Special Reports / Does solidarity pay off? 23rd Tischner Debate 'Belonging and Identity'

Does solidarity pay off? 23rd Tischner Debate “Belonging and Identity”

Małgorzata Fuszara, Konstanty Gebert, Steven Lukes, Jyotirmaya Sharma · 1 December 2015
After the terrorist attacks in Paris Europe once against needs to cope with fear of its citizens and questions of how to truly assimilate people of different cultures and religions coming arriving in the Old Continent. In face of deep-rooted prejudices and anxiety is such political integration at all possible?

Marcin Król: The title of this debate is “Belonging and Identity”. When we came up with it, we obviously didn’t know about the events which occurred in Paris only a few days ago. I would, however, prefer that these events, these awful terrorist acts, are not our subject and that instead we focus on more general issues of belonging and identity. What is European identity? What are the changes it is undergoing?

Konstanty Gebert: I think we should nonetheless address reality, especially as it gives us an opportunity to empirically test some of the ideas we hold on belonging and identity. Reality bites, and when it does it forces us to pay attention.

After the attacks on 9/11 in the United States, “Le Monde” famously wrote “We are all Americans”. After the attacks in Paris, many said “We are all French”. Yet in his speech before the National Assembly, president François Hollande courageously stated that in these attacks “Frenchmen killed other Frenchmen”. So if we are all French now, just exactly which Frenchmen are we?

You might say that this is foolishness. That regardless of the politically correct words of the French president, we really know what the division is: between us, Europeans, and the terrible mass of invaders, whose countless hordes are threatening us.

It’s not that simple, though. In such discussions the ultimate question is who belongs to our group and, even more importantly, who and how decides on that. I have a lot of sympathy, frankly, for all the nativists who want to keep Europe and its nations as they are – clearly defined and simple to understand. I, myself, am also more comfortable with that reality, rather than a weird new Europe with new languages, new faces, new smells and new threats. However, we need to bear in mind that the only way we can keep Europe in its current form is by using force, defending the continent as “the only true Europeans”. But are we really the only true Europeans? On Gibraltar there is a species of monkeys, Barbary macaques, which some scientists say are the remnants of populations that has lived in Europe for over 5 million years. If so, they and only they are the genuine, native, true Europeans. The rest of us, primates which are now running the continent, are just interlopers.

Steven Lukes: The question which Marcin Król told us we were going to discuss is whether integration of non-Europeans in Europe is possible. This question, however, has changed after the attacks in Paris. Now we have to ask what consequences these attacks have upon the way Europeans should deal with the migrants.

Words matter. During and after 9/11 in 2001, I was in New York and I wrote a piece under exactly that title “Words matter”, in which I worried very much about the language of war and the fact that a hitherto weak president suddenly became strong by using the language of war and announcing a crusade. I fear that it is now happening again in France. François Hollande’s speech given in front of the National Assembly was deeply disturbing, because it was promising a war, a war without mercy, which is, I think, leading us exactly into the trap the Jihadists are setting for us.

We are now faced with a challenge of fundamentally rethinking two concepts, namely: solidarity and identity. First of all solidarity. There are many ways of conceptualizing solidarity and indeed one of the meanings of this word was evident immediately after the attacks in Paris, when you saw French people helping each other out and subsequently engaging in collective mourning.

But when we think of what solidarity can mean to political and social life I believe there are two basic meanings we need to distinguish. The one is where you think of solidarity by virtue of people’s sameness, by virtue of what unites them and what they share. In this context the thing that unites us is that we are the part of the same ethnic group or the same nation, we live the same place, or share the same religion. That’s one way of thinking about solidarity.

Another way, which I find most important for the future of Europe and the world, is to think of solidarity which exists in spite of differences, in spite of all the ways in which we are different from one another. Unfortunately, there are limits to that kind of solidarity, to what people can tolerate in terms of collective living together. Where do these limits lie, who decides on that and how it is decided? I believe it needs to be decided by law. The problem we now see in France is that this principle, the rule of law as the way of enforcing solidarity, is eroding. The President is already proposing changes to the constitution, which might set limits on freedom of association, at the same time permitting arrests, investigations and surveillance on an unprecedented scale.

