We are a nation; therefore, we have a right to self-determination. However, not all sociopolitical circumstances are created equally, thus debilitating our agency to define our present and self-determine our future. Our foremost tool of self-determination is our language, for it helps us relate to our environment and consequently informs our identity. Unfortunately, an important value of language has increasingly been overlooked – and that is the significance of speaking mindfully and respectfully. If we agree that we have that right to determine our own statehood and form our own allegiances and government, as well as how we control our individual life, then it follows that we must be cautious of a person or a group of people that may claim authority to define or even re-define our nation. Nevertheless, we can’t form a better civil society when we echo the uncivil words of political actors.
Kindness is a hand extended from neighbor to neighbor, city to city, county to county, state to state, and nation to nation. It is not a gift bestowed upon us from a party or an ideology. We are in peak-polarization, with claims of division coming from the Left and Right, but what remains constant is our language and shared history. By language I don’t mean English in and of itself, but rather the family of dialects that identifies Americans, from the words we use to the accent that accompanies them. The values and meaning we pass down through them help to construct our shared history. Whether it is the richness of Appalachian English, Bostonian, or if you hail from Southern California, Arkansas, or Minnesota, the cultural artifacts you produce – be it poetry or folk songs – contribute to the American narrative.
For some, the aforementioned pluralism may not translate well into a cohesive identity (ie. lack of homogeneity) if we include the rest of the languages spoken in the United States. For instance, John Stuart Mill may have believed that pluralism might not unite a nation if there are different languages read and spoken, thus obstructing the united public opinion that is required for a functional representative government. However, the same tension of perceived communal barriers is also seen within any monolingual populace, as may be appreciated from the groups of people – say, in the Pacific North West – who do not subscribe to what others on the East Coast believe in. After all, what is good for the people of Montana may very well not be good for the people of Florida. Nonetheless, these distant geographical points maintain the American story alive amidst the cries of homogeneity – whether governmental or cultural. Even Mill recognized that a wholly united nation need not be homogenized, as evidenced by our continual Republic and growing democracy. This is also corroborated by other democracies like France, where democracy thrives without a homogeneous nation.
In order to bridge the communities torn apart by the inflammatory rhetoric that swarms social media and political discussions, we could reach out to philosophers like Joseph Ernest Renan and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who believed in a shared history founded on love and a union invited by communication. There is no reason for a scornful divide between “city folk” and “country folk” as both contribute to our shared-history, further fostering an understanding of what constitutes the American identity. The political subterfuge might try and tell us that Michigan and Kentucky are worlds apart from each other; yet instead, what we ought to see is the water crisis suffered by both: Flint, Michigan in 2014 and Perry County, Kentucky more recently. Our communities shouldn’t be played against each other for a moral high-ground when they are equally united in hardship and should rather face the policies that are depriving them of life essentials.
Arguably, partisanship has brewed populism and promised a better infrastructure and economy, while attempting to redefine the identity of a nation. Nevertheless, a nation of self-determined inhabitants forges its identity through their freedom of speech and participation – not through ethnic and cultural commonalities. If we mindfully communicated a bit more with each other, we would discover that we are not Americans because we are from Iowa, New Hampshire or wherever else – we are American because we embody “a network of egalitarian relations of mutual recognition,” (Habermas, 1990). The flag of the United States bears fifty stars representing the fifty states in Union… and they all shine the same because they are all American.
Photo by Jp Valery, (in Louisiana, United States), on Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero license