

  6. If someone was watching the Olympics and openly hoping for white people to win events for the specific reason that they are white, I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone outside of some philosophy graduates who would agree that person isn't necessarily racist. Definitions are attempts to get at the meaning of the word, but meanings came before and are more important than definitions (people were talking before anyone wrote a dictionary).

    But however you want to use a word, it seems very obviously wrong to me to cheer for someone to win a medal because of the colour of their skin. You say there are no negative effects, but I think there are definitely going to be negative effects, both on you and on the people around you. In order to say there are no negative effects then in addition to Sky's comments about having to have some sort of bizarre mind-frame and an iron will, I think you'd have to make sure no one else knows that you are doing it. If you let other people know this would certainly create strife. Saying things are okay as long as no one ever finds out seems like pretty shaky ethical ground to me.

    This is different with patriotism; everyone seems okay with it. If one cheers for Canada because they are Canadian and another cheers for America because they are American neither of begrudges the other. If a lone visitor from Germany was cheering for the German team while all the rest of us in the room cheered for Canada, we would not have a problem with one another (unless maybe it was Hockey). But then people were pretty okay with flat out racism quite recently, and lots of people are totally on board with torture.

    Perhaps a key difference here is that when you watch the Olympics and cheer for a person because of what country they are from, you feel less that you are cheering for the person and more that you are cheering for the country. If you have no real preference when it comes to the people, but care about your country's medal count, then I can see a significant difference in that. In a way this is good sportsmanship since it is required of competitors to try their best to win, and most people who sit and home and actually cheer for one person or another feel that they are in a way involved in the action (and maybe in some incredibly small way they are). If you are cheering for a country, and for the person insofar as they are an avatar of that country, but not using the fact that the person is from your own country as a reason value that person and their feelings and accomplishments over those of other countries, then I can see the clear dividing line between patriotic support for Olympic athletes and supporting a race. The same translation of viewpoint would not work on race (cheering for someone as an avatar of race) because it is not in the spirit of the competition, which is a competition between countries and not between races. I think maybe the parallel I proposed of cheering for someone because of their race isn't really a good parallel after all.