Ambivalent citizenship


Posted on: 9 October 2018 by Asli Kandemir in Posts


The meaning of citizenship is a matter of an ongoing academic discussion. However, for politicians, it is such a clear notion. Its meaning changes depending on political agenda or ideology.

In his article in the Guardian published in 2017, the novelist Tom McCarthy duly questions the Prime Minister Theresa May’s referral to citizenship at the Conservative party conference in October 2016. In her speech, she explicitly rejected the idea of global citizenship by reinstating nationalist citizenship with the words: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. These words, though, do not exhibit such an explicit, one-dimensional, nationalist meaning as claimed. Instead, they are quite ambivalent, which is the tactic that political discourse uses.

The renowned postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha’s conceptualisation of ambivalence remains quite functional to explain why political discourse uses it: It disguises the discriminatory power through the marriage of difference and fear on the representation of the Other. The Other in the colonial discourse is one who is an object of desire to be enjoyed through its difference, its cuisine, music and other aspects of its culture. It is also one that people often fear due to its difference to the established system, culture, set of norms and values. In this context, while the Other in multicultural and multi-faith societies like Britain is a challenge to the mainstream, any discursive attempts or policies are presented ambivalently. In this way, the attempt of ‘the power’ to appropriate the Other in accordance with the mainstream becomes more subtle and elusive. This subtlety also masquerades as functional in order to prevent the Other from feeling grievance because of the perceived potentiality of its threat to the mainstream. Therefore, ambivalence remains a requirement for political discourse for better-governance or better-subjectification of citizens.

In order to achieve better-governance/better-subjectification, the political discourse may need; first, ambivalent meanings for such basic concepts as citizenship because it is helpful for governments to tailor the meaning when necessary. For instance, when community cohesion is aimed through soft governmental programmes or policies, appreciation of apolitical cultural ‘differences’ can be brought to the front within the discourse. In opposition to that, when there are concerns regarding domestic security and/or social disorder/disobedience, security programmes can be initiated based on the ‘fear’ from difference.

Second, it may need, despite this ambivalence, an explicit articulation with a set of core/national values to be shared. In this way, the disavowal of the Other’s ‘different’ values can be masked. In fact, the possibility of plurality, multiplicity, and fluidity of values can remain unspoken. Therefore, citizenship used in May’s words intertwines with Britishness and British values, and her statement can be interpreted to mean that global citizenship is a breach against the successful implementation of national citizenship, i.e. national identity. If those do not feel British adopting fundamental British values (which are arguably not only British but also international ‘human rights’), they cannot be a part of the mainstream society. However, it is overlooked that one’s so-called lack of sense of national belonging does not have to be an obstacle against active and responsible citizenship. In fact, an active and responsible citizen may feel responsible, and perform actively, for the citizens of the world as well. Isn’t this more virtuous?

Lastly, political discourse, within these core/national and nationalistic values, needs tolerance. When neither appreciation of difference nor fear from difference becomes successful to inculcate the ‘appropriate citizenship’ to the members of the multicultural British society, the card of tolerance can be played as the last resort. Tolerance seems quite functional and even pragmatic in such a way that politics appreciates. For it does not have the obligation to bridge the differences between the Other and the mainstream. It may not even be the ground to open the dialogue between the two parties. That is firstly because, as Herbert Marcuse said in the 1960s, all members of society need to be equal in order to tolerate, yet not subordinate, each other. Secondly, if tolerance is to initiate debate and dialogue between the Other and the mainstream, it requires to not apply power to the disliked/disapproved (and perhaps different) views of the Other to change them while holding the power.

Tolerance offers two significant aspects so as to overcome the aforementioned shortcomings and to be utilised for appropriate citizenship. First, tolerance, similar to the positive side of ambivalent citizenship, is replaced with appreciation of and respect for difference. Even though it does not necessarily bring equality, appreciation/respect alleviates the resentment of inequality. Second, tolerance, similar to the less positive side of ambivalent citizenship, requires a covert application of discriminatory power. In either way, it is not lucrative for the (tolerated) Other, yet effective for governments to better-govern and to subjectify.

It remains important to remember that politics requires ambivalence, and that May is an actor of politics. What needs to be asked should be how ‘subjects’ proclaimed as citizens interpret the meaning of citizenship. The answer to this question may depend on whether or not actual social change at the ground level can happen. Do they see citizenship as feeling responsible to each other irrespective to various identities and to the national borders, or do they see themselves subjects who are subjectified? In either case, it falls on ‘the citizen’ to construct their own meaning of ‘citizenship’ without leaving space for misuse, and it can be the true common position for all to be shared and acted upon collectively.

Asli Kandemir is a PhD candidate and Research & Teaching Assistant in Sociology at Liverpool Hope University.


Keywords: Brexit, citizenship.



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