Pledge Allegiance to the Flag or Be Against Us: An Helpful Rhetoric

23/01/2015 12:51 GMT | Updated 24/03/2015 09:59 GMT

In our current climate of "terror," it has become quite common to "pledge allegiance" to a particular flag, or to ask people to re-affirm the values and identity of that flag. This is done in various ways. Back in 2011, David Cameron argued that the loss of a British collective identity fuelled radicalisation and that it should be responded by a muscular approach to liberalism by promoting what is seen as modern and liberal, and essentially "British": freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regarding race, sex or sexuality (as if this wasn't shared by "them"). We have seen Amedy Coulibaly, the Porte de Vincennes shooter in the Paris attacks, in a video, swearing an oath to the Islamic State. In this video, he pledges allegiance to the Caliphate and thus betrays his "French identity." After these attacks, people asked the Muslim population of France to voice their "desolidarisation" from the Paris attacks, as if that population "naturally approved" of these attacks. James O'Brien showed very well why it simply doesn't make sense for the Muslim population to apologise for terrorism.

A flag seems to represent a set of categories that are specific to a country, a culture, a set of traditions, a religion, in brief, what people see as a national identity. However, pledging allegiance to one particular identity is problematic for various reasons. Primarily because it rests on loaded assumptions about how individuals construct meaningful lives, but it can also be unhelpful in this climate. That is if we are committed to fostering a dialogue between people. It is certainly easier to cast people away as different than to try and live together.

First, the problem with this narrative is that it is grounded in the assumption that "identity" is a fixed and stable concept, when it is the opposite, fluid, malleable and always changing. Individuals seldom assume only one identity. Perhaps it is easier for me - being an immigrant myself- to see this. Yet, even for people who have stayed in the same town with the same job all their lives can also make this apparent. We change from being children, workers, parents, partners, teachers, students, friends, supporters of certain sport teams (etc.) through one's lifetime and often take on more than one identity at a time. Drawing on Alexander Wendt's catchy title, identity, therefore, is what we make of it.

Secondly, the concept of identity needs to be relocated into a relational aspect. This would prevent seeing "them" as completely separated from "us." In order to be recognised as "me," there needs to be an "other" that recognises me as such. In that sense, your identity is always constructed in relation to mine. Hence, one could say that there would be no "me" without the "you." It makes little sense to think of an identity independently created, or objectively "there."

Furthermore, it would be beneficial in this debate to see identity in non-essentialist terms. The identity given to "us" and the one we give to others is also formed through past experiences, rather than inherently given. This may be difficult for people to accept, but who we all are depends on the interactions we had and have with other people and with our surroundings. (This is also why there is a need to make those interactions positive). If identity is stable and inherent, how are we to conceive possibilities of change? Whilst not holding the idea of progress as a creed, this seems a rather gloomy idea. Seeing identity in essentialist terms leads to grouping people onto one homogenous "category" of people. Pledging allegiance to a flag and to the particular identity this flag symbolises, reflects the idea that "we" are a particular group of people that belong to the same identity and that "they" belong to another.

This can be beneficial in solidifying the bonds of a nation by emphasising the commonalities of past experiences. Yet, this has to be within the limits of shared experiences, rather than innate characteristics. If it is the latter, it can become totalitarian as it means that all citizens must embrace one homogenising identity, for if you do not, you are "against us" and must be stripped of your citizenship. Apart from a brief reassurance and confidence in "our" values, this discourse may be unhelpful, and should perhaps be avoided.

So I am not pledging allegiance to the French flag, my country of origin, or to the British flag, my host country. I am pledging allegiance to my family, my friends, my teachers, my colleagues, my partner, to all the people from the various backgrounds that constructed "me" into "me," the diverse and heterogeneous voices of my life. I am pledging allegiance to all the people that have a duty of care and that encourage a dialogue between people, rather than polarising identities into two camps, "us" and "them." I am not pledging allegiance to a fictional identity called "French," "British," "Western," "modern," or even "women," I am pledging allegiance to all the people that make up France and Britain, for they would be no "French identity" or "British identity" without the people in it.