The Financial Express

Culture, migration and the rise of nationalism

| Updated: November 26, 2018 21:09:04

Culture, migration and the rise of nationalism

The recent rise of nationalism in some western countries has been fuelled by an anti-immigration campaign based on the assumed negative influences migrants may have on the host country's "culture". Nationalists seem to conceive culture as a static concept. However, culture is not invariable, it develops and changes over time and as most things created by humans, it is also connected with power. Generally, when people define themselves as "cultured" they assert themselves as superior to others.

The nationalists' distinction of their culture from that of others usually entails that people from a different cultural background have insurmountable "cultural differences". Migrants are therefore considered as a homogeneous group whose outer aspects gain importance at the expense of their individual characteristics. Cultural markers such as dress codes, language and food preferences are assigned an overriding significance. The Other is transformed into a one-dimensional creature defined by her/his appearance. Such artificial dichotomies have given rise to the so-called "clash of civilisations", suggesting that the coexistence of people with different cultural identities creates conflicts. This kind of polarisation between "cultures" may be connected with an instinct to define one's self-image in relation to others, people we either identify with, or distance ourselves from. This kind of "othering" creates and maintains power and domination and has within the geopolitical sphere been connected with Western attitudes towards non-Western peoples.

The concept of culture is also connected with the idea of "progress", i.e. that humans are "developing" from lower to higher stages of culture, power and wealth. If most migrants are considered as people coming from "underdeveloped" countries, then bigots may conclude they deescalate progress in host countries. However, history shows that migration has been one of the most beneficial contributions to development and human progress. The nationalist movements' ideology has an odour of bigotry, even racism, suggesting a world where people can be divided into separate entities ? us versus them. We being advanced, while they are circumscribed by "underdeveloped" cultures.

Nowadays, chauvinistic "nationalist" parties tend to avoid the word "race", considered to be an outdated concept that passed away with Nazism and Apartheid. However, racism remains, it has only become camouflaged by the less negatively charged word "culture" -- racism without race. These views can be exemplified by the Swedish nationalist party which recently obtained 17 per cent of the Swedish electorate vote. The Sweden Democrats describe themselves as "social conservatives with a nationalist foundation", claiming to safeguard "Swedish values and culture". Like many of their European equivalents they have gained support through a strong anti-migration stance. The Sweden Democrats distinguish "immigrants" from "Swedes", often by indicating their state of underdevelopment. Immigrants are unfavourably compared to Nordic people and their "superior" culture. According to the Sweden Democrats:

"Culture could be defined as a way of life that unites a society, or a group of people. […] The unique nature of Swedish culture finds its roots in our history and in the nature and the climate in which it has developed. Against this background, it is not surprising that our culture has great similarities with that of our Nordic neighbours. […] Cultural impulses that, without being adapted to Swedish conditions, are being inoculated into Swedish society by decision makers or other groups who do not consider themselves as Swedish, are by us not considered part of Swedish culture, but rather as a form of cultural imperialism. […] The Sweden Democrats are opponents to both cultural imperialism and to cultural relativism. It is obvious that some cultures are better than others in safeguarding fundamental human rights."

Like similar "nationalist" parties, Sweden Democrats lump together all "true" Swedes under the lofty and vague label of "the Swedish people", an entity they claim to represent. However, as the poet Paul Valéry once pointed out: "The only meaning I can see in the word 'people' is 'mixture'…." Immigrants may have to change some of their customs and behaviour and adopt new norms to adapt in receiving countries, at the same time as host countries would be enriched by the positive contribution of migrants. This may not be an easy or short process as it requires both individual efforts, which may be different for women and men, and adequate migration policies. Central to this dynamic coexistence and exchange, there are unique human beings, with different backgrounds, physiological traits, ideas, behaviour and beliefs. Most humans are able to adjust to various cultural contexts and abide to rules and laws of a specific nation without losing their unique identity.

Is it really possible to define unique "Swedish values", or any other "national" values for that matter? It is more viable to assume that a "nation" and thus all individuals, would benefit from Immanuel Kant´s categorial imperative: "Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

The ideology of nationalists and chauvinistic demagogues is based on unfounded myths that reduce human existence to ideals of "nations", "races" and "cultures", while rejecting the reality of change and diversity. Recent historical events demonstrate that when such movements which idealise reality rise to power, the consequences can be disastrous. As Goethe once stated: "A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished."

Jan Lundius holds a PhD on History of Religion from Lund University and has worked at Sida, Unesco, FAO and other international organisations as researcher and adviser.

Rosemary Vargas-Lundius holds a PhD on Development Economics from Lund University and has worked on gender and migration issues at IFAD and UNDP. She is presently the Chair of the KNOMAD gender and migration research team.

            —Inter Press Service


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