Moorpark, CA. We are told to be careful with our words, to be aware of how our words might make other people feel or of how we might be misunderstood.  However important is this advice (and it is both important and grossly overused), these are not the primary reasons we should be thoughtful about our language.  Words shape ideas and beliefs, they assist in the mapping, and even reshaping, of our conceptual terrain.  Linguistic mistakes lead to corrupted thinking.  Because language is social, we are responsible for the way our words work on others. We should indeed be careful with our words.

When we latch onto inappropriate, inaccurate, or unnecessarily vague labels we plane off the subtle contours of our intellectual topography.  And the more we traffic in these handy little falsehoods the more established the literal, as opposed to the intended, meanings of the words become in the minds of people in our linguistic networks. With increasing frequency, for instance, we are called to be global citizens—or worse, “good” global citizens.  What once was the call of dangerous moralists has become part of the linguistic wallpaper of the half educated—a label transformed from a splendid monstrosity to a ubiquitous banality.

It is easier to battle monstrous ideas than to fight commonplace idiocy.  A revolutionary appeal to global citizenship may include semantic confusions, but one quickly detects an IDEA—a vision of the world and of healthy human relations that includes an aesthetic ideal, a moral crusade and a governing theory about human nature.  The IDEA of all humans, knitted together by a deep acceptance (tolerance); organized in ways that distribute goods and power fairly: educated to transcend provincial differences of race, religion, clan, and tradition: and habituated to accept the thorough interdependence of all humans—the IDEA is something that we can understand, can critique, can challenge.  When an earnest political activist or a crusading philosopher presents me with the moral imperative to live as a global citizen then I can engage with her on ontological, epistemological, empirical, and moral grounds.   Over time we might come to understand each other, though not agree.  And when we both develop our ideas sufficiently, the competing visions become clear and people can choose, can engage intellectually and morally, because they see clear differences.  Because ideologies have form and structure, one can disagree meaningfully, using words that carry precise meanings and employing basic rules of logic to debate principles and to argue about consequences.  ‘Tis a fair fight.

But when words become dreary or turn into semantic quicksand, they endanger ideas, making words and labels nearly useless tools for defining, for clarifying, or for expressing a vision.  To the degree that precise words become banal and conceptually elastic, they enervate our thinking and undermine our capacity to see distinctions, and perhaps even our desire to see distinctions. The capacity to discriminate, to differentiate, to understand subtle distinctions is a necessary condition for judgment, for distinguishing differences that matter from those that are incidental.  Because judgment is essential for defining and “seeing” a compelling political and moral vision, a keen concern for meanings is a characteristic of a free people.  Banal phrases, cluttering our car bumpers and our common parlance (phrases like “global citizens,” “coexist,” or “war is not the answer”), pander to our desire to be moral without being morally serious.  In due course, a loose semantic emotiveness disarms us against evils that come clothed in moral truisms, but that are disconnected from any serious ontology.  We lose a clear and compelling vision of a free people as we lose our power to define and discriminate.  Semantic imprecision contributes to spiritual lassitude, making it impossible for us to defend our society’s highest principles because we can no longer comprehend them.

So, what are the banal meanings imbedded in the frequent calls for global citizenship?  Because they are so commonplace now, the meanings are both too diverse and too imprecise to delineate precisely.  But at least in certain academic circles, where the appeal to global citizenship often comes paired with equally elusive claims to the virtues of “diversity,” I can discern a certain loose meaning.  Universities, in this view, should prepare people to live and work in an increasingly interdependent world.  Perhaps focused first on economic interdependence, universities must also teach students to understand and even appreciate the diverse cultures that make up the global mosaic.  Provincialism is, from this point of view, an economic handicap.  Geographic mobility, instantaneous communication across our orb, deeply connected financial and economic systems, all make inherited forms of “doing business” obsolete.  A university engages in educational malpractice if it doesn’t help acclimate its students to this environmental reality.

Complimenting this pragmatic view of cosmopolitanism is a moral vision where universities assume the role of shaping the affections of their students to “appreciate” the cultural diversity of the globe they inhabit.  This appreciation has many different levels.  For some, it really means that in order to engage in the new “global” environment one must develop a deep understanding of the diverse and complex cultural expressions of human meaning and flourishing.  For instance, a Christian university might emphasize this “appreciation” as a means of preparing its graduates to evangelize more effectively—one cannot expect to change people without understanding them properly.  Or a less evangelical mission may require that that those with a Christian spirit of benevolence recognize a world of opportunity to “do good,” finding “neighbors” to love across every meridian.

