The Meaninglessness of National Pride and Traditions

This is the third part of an essay series surrounding the concept of identity. The reader is not required to read the series in any particular order, given that each essay (three in total) will include the necessary definitions regarding new concepts.

First part

Second part

Photo by Luca Lago on Unsplash

In the first part of this essay series, I addressed the issue with people who strongly identify with their nationality. This current essay, in some way, elaborates on this issue by including national pride and the traditions that complement a particular nation.

Shallow Defenders of Tradition

It should be patently clear that I am not advocating for a complete abolishment of traditions. A distinction between ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ traditions, however, is something I am considerably more interested in. The late Sir Roger Scruton makes such distinction between trivial (or what Scruton calls shallow) and deep traditions during a 2017 lecture. Virtually any tradition that doesn’t “define what we are, for others and for our selves,” or, “determine[s] our primary responses, what we do and how we do it, when reacting to others around us,” can be, according to Scruton, considered trivial.

Given that, as I previously mentioned in part one, nationality is part of, what I’ve called, our coincidental identity*, we could partly dispense with the concept of national traditions — at least with the trivial ones, as Scruton would agree with. Since we happen to be a citizen of nation X, we essentially — and implicitly — forfeit our personal association with both the nation and its traditions. This makes, in spite of Scruton’s somewhat clear distinction, deciding what’s trivial and what’s not, anything but easy. People might still assert that certain trivial traditions are deeply rooted in their character.

I would instead suggest that we can judge a tradition’s merit more objectively by possibly distancing ourselves from its source. If, for instance, a tradition harms the well-being of certain citizens, a nation should be able to objectively address this flaw, and, where possible, make adjustments. Otherwise, we run the risk of characterizing ourselves as “the nationalist,” who, according to Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism, “not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

To exemplify Orwell’s point, I am introducing two national traditions from my own country of origin, the Netherlands. Currently, there are two Dutch (trivial) traditions on the verge of abolishment: Sinterklaas his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), and consumer fireworks. It should be pointed out that the latter tradition, consumer fireworks, is temporarily being banned as a result of the current pandemic, in order to prevent casualties from taking up space in our hospitals.

The arguments that defend the consumption of consumer fireworks largely rests on hedonistic grounds — that is, people argue that we should be allowed to buy fireworks for the simple reason that they are fun and pleasurable. On a similarly shallow manner, many of these so-called traditions are being defended by people proclaiming their historical nature. In other words, a particular tradition should be kept for simply the reason of being a tradition — for being part of our culture for a long time. These types of justifications that defenders of tradition utter are not based on merit or benefits. Instead, they fall for the appeal to tradition fallacy (argumentum ad antiquitatem), which argues that a tradition should be kept intact, simply for the reason that is has been around for a very long time.

To illustrate this fallacy, we should take a closer look at the tradition surrounding Black Pete. For those unfamiliar, I’ll give a brief description of the tradition. Each year, on the fifth of December, we celebrate the birthday of Saint Nicholas, who was a Greek bishop in the fourth century. Black Pete, however, has been the servant of ‘Sinterklaas’ for a relatively short period of time (since the 1850s). He is dressed in, what can be considered, Moorish attire, and in blackface, which is supposedly the result of climbing down the chimney.

Criticism surrounding the colour of Pete can be dated back to the late 1920s. However, critics of Black Pete have been particularly prevalent in the last decade. Back in 2011, for instance, the relative unfamiliarity with this type of criticism is noticeable when the Dutch model, Doutzen Kroes, was essentially being ridiculed during a talk show when she admitted to being ashamed of her nationality because of Black Pete. The host asked the fellow guests whether they believe that Black Pete is outdated — basically asking whether Black Pete is a racist character. Unfortunately for them (and many Dutch politicians), they made use of the appeal to tradition fallacy by arguing that it’s simply a tradition, and should therefore be conserved. To this day many — if not most — defenders of this tradition rely on this particular argument during their defence.

A similar relatively common argument is pointing out that ‘Sinterklaas’ is a children’s celebration, hence, it couldn’t be racist. All these “arguments” and those alike (e.g. “I don’t see Black Pete as something racist”) are not only superficial but likewise logically invalid. Ultimately, the defenders of the tradition are not giving a substantial reason — or any, for that matter — against the people who are advocating for its abolishment.

Along the same lines, some defenders might deny the claim that Black Pete was created in the 1850s. They rather view it as a figure that transcends cultures, that has existed for a lot longer than two centuries. Additionally, they regard it as a collectively inherited pattern — an archetype if you will — that is observed across history in different cultures. Following this historical description of Black Pete, supports make the argument that considering that Black Pete is (presumably) ancient, it should therefore be valued as something good. Similar to previous arguments, the defenders of Black Pete are simply guilty of committing a more extreme appeal to tradition fallacy by arguing that an ancient cultural idea (in this case Black Pete) has continued to exist for a very long time and should, for this reason, be considered exceptional and therefore unchangeable.

Besides these nonexistent arguments against the cancellation of certain traditions, many of the same people claim that their freedoms are taken away as a result of it. This would essentially bring us back to the possibility that people actually feel a deep, personal relationship with a particular tradition. The fact is, however, that, as Jason Brennan points out in Against Democracy, similar how “[i]t is a contingent, psychological or cultural fact that people tend to associate human dignity with political power, or more specifically with the right to vote,” we could argue that the loss of a tradition might be psychologically rooted.

To put it differently, the loss of a tradition acts as a loss of personhood but fundamentally isn’t. Therefore, as Brennan suggests, we could “easily imagine a world otherwise like ours, in which people lacked these kinds of attitudes.” I am not suggesting that the feeling of losing something intangible (like a tradition) is, by itself, negligible. Given the shallowness of the tradition in question, however, we can’t — absolutely can’t — come to the conclusion, as a developed society, that the historical weight of a trivial tradition is valued higher than its disadvantages (particularly the feelings of racism that are experienced by the opposing side).

False National Pride

On a second and final note, we should address the concept of pride, particularly in the context of nations. First, it’s worth pointing out that this emotion can, somehow, indeed be directed towards an entity besides ourselves. Secondly, I believe this to be a (rather complex) semantic issue — that is, arguably, we often use inappropriate wording to articulate this emotion in relation to our nationality.

Native citizens have — contrary to immigrants — nevertheless, according to the concept of coincidental identity, put as much effort in obtaining their nationality, as they have done in acquiring their eye colour. However, if people can be solely proud of things they spend resources on they will experience a hard time being proud at all when taking into account that most actions are contingent upon many factors that are out of our control, apart from their effort.

Therefore, as I understand it, people either feel a personal responsibility with the achievements of their country, or they state this pride blindly when they refer to the satisfaction they feel with their nation. Except if you are Martin Luther King Jr, for instance, the former option seems like a strange parody of Adam Smith’s infamous Invisible Hand theory. This would mean that we suspect by following our self-interest, although nonetheless paying taxes and supporting businesses, that we contribute to a larger collective achievement, and thereby experience this emotion of pride.

The second position, however, which implies that people experience false pride, seems more plausible to me. Our sense of satisfaction has always presented itself in different ways, why would we assume satisfaction towards your nation to be different? Consider for instance, as the American standup comedian George Carlin said, that having nationality X “isn’t a skill, it’s a f*cking genetic accident.” Likewise, as Colin argues, we aren’t proud of being genetically predisposed to be a certain hight or having a genetic defect.

Nationality essentially adds up to our “identity” by default. The fact that you’ve been born in New Guinea isn’t fundamentally different from being born in Norway. By making these arbitrary distinctions, we are artificially setting ourselves up for tribalism. And this is all national pride produces — the superficial reason to hate another person for not professing a similar feeling.

The Ineffectiveness of Visceral Approaches

Ultimately we’re talking about feelings: Many traditions are based on feelings, racism is based on it, as well as our sense of pride. Rather than adding more emotions, we should come to a stage where we disregard emotions as the answer to these issues. In other words, a visceral approach to these problems will simply make them more emotionally complex, without offering any viable solution.

Nevertheless, a well-developed society should be able to discuss the merit of traditions without appealing to their nature, their identity, or emotion. By relying on these superficial foundations for our arguments we’re not only showing our immaturity but likewise our indifference towards solving our current issues. What’s more, our so-called “pride” for our ever so flawless country serves as a means to keep the status quo, since it refers to an intense satisfaction with the current state of affairs. As a result, pride will naturally cause conservation, rather than modification.

The concept of coincidental identity has, in conclusion, proven throughout this essay series that resting our arguments on the products of luck (e.g. nationality, race, religion, political oriëntation) will either result in tribalistic tendencies or childish discussions. Whether we want to keep our discourses tainted by this type of reasoning is, unfortunately, up to us.

*coincidental identity refers to collective identities that are largely the result of luck. Meaning, we had close to no say in acquiring membership from these identities. These include, among others, skin colour, nationality, religion, and political oriëntation. Instead, we might refer to our identity by stating that we “happen to be X,” (X being a part of our coincidental identity).

A BA in general economics, studying psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Previously written for Areo Magazine and Merion West

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