De toekomst ~ Over identiteit

January 16, 2019


Zoals gisteren gemeld, hoop ik in het komende jaar een aantal stukken te schrijven over de toekomst van Ikki’s eiland. Hoe gaan we verder, hoe gaan we met elkaar om, wat verstaan we onder identiteit, welke rol speelt taal en welke gevolgen brengt de geschiedenis mee – zo maar een paar van de vragen waar ik mij over ga buigen.
In 2009 schreef ik onderstaand essay voor een project van het Institute for Jewish Policy Research (Londen): Voices for the Res Publica: The Common Good in Europe. Hierin staat een aantal opmerkingen die als basis zullen dienen voor die stukken. De Nederlandstalige versie ben ik kwijt. Maar wie weet, duikt ie binnenkort nog ergens op. In 2009 dacht ik dat de storm wel weer zou gaan liggen, dat geloof ik nog steeds. Al is de storm ondertussen veranderd in een orkaan.

The Netherlands: National identity

‘The nation is the continuing debate we have with each other in our own language’, writes historian Ernest Kossman.

In a way, the Dutch government came to the same conclusion in a letter dated 20 August 2008: Language is the ‘cement’ of society. This letter is the government’s reaction to the report ‘Identification with the Netherlands’ published by the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR, 2007). In turn, this report was a reaction to the continuing debate about national identity that has been going on for the past five years. A debate which had been absent from the public agenda in the preceding decades, for the simple reason that the cultural elite was quite pleased with the image that it, and the rest of the world, had of the Netherlands. Until five years ago, the silent majority lived up to its name and was thus not part of the debate.

The Netherlands is considered the California of Europe; we are so tolerant, we are the most liberal country of Europe, or make that the world. From marijuana to euthanasia, the Netherlands leads the way. Or is it time to start saying that the Netherlands used to lead the way?
After the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh not much was left of the progressive image we once had, despite the differences in motivation and background behind the murders. What used to be called tolerance is now called indifference. What used to be considered liberal is now viewed as weakness. A harsh storm is raging over the polder.

Let me be honest: being an exponent of the generation that turned politically correct thinking into a mantra for happiness, it is very tempting to start apologizing beforehand when writing about identity. Apologize for the fact that when you start discussing national identity it leads to ‘exclusive’ thinking. Because the thing that separates you from the rest – the rest doesn’t have. Politically correct thinking was designed to accentuate the things that tie us together, not the things that separate us.

The interesting thing about the above-mentioned letter from the Dutch government is that it comes to the conclusion that Dutch identity does not actually exist. Of course it points out several elements the government deems important for society, but striving for active citizenship, respect for law and democracy and freedom of speech and religion are not strictly Dutch. Even skating does not set us apart. And so language, the single unique quality, is offered as the cement for society.

‘The continuing debate’ is what makes Kossmann’s definition useful in the discussion about national identity, because it makes clear that it is not a static notion, incapable of change. The thing that ties us together is subject to change.

When we discuss morals and values, we have to understand that these are not static. The continuing debate anchors what we agree on and reports the things we do not agree on. Identity is not just what ties us together but is also defined by the way we handle that which we stumble over as a community. Because, as it turns out, we cannot change the course of the raging storm.

According to statistics, the population of Amsterdam is now made up of 177 different nationalities. It is safe to assume that not everyone in this city is using the same cement in their daily lives. Obviously, there is no disputing the fact that Dutch has to be the language to act as the cement in this country. But if we want to have this continuing debate, we will have to consider the consequences of not finishing building the Tower of Babel. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of lesser educated new citizens in the Netherlands has had specific consequences for the debate. The status of a language is related to the social class(es) using it. Language as used by a lesser educated minority, with a consequently lower social status, frustrates the user. Common psychological effects include feelings of inferiority and exclusion. Sure, we are talking about the chicken and the egg: often the newcomer already feels excluded and unwelcome for other reasons. But language allows communication and care in the use of language is a basic principle of communication.

My personal background as a member of a small and long-standing minority in the Netherlands shows that even without migration it is possible to encounter the psychological and social consequences of growing up in a minority language that is perceived and felt, as being inferior. When I was four years old I began kindergarten. The lady next door, whose house I had visited daily during the previous years, became my teacher. On the first day of school she took me apart from the group and told me that during school hours, from that day on, I had to address her in Dutch. A language I could not speak. Frisian became a language I spoke at home, while Dutch became the language of further development. During puberty all you want to do is blend in. Being part of a minority is something you try to hide as best as you can; you try to cover up the Frisian accent flavouring your Dutch. Afraid they will hear where you come from. The language of farmers and blue collar workers is no guarantee for a warm and indiscriminate welcome.

The continuing debate defines our nation. Language allows us to have that debate. And so care in the use of it is a must. Our identity is shaped by our words. Which words we choose to use is our individual right. National identity implies a consensus, also regarding language. But choosing one does not exclude the other.
National identity is like language: diverse and uniform, multicoloured and monotone. Ever changing.
Today the wind blows from all corners in the Netherlands. And sometimes it storms. But the storm always dies down. If it is not today, then tomorrow.

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