More often, however, university officials mean something more coercive.  To make students more cosmopolitan and to foster affection for the many cultures of the world, universities emphasize a global identity that will attenuate the affections of their graduates for their own particular place and culture.  Strong attachments to one’s own are dangerous, inculcating patriotism and judgmental exclusivism.  Cosmopolitanism, in this view, is itself a virtue, shaping better humans and, in due course, a better, more just, equitable, and peaceful world.  The preachers of this global identity often, I’ve noticed, think that the meaning and moral import of global citizenship comes in a luminous moment, a conversion experience where one suddenly realizes that one belongs to the world.

No doubt, my account of the meanings that some people give to the label “global citizen” is distorted because it is incomplete.  But it is accurate in the sense that many who operate in my “world” include these meanings in the label.  Moreover, parts of the meaning that I’ve outlined above include objectives that I share enthusiastically.  But the objectives that I endorse are not suited to the label “global citizen.”  If we penetrate to grounding beliefs about human purpose and meaning, to beliefs about human nature, then we can discern why the label is, at best, nonsense, and at worse, a violation of our most basic human needs.

Normally it would be unnecessary to note the incompatibility of citizenship with something so large and amorphous as global society.  But today we must explain the obvious because we lack a commonplace language to describe key distinctions. The only way that the two concepts could be co-joined is to thin out the meaning of citizen so as to refer to a vague sense of belonging and obligation.  We belong to this world and we owe something to it.  Because each person benefits from the natural resources that the world provides, and because those resources must be shared with the rest of the human population (to say nothing of non-humans), we ought to foster a sense of “citizenship” so that we act responsibly toward the rest of humanity (both present and future, but not past).   The same might be true of the cultural resources we use, but to discuss this would require a defense of the particular and confined, of a place much smaller than the world.

It is proper, I think, to encourage people to acknowledge the unfathomable interconnectedness of all life.  If we took this seriously we would live lightly on this earth, we would love those around us with almost boundless intensity, we would recognize the limits of our capacity to know the reality in which we participate, and we would foster piety toward the dead who participate with us in a story most mysterious.  But none of this entails citizenship and little of it is incorporated into the ideology of global citizenship.

The fact is that real citizenship is rare enough in our world.  In so many nations, the people are “nationals” rather than citizens, belonging to their nation-state in the way a servant might belong to a household.  At least in traditional (non-modern) societies, such hierarchical relationships can foster a profound sense of belonging insofar as centuries of history, a rich cultural inheritance, rituals, festivals, and other expressions of collective identity bind people together with cords of inherited memory and deeply rooted identity.  One doesn’t have to be a citizen to belong.

The centrifugal forces of the modern world make such traditional forms of belonging and of social connectedness more difficult to find with every decade.  Modern authoritarian regimes often work actively to undermine, or sometimes to appropriate for their own power, the institutions and traditions that serve as intricate webbing for traditional societies.  Moreover, modern economic forces, in most all regimes of the world, alter social relationships and disconnect individuals from inherited sources of identity and social place.  So, it would seem that social belonging and cultural rootedness that have long served human needs are no longer reasonable options.

And we are back to citizenship, which is, if nothing else, a form of membership–membership in something that people can experience as real, distinctive, and theirs.  In some ways, citizenship serves as a countervailing force where democracy (and perhaps even something as elusive as “modernity”) is most vulnerable to tyranny.  Equality and individualism separate people, placing them, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s image, next to each other—alike, isolated, and lonely.  Fleeting contractual unions take the place of covenants, of inherited status, of fixed systems of obligation and reciprocity. Liberated from inherited hierarchy and status, modern conditions threaten to dissolve the very connective tissue that gives our individual lives purpose beyond self-interest.  But among equals who choose to belong to one another, citizenship promises (depending on whose definition one uses) to cultivate virtues, to attach the individual to meaningful collective action, and to make possible the most elusive of human goods, reflective deliberation in the act of self-governance.

The ideal of combining choice (and affection) with membership makes citizenship an especially attractive modern role.  Corrupted forms of citizenship abound, from citizen as customer to citizen as victim, most of which are products of large, impersonal, distant, and very powerful administrative states.  The more distant the government the less meaningful is one’s participation in it.  The less that participation includes deliberation, the less that politics can be the “place” for a people to become something greater than the sum of individual parts.  The highest expression of politics is when citizens become self-conscious about who they are as a society where they can foster “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection,” to quote Edmund Burke slightly out of context.

Problems of scale plague modern citizenship.  It is certainly possible to find meaning in being a citizen of a nation-state, especially those that can evoke connections of blood and history or those, like the United States, that can knit together diverse peoples into a patchwork of self-governing communities.  For America it matters, Tocqueville argued, that local authority developed before state or national authority.  The townships, in Tocqueville’s rather idealized model of American self-governance, were the primary school of American freedom, teaching citizens the virtues necessary to self-government and fostering a jealousy for their “township freedom.”  Importantly, the formative experience of freedom was not individual, but collective.  Left reasonably at liberty to govern themselves, American townships taught people to be citizens and forced them to be tolerant of the liberty of other townships to rule differently.

