The weight given to designations of nationality, or else ethnicity, in British society is something that has been playing heavily on my mind of late. Over the last couple of weeks what has appeared clearer than ever is both the dangers involved in identifying and assessing people along national or ethnic lines and the continuing inclination of the most powerful voices in society to do so. In a month where discussions of Scottish separation came once again to the fore and Nigel Farage accepted Nick Clegg’s invitation to debate the EU question live on television, debates centring on issues of national identity have been difficult to avoid. But it was, surprisingly perhaps, neither the matter of Scottish independence nor the latest chapter in the history of the UK Independence Party that reminded me of the curious importance attached to national identity in this little part of the geopolitical map.

That reminder came instead through an attempt to navigate the BBC News website. Stories are classified according partly to provenance, partly to topic. There is, admittedly some justification for this: some sense in drawing a demarcation between ‘UK’ news and ‘World’ news, and privileging the former over the latter. UK news often concerns the lives of a domestic audience in a way that a lot of international news does not. Reports on changes to healthcare provision in the United States, for example, are far less pertinent to an audience living in the UK than stories concerning the NHS. Nevertheless, in classifying news along geopolitical lines, the BBC, along with the many news outlets that share in its approach, risks perpetuating, perhaps even inculcating, the notion that what happens in one part of the world is in no way related to what happens in another: that ‘Europe’ and ‘Latin America’, ‘the Middle East’ and ‘Africa’ are self-enclosed, separate worlds. Moreover, in flooding its homepage with stories from the UK and even giving such domestic news pride of place on the ‘European News’ pages, the BBC suggests to its audience – whether consciously or not – that what does not happen in Britain, or what does not happen to British people, is less of less concern to us than events occurring closer to home, no matter how comparatively minor the human impact of those domestic affairs.

But much as this encounter with the BBC website got me thinking about how we, as a society, value national categories, a more powerful reminder of the significance of ‘the national’ came in the form of comments made by an Old Bailey Judge, John Bevan. He had just sentenced four men and a teenage boy convicted of sex offences in the city of Peterborough. All five have been living in Britain for a number of years but had been born, and for the most part raised, oversees. One had moved to Britain from Iraq: the others were of Slovak and Czech Roma origin.

Judge Bevan, in his address to the men, said

“The combination of the crimes you have committed and your attitude to these crimes both in this country and this court … does a disservice to your fellow Roma who want to work hard in this country, improve themselves and make a positive contribution.”

How ill-advised were those words. Of course, the most obvious message communicated in that comparison of the men in the dock with their ‘fellow Roma’, and in all likelihood the message that the judge intended, was a reminder that not all members of that diasporic ethnicity are of the same ilk. Yet there is a second, almost contradictory, message to be taken from Judge Bevan’s comment. There is the message that it is somehow legitimate to treat an individual character as national character in microcosm: to infer from his actions and values the ways of an entire people and from that abstract image of a people, pass judgement on other individuals. The legitimisation of such an approach to nationality or ethnicity is not explicit in the Judge’s comments but it is there. When it is insisted that an isolated instance of immorality is not merely something that may damage the public image of the Roma as a group but something that ‘does’ so, the link between the individual and their assigned ‘kind’ is presented as a link universally made and, as such, is presented as a fact rather than an interpretation.

An arbitrary interpretation of ‘species’ or ‘kind’ is, of course, exactly what nationality is. One need only think back a week to Sochi and the nominally Russian victories of former South Korean Olympian Viktor Ahn and erstwhile American snowboarder Vic Wild to see just how arbitrary is the relationship between individual and nation. One need only look to a British passport, declaring its holder a ‘British Citizen’ while its cover bares the words ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ to witness the slipperiness of national categories themselves. One need only consider for a moment that depending on his criteria, Judge Bevan could also have classified the men before him as English, or  Slovak or Czech, to appreciate how insufficient a national or ethnic category is even for describing an individual’s social, cultural, or political identity.

It makes little sense, then, to treat individuals discursively as members of a national or ethnic people: as parts of a circumscribed whole that is any smaller than the human race in its entirety. Logically, it just does not stand. But more importantly, in a society committed to tolerance and to progress in its many guises, it should not stand. Categorising along national or ethnic lines detracts from the fundamental affinity we all have as human beings, irrespective of the tribes to which we are arbitrarily assigned, and supports a myth of Otherness. Consequently, it is a practice that breeds fear, makes the value of human life something relative, and gets in the way of the sort of interaction sans frontiers that could bring about material, technological and social gains. When performed by judges or respectable news outlets, those whose words and actions carry a socially sanctioned ideological weight, the power of such reductive categorisation to influence behaviour is particularly great. So in the interest of a less daunting, more peaceful, and multifariously richer life for people the world over, perhaps those with a discursive authority should imagine there’s no countries . While I am not going to echo John and Yoko as far as saying that it isn’t hard to do, it would be an experiment in which a little success could go a long way.

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