That’s what I have to say about solidarity, now let me move on to identity. Identity is something that exists and it’s seen as a collective thing, representative of ethnic groups or nations. The problem with this notion is that it forces us to identify people with groups, ignoring the fact that these people themselves might not feel any connection with any of these groups, or quite the opposite, might identify simultaneously with many diverse groups. Therefore, the concept of identity makes us insensitive to all the fluidity and ways in which people actually live their lives – in the centre of lots of overlapping circles.

In the case of relations with Muslims, we can clearly see that in our minds jihadists or ‘Islamists’ are identified with all the people who have a Muslim identity and they all come to be seen as a single group.

Taking all that into consideration, I say that, while we need to be alert to and concerned about the attacks, and need to pursue and punish the perpetrators, we should also think about freedom – freedom from being labelled and identified.

Małgorzata Fuszara: Thank you. I would like to present some data on how we conceptualize our identity and belonging and how we identify other people as belonging to this or that group. To put it simply, this is a question of geography, territory and time, i.e. the question of how long you have to live in a place to be “from there”. There are cases in which some people have lived in one place for centuries and yet are still not seen as part of the community. One of such group lives here, in Poland. Some months ago, a short piece was published in one of Polish newspapers in which the author asked whether we should somehow deport Polish Tatars, Muslims who have lived here for a few centuries. This is a unique group and culture. And instead of cultivating it and being proud, there are still people who question whether they belong to us and have the right to live here.

Another problem with defining who belongs to us was revealed in research in Silesia, a part of Poland inhabited by people who largely consider themselves to be a different ethnic group or even a different nation. But who are Silesians, actually? What about those who left for Germany or the United States many years or even generations ago and now came back. Are they Silesians? Yes, they are. They have sometimes different values, they might not have kept the language, but they belong in some sense to this territory.

The other question stems from the fact that in this region there are many people called “Kresowianie”, who were moved there from the eastern part of Poland before World War II. It’s now the third or fourth generation who are born there. Do they have the right to be called Silesians? These are difficult questions which are being discussed even in such a homogeneous country as Poland.

These discussions become more and more important now, as we can observe a new transnational shift in the sense of identity. In many parts of Europe local identifications are becoming stronger, and many people, for example in Spain, ask: in a united Europe, do we need Spain as a separate state any longer? Or maybe we can identify ourselves only as Catalonian or Basque? Researchers in France also find this identification with local places strengthening. People go back to old, quite often almost forgotten languages, learn about local history customs and culture. In the light of these processes, the question arises: who has the right to describe and acknowledge our group identity?

Jyotirmaya Sharma: Let me start with a short anecdote. An 85-year old mother of my friend was at the Immigration Office in Britain few years ago. She was asked how long she was planning to stay. The answer was: “Not as long as you guys were in India.”

I think that it’s important to mention issues which aren’t that often mentioned – questions of colonialism, questions of nationalism need to be interrogated much more severely. We have a strong concept, which has been discussed by my fellow panellists here, that is the concept of multiculturalism in the 21st century, which is actually a subset of… the nationalist project. The rhetoric is that nations ought to be multicultural, that it’s bad, it’s almost an anathema, if they are monocultural. Nations are generally modern only if they entertain diverse cultures, and this is strictly controlled. This is how it unfolds, all these other nationalities must be discrete, must be horizontally ordered, and must have historical roots. Once this is put in place, they form multiculturalism. But God forbid if there is any form of hybridisation! Either by the people themselves or by the state.

We need to question the notion of cosmopolitanism as a concept made of rationality, autonomy, individualism, consciousness, but also a tendency to see cosmopolitanism as something naturally rational, disinterested, convivial and free. In a sense there is a moral and ethical conflict constructed between cosmopolitanism and vernacularism by the nationalist project . On the other hand, however, the neoconservative, neoliberal and religious nationalist projects have appropriated the vocabulary of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. They all talk about 9/11 and the rhetoric after that, using a language of human dignity, respect for private property, free speech, justice, religious tolerance, and so on and so forth. These are treated as universal non-negotiables. It is a part of what “we” are, the “we” being the self-image of the European white male. The cosmopolitan elite often opposes, oppresses citizens in the name of these values. In this way, they become an instrument of political and economic bullying.

Konstanty Gebert: When you mentioned this horror of hybridization I was reminded of a sentence by a Bosnian Muslim fundamentalist who wrote that mixed marriage is a lot worse than rape – for though both are unnatural, at least in rape one party has not given consent. I think this ties very nicely with the division between two solidarities Steven made. However, the solidarity of sameness I would call fraternity. In this case I choose nothing. I’m born into a certain community. Genuine solidarity, however, means that I choose to endorse this or that group. But this also means that the identity is for me to choose. And many defenders of identity would deny me this right, because to them the identity is natural and therefore if we hybridize it we commit a crime worse than a rape.

Jyotirmaya Sharma: In a certain sense the opposite of hybridisation is purification. If you do not start hybridisation – either consensual or non-consensual – it then leads to purification. It’s a vicious cycle. The greatest purification obviously comes in the very definition of nationalism, which came from German thinkers – pure art, pure folklore, pure literature, etc. This is endless. In the name of cultural essentialism of one sort or the other, the European project for the last 200 years has been focused on articulating difference rather than similarity or solidarity, or sameness.

Małgorzata Fuszara: That brings us to the question of: what does “sameness” actually mean? When I served as a government minister, we went to Wrocław, where there was a problem with a Romanian Roma camp. The president of the city wanted to demolish the camp and move these people, and the authorities came up with an idea that the Polish Roma who live in Wrocław could be helpful in negotiating the agreement. They refused, however, and declined to even discuss the problem as they didn’t want to be associated with the Romanian group. We thought there is a bridge that can be built between the Roma from Romania and the Polish Roma, but they completely denied that assumption.

Shalini Randeria: Let me read out a question posed from the audience: “The new Polish prime minister in her speech referred to solidarity in the sense of sharing good things with each other, or helping each other in case of sudden or unfortunate circumstances. This was said in the context of the migrant crisis as well as the recent attacks in Paris. And the background was the government’s decision to use the events in Paris as an argument to go back on its commitment to take in a few thousand refugees, which Poland had earlier agreed to accept. In his speech, Professor Lukes mentioned a few definitions of solidarity. How would he comment on such a use of the concept of solidarity in order to exclude?”

Steven Lukes: What “the good things” are is not clear and is often politically decided. Sharing the good things presumably meant accepting all the things prime minister finds valuable in Polish life. In other words, what this position does not seem to allow for is a future in which people can have divergent, even incompatible ideas of what the good things are. Solidarity in spite of differences means genuine openness to really challenging and conflicting and troubling differences between groups. And that doesn’t seem to be a way the new prime minister understands it.

Konstanty Gebert: I’m struck by the fact that in discussing solidarity, Polish politicians no longer take into consideration either the patron of our debate, Józef Tischner, or his great teacher – John Paul II, who used to say that solidarity means “to bear each other’s burdens”. It’s not about sharing candies, it’s about the idea that humans are supposed to help each other when they are in trouble.

Małgorzata Fuszara: We need to remember how much the political climate actually shapes the notion of solidarity and the attitude towards migrants and refugees. Not so long ago, back in the 1990s, Poland agreed to accept almost 80, 000 people from Chechnya. And despite the fact that they came from a completely different culture, the political climate was such that there was no discussion whether we should accept them or not. Now we are expected to accept only 9, 000 people, ten times fewer and yet the discussion on whether we should oblige is incomparably more heated.