Counteracting the tendency toward intensely private lives, the immediacy of decision-making in the towns forced citizens to concern themselves with public matters.  Moreover, because almost all governmental matters were political rather than simply administrative, the town dispersed public responsibilities widely, incorporating a great many citizens into the town’s public identity.  It was their town and, for all its quirky qualities and administrative inefficiencies, membership in the town instilled pride.

A prevailing trend of the modern world has been to create efficient administrative states that require relatively little, except taxes, from their citizens.  The isolating, atomizing tendencies of the modern administrative state and of globalized capitalism may foster unhealthy forms of community. Or it may thoroughly disconnect humans from the past and future (from their stories: civilizational, cultural, familial) and from relationships that foster love, meaning and purpose.  Between ersatz and collectivist communities on the one hand, and random collections of self-absorbed, lonely individuals on the other, a healthy citizenship offers hope for communities that cultivate fully-developed persons who are invested in a story they seek to comprehend and in which they discover the parts they can play.

With the aim of encouraging peculiarly human goods in the modern context, we should embrace citizenship—real and meaningful citizenship.  The virtues of citizenship (loyalty, benevolence, self-sacrifice, duty, acceptance) are habituated at local levels where investing in public purposes is an exercise in self-interest rightly understood.  These habits can extend to national citizenship so long as the local source of those habits remains robust.  But to reverse this direction and to begin with the greatest human abstraction possible, wherein we can never have meaningful participation, where we cannot foster partnerships in science, art and virtue, is to prepare people for despotism and to cut them off from the very sources of their better selves.  Global consumers we might become, but global citizens never.

To the degree that we attempt to create a false reality in which we can imagine such a creature as a global citizen we erode our capacity to do the very “good” that the prophets of globalism preach.  If we care about the health of “humanity,” we will instead encourage the people of the world to divide, to belong to a particular place, to a culture, to a story.  “Global citizens” can be only alienated masses.

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Ted McAllister is a native of Oklahoma, now living in Moorpark, California with his wife, Dena, and his two children, Elisa and Luke. He yearns for his own chunk of land and for those bits of nature that please him, but not for farming or for unnecessary drudgery of the sort that involves physical labor.  He is an aesthetic agrarian, not a practicing one. Educated as an Intellectual and Cultural Historian at Vanderbilt University, he now teaches at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy where he pursues with his students the enduring questions rather than the particular answers.  His book, Revolt Against Modernity:  Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order launched him into the study of political philosophy, though his epistemological orientation is much shaped by his training as a historian.  Working presently on Walter Lippmann as well as a US History textbook, he expects soon to write a multi-volume history of the Baby-boomers.

17 COMMENTS

  1. “Then they said, ‘Come… let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’ …And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”

  2. The last paragraph finally gets to the point. However, to teach division is only half the lesson. Teach pride and appreciation for one’s own culture, place, and story, and how those things can benefit not only your neighborhood but beyond, but also teach that the ultimate “global goal” for humanity is to achieve peace and understanding through the very things that sometimes seem to divide us in a negative way. There is nothing wrong with division for the sake of humanity, as long as that division helps point the way to a unity that is hopefully deserving of this planet.

  3. John,

    The question begins with what makes for human flourishing. In this case, to “divide” refers to belonging to something particular and to take pride in it the same way that one takes pride in anything that belongs to him–by seeking to preserve it and improve it.

    Peace is a laudable goal, but not the highest. If we gain peace by vacating our lives of spiritual meaning, by losing the personal, cultural, and historical connections that remind us that we inhabit a story that is not primarily about ourselves, then we lose too much. No, the goal is not peace or unity, it is to support the very cultural resources that give our lives meaning beyond our self-interest, narrowly understood. If we do not create healthy communities then it is likely that we will create very unhealthy ones that draw people together not by habit and custom, history and memory, but by ideology–cold, heartless, deracinating ideology.

  4. I believe we can creat healthy communities and gain peace and unity and still maintain spiritual meaning of all aspects of life. I don’t believe that peace & unity and spiritual meaning are forever exclusive from each other.
    Mr. McAllister is correct in pointing out that healthy communities are where it all begins. However, I offer that they are a starting point and, maintained correctly, can lead to loftier goals, globally speaking.

  5. Tom,
    I’ve read the essay you referenced, but remain confused about the connections you see. I am no friend of nationalism but believe that patriotism, properly understood, is a part of a healthy community. Can you explain what it is that you think I’m advocating…and where it is that I have been inconsistent with what I’ve advocated before?

  6. On another note entirely, I especially liked the photographic illustration accompanying the essay: The world is in the eye of the beholder (?). Yes, everyone has a different slant.

