Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Modern people living in WEIRD cultures value consistency in the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of individuals. Joseph Henrich argues this is a strange phenomenon of WEIRD societies and that it hasn’t been a central feature of many cultures throughout history. One of the challenges of living in a society that deems you a hypocrite if you are not internally consistent on all issues is that we frequently run into paradoxical situations where we simultaneously uphold values that directly contradict. In the United States the most clear example is the contradiction between liberty and democratic governance. Democratic governance entails the creation of laws which reduce some personal liberties in order to defend other liberties.
 
 
Another example of paradoxes where our desires run into each other, as Steven Pinker notes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, is between self-determination and the idea of an ethnocultural nation state. The challenges created when these two ideas bump into each other are fueling heated debates and worsening refugee crises across the globe.
 
 
In the Untied States, and many Western European countries, we believe in ideas of self-determination. We believe that individuals have the power to improve their own lives by working hard, making smart decisions, and – if necessary – by moving to a new place to start over. The history of the United States is exactly that, a history of people packing up and starting over somewhere new. Whether it was the pilgrims on the East Coast or the countless people who successively moved west, the United States is defined by the idea of self-determination and moving to areas of opportunity.
 
 
But what happens when the people who exercise this self-determination and move to areas of opportunity are culturally distinct from the areas to which they move? That is the question that Pinker explores in his book. Regarding the differences of the people and the landscape in a nation, Pinker writes, “unlike features of a landscape like trees and mountains, people have feet. They move to places where the opportunities are best, and soon invite their friends and relatives to join. This demographic mixing turns the landscape into a fractal, with minorities inside minorities inside minorities.”
 
 
This is where our paradox arises. We want people to be free. We want to uphold ideas of self-determination. We want people to be able to move to areas of opportunity and start new lives. We don’t want people to be stuck in one place, dependent on government assistance and charity. But, historically the United States and Western European nations have demonstrated that we don’t want ethnographic minorities to be the ones who are self-determinant in this way. We want our countries, our states, and our cities to remain ethnoculturally cohesive groups (I don’t support this view, but some modern political groups certainly do).
 
 
Not all people share this mindset, but many do, and it is a large component of populist movements in the United States and Europe. The choice that many people seem to advocate for is limiting self-determination of people who do not belong to the ethnocultural majority. A choice that is easily pointed at as racist and hypocritical. The other option for the people who dislike the ethnocultural change is to uphold self-determination, but to give up the idea of an ethnocultural state. To me this seems to be the more reasonable choice, but for many, the fear of losing their group identity is powerful.
 
 
Ultimately, what we should recognize is that our modern nation states, the political units we generally view as ethnocultural groups, conflict with ideas of self-determination. If we want to uphold self-determination and make it easier for people to shape their own lives, then we may end up losing ethnocultural nation states.
Conflating Nations & People

Conflating Nations & People

“The term Nation or People came to stand for the individual men, women, and children who made up that nation, and then the political leaders came to stand for the nation,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Conflating nations and people is part of Pinker’s explanation for the two World Wars of the 20th century. Humanity has been gradually pacifying throughout history, but the power of nations and the conflation of nations, people, and their leaders put enormous power and ultimately destructive potential in the hands of a few men. Pinker continues, “a ruler, a flag, an army, a territory, a language, came to be cognitively equated with millions of flesh-and-blood individuals.”
 
 
We are good at losing track of the distinctions between individuals and the groups those individuals form. We do this with nations, we do it with sports teams, and we do it with corporations. We endow these non-human entities with the rights of the humans that form them. The entities themselves, someone like Yuval Noah Harari would argue, are entirely fictitious, but still, we treat them at times like a real human that we have formed intimate connections with. We easily find ourselves within a group and easily lose our sense of our individual self. When a group prospers we feel as though we have prospered, as any sports fan knows. When a group is threatened, we act as though we ourselves are threatened.
 
 
Pinker argues that these dynamics were in play in the 20th century. Globally, humans committed themselves to a nationalistic ethos which rulers were able to harness in ways that propelled an otherwise pacifying humanity into calamitous wars.
 
 
Today we see problems from corporations that have been given the rights of individuals and exercise those rights to further their self-interest at the expense of actual human beings in political arenas. We have not found a way to think about the groups to which we belong without treating them, or conflating them, as human. We still see ourselves as intimately tied to the imaginary groups we form when we coordinate with others.
The Hegelian Doctrine That History is an Inexorable Dialectic of Progress

The Hegelian Doctrine That History is an Inexorable Dialectic of Progress

In his book about how the world has become a more peaceful place for human beings over time, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker has to explain why two massively violent and deadly wars were fought in the 1900’s. If humans are becoming less violent and fighting each other less, then why did we see two incredibly large and deadly conflicts that engulfed the leading nations of the time so recently that the conflict could be recorded on video? Part of the explanation, Pinker explains, is a Hegelian doctrine that history was an inexorable dialectic of progress. This is not a view that Pinker supports, but rather a view that many leaders in the 1900s held, pushing them into conflict.
 
 
Pinker quotes historian Evan Laurds as summarizing the doctrine by writing, “all history represents the working out of some divine plan; war is the way that sovereign states, through which that plan manifested itself, must resolve their differences, leading to the emergence of superior states.”
 
 
This mindset is what put the world on a pathway to war in the 20th century. There were states that exercised their superior to others, justifying the brutal conquest of lesser states. In the mindset of megalomaniac leaders, the conquering and effective genocide of such inferior states was natural and unavoidable, effectively ordained by a deity. It was this kind of thinking that eventually gave way to Nazism. “Eventually the doctrine spawned the messianic, militant, romantic nationalist movements of fascism and Nazism,” Pinker writes.
 
 
In an age of ideas, where states existed to carry out the will of the people, and in an age where states could posit that they were manifestly superior to others, this meant that states were not only justified to conquer others, but that it was imperative they do so. Failing to dominate and destroy other inferior nations would have been viewed as a failure to keep history on its intended track and purpose.
 
 
And this didn’t just happen with the nation state. Pinker continues, “A similar construction of history as an unstoppable dialectic of violent liberation, but with classes substituted for nations, became the foundation of 20th-century communism.”
 
 
What is important to recognize, and what Pinker calls out in the final quote, is that these are constructions of history. They are particular interpretations constructed by human minds. They are narratives about the past that are used to dictate and shape the future. They are not objective readings of history, or even objective attempts at interpreting and understanding history. These constructions are self-serving, reductionist, and revisionist.
 
 
When we look around us, when we look at our past, and when we think about our future, it is important that we recognize such narratives and constructions. This Hegelian doctrine is nothing more than a narrative that we can discard if we find it unhelpful and lacking in how it describes the true nature of reality. There is no one narrative or construction to which we must adhere. We can evaluate and chose those which are beneficial for our purpose, and which hopefully are more objective and less likely to push us down pathways to war and violence.