Jyotirmaya Sharma: I came to Europe for the first time when I was 21. The question I was then asked most often was: When did you arrive? Now, it’s: How long are you staying? There’s a notable shift in the way you’re approached in the whole of Europe. The idea is that people who come here are expected to assimilate, to obey the rules of game. But what the game actually is changes all the time!

Shalini Randeria: When I arrived in Switzerland in 2002, I was told that while the Sri Lankan Tamils were “good” migrants, the Yugoslavs were “bad” ones. The criterion for judging a “good” migrant was interesting. Sri Lankan Tamils were considered to be welcome migrants as they put a premium on education, learn the language, but married among their own community, whereas Yugoslavs were unwelcome as they sought to date and marry Swiss women but did not care to learn Swiss German. One would have thought that marriage would be a good way to integrate in a host society. But though linguistic or educational integration was seen as positive, social and cultural integration through marriage was not.

What was also remarkable was that similarly to German public discourse, here migrants were also reduced to their culture and to their religion, which are considered to be problematic determinants of their attitudes and behaviour while overlooking the role of class or gender differences. So when Iranians in Germany, for instance, integrate well into the labour market and educational system, this is not explained by reference to their Muslim faith. But the problems faced by Turkish migrants are explained not in terms of class but of Islam. It is the contradictory expectations of host societies and their unwillingness to integrate newcomers, which is equally problematic.

Konstanty Gebert: I agree that much of the conflict comes from the expectations we hypocritically generate and, when migrants come, we are genuinely unable to fulfil. But that’s also a matter of their perspective, which reminds me of a Soviet-Jewish joke from the “good” old days. A Soviet Jew is being interrogated at the police station, accused of having made a false declaration. ‘You said’, says the policeman, ‘you don’t have family abroad’. ‘But I don’t’, answers the Jew. ‘We know you have a brother in Israel!’, yells the policeman. ‘Oh’, answers the Jew, ‘but he’s at home and I’m the one who is abroad’.

Shalini Randeria: One question that arises when we reflect on the conditions for solidarity is: What could the sources for solidarity be today and especially for solidarity based not merely on similarities, but solidarity despite differences?

Konstanty Gebert: Solidarity is not about being nice, it’s about self-protection. I can hope to be helped only if I give a good example of helping others. It is as simple as that. I’m always suspicious of projects which try to build on the assumption of people behaving nicely. People are not nice. But if we can show that acting in an altruistic way is an expression of an enlightened egoism, then we actually might get somewhere. This country also depends on solidarity – it has no future, no security, without the help of others. By undermining solidarity, by denying it to others, we are cutting the very branch on which we are perched.

Steven Lukes: Solidarity is definitely not about caring about other people in terms of what is good for them or for the community. It is always good when people are friendly and altruistic in ways that actually help us, but we should beware of such feelings when they are backed by some concept of what is good for us, by some vision of what is the best way to live. The idea that there is one best way to live and that others should involve us in it is extremely dangerous. That’s why we need rights. Konstanty talked about self-protection – but we also need protection given by a legal framework and moral framework that underlies it. They guarantee we can live our lives the way we want to. Konstanty used the expression “enlightened egoism”. I prefer not to speak of egoism in this connection, but rather of independence. Rights are what we need to protect us from the goodwill of others.

Jyotirmaya Sharma: Words like solidarity are specific to this context in Poland. But in a caste society I come from, there were two words which were added to this whole enterprise of being graciously nice to each other and both of them failed. One was brotherhood and the other was friendship. Why did they fail and why solidarity fails is that none of these concepts can survive without some radical notion of equality. You cannot have solidarity between people radically unequal, you cannot have friendship between people radically unequal, you cannot even have brotherhood. If you try to do so, they tear themselves apart in the end.

An old teacher of mine once simplified Western philosophy for me in one sentence: “Plato said »If there are bad morals, give people good morals«. »No«, replied Aristotle – »if there are bad morals, give people good politics«”. I’m with Aristotle on that – good politics is the possible way out.