  7. To be a little clearer, the definitions referenced by Will Wilkinson and Jonah Goldberg are the ones Ilya Somin defines in the two posts Against Nationalism and On Patriotism. Somin’s definition of nationalism is “loyalty to one’s own nation-state based on ties of language, culture, or ethnicity” and his definition of patriotism is “loyalty to one’s government and/or its ideals regardless of ethnic or racial identity.”

    As you say, “The capacity to discriminate, to differentiate, to understand subtle distinctions is a necessary condition for judgment.”
    I do not think that you are being inconsistent, I think we’re just starting from slightly different definitions of nationalism and patriotism. I’m starting at mine and ending at yours.

    I also know that you do not advocate abstract ties to language, culture, or ethnicity, and I’d have to think you would have problems with Somin’s definition of patriotism as well. After all, loyalty to lofty ideals is far from loyalty based on habits and traditions.

  8. So much depends on definitions and were I to operate with Somin’s definitions then I would have to change the way I use the words. So let me ask what the readers on the porch consider meaningful definitions of nationalism and patriotism. To begin very simplistically, I’ve accepted that a patriot is someone who loves his country because it is his. A patriot’s love is not uncritical, but rather because he loves his country, he seeks to improve it, to reform it. I tend to think that patriotism is likely to develop in Burke’s “little platoons,” from which a person develops more attenuated affection for larger entities in which one’s platoon is contextualized. Nationalism is much less critical and is more extreme, less tied to complex affections. A nationalist, in my view, is not likely to want to reform or improve.

    Am I wrong?

  9. Ah, I don’t read FPR enough. It’s been too long. For the record, I am one of those leftist philosophers who would love to have that long conversation with you on the porch about global citizenship. It is easy to imagine belonging to a community with you.

    I like this post a lot. Here’s a key notion:
    A prevailing trend of the modern world has been to create efficient administrative states that require relatively little, except taxes, from their citizens. The isolating, atomizing tendencies of the modern administrative state and of globalized capitalism may foster unhealthy forms of community.

    I would add that the prevailing pleasures of us first-worlders are of the consumer variety, which demand little more than money from the individual (although it’s often more than a “little” money!). In each case it seems that freedom and pleasure are equated with abdication of responsibility, lack of obligation. In each case we see money as a universal solvent.

    On the Left, there’s a lot of instinctive cringing at “patriotism,” but who could find fault with the definition you provide here: a love of place and a desire to improve it? Call me a patriot, then.

    (But they had to call it the “Patriot Act”!)

    Unfortunately, it’s those definitions that trip us up. We learn most definitions from alienated discourses, not from serious intellectual engagement. In many cases we lack the very infrastructure for serious intellectual engagement. We lack the community to engage in. The point is not to find the “true” definition, but to simply care about the definition, to take responsibility for it.

  10. Anxiousmodernman–you are welcome on my porch anytime. I agree with your comments and believe, as I’ve written in this essay and elsewhere, that our problems with language and definitions are crippling with regard to understanding and debating. Sometimes elusive language conceals divisions and sometimes it conceals agreement, but at any rate in our time it is an enemy to meaningful discussion. A front porch, a sense of humor, patience to let the conversation ebb and flow, and several stiff drinks–what else can a civilized people ask for in the early evening?

  11. If you truly believed in being careful with the use of words, then why did you choose your title? After carefully reading your article, I do not believe your intention was to cause a divide(rift) amongst the people of the world, which is in fact what your title implies. It leads the reader to believe you wish our world to step back in time and create pockets of isolation. Kind of revisiting the Cold War Era.

    People do not have to be divided in order “…to belong to a particular place, to a culture, to a story.” Each individual does come from a unique place, is immersed in their own culture, and is the author of their story. It is the individual’s right to either limit or expand the audience to which they choose to share their story with. To hinder this possibility, to create divides, is only to impede growth and progress. We gain ideas, inventions, innovations and so much more from interacting with other people, people who are different. If everyone was alike how boring would our lives truly be?

    The term global citizen has been tossed around for many years now and does not have a unique definition; rather it is more of an idealistic concept of what could be when people reach out and explore other people’s stories, cultures, and communities.

    We make our friends. We make our enemies. God makes our neighbors.
    G.K. Chesterton

  12. I enjoyed the cultural implications of your proposal. People should take time to invest in their communities and make them as strong as possible. I know I need to do some volunteer work in my community. However, I cannot assent with the political implications. I am more of a Unitarian in that I believe it is the role of the central government to protect its individuals from the peculiarities of localism – such as ensuring equal rights for homosexuals.

  13. Interesting article, sir. I recall hearing this bit about using precise language many times in class, and I agree with you. Attempting to apply this to my writing has improved it to some degree, but I definitely have much room to improve.

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