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  • Writer's pictureAnna Hardy

Nationalism and Patriotism - what's the difference?

Updated: Mar 13, 2018

The dictionary defines ‘nationalism’ as a set of ‘patriotic feelings, principles or efforts’ and really, that definition doesn’t set off any alarm bells. Yet in recent times, there have been more frequent reminders of the term being associated with the alt-right and horrors of history (notably, the Holocaust). On the other hand, 'patriotism’ is dictionary-defined as being ‘vigorous support for one’s country’ or ‘the quality of being patriotic’, however this sounds extremely similar to the definition of nationalism.

The question therefore is: is there a distinction between nationalism and patriotism in terms of how they are applied, or are they interchangeable?

George Orwell (the English political writer, whose best works include ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’) strongly believed so. For Orwell, patriotism was the devotion to a place “which one believes to be the best in the world, but has no wish to force [it] on other people”. I agree with this, and to me patriotism is the acceptance and support of one’s country, but in a context of the celebration of pluralism and acceptance of differences. As Ruth Davidson (the current leader of the Scottish Conservative Party) points out, “patriotism is a celebration of accidental geography – of the randomness of life”. I am proud to be British, but at the same time, someone else being Pakistani or American does not infringe on me being British, or my ‘Britishness’. Nor do I think I am better than they are for happening to be born in the UK (rather than being born in Pakistan or America).

With Orwell and Davidson’s definition, patriotism is then surely a positive thing, “a thing that can be shared and joined, that does not set barriers, but celebrates our place in the world” simply by virtue of the fact that “to be patriotic does not mean that we must oppose others [as] patriotism does not force us to rank […] identities in order”.

However, if this is the interpreted definition for patriotism, where does that leave nationalism?

Although the dictionary gives them almost synonymous definitions, Orwell vehemently rejects the idea that the two nouns are interchangeable. He argues that “by nationalism, I mean the […] habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that [we] can confidently be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’”. He continues, arguing that nationalism is “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests”.

Davidson points out here that Orwell is referring to ‘Identity Politics’ – ‘a tendency for people of a particular religion, race or social background to form exclusive political alliances’, meaning that by definition nationalism encourages isolationism and intolerance. Davidson also adds that in short, “if patriotism is a celebration of the randomness of life [then] nationalism is the assertion that your place, your view, your belief demands pre-eminence above all else”, suggesting the two could not be further from synonymy.

But are nationalistic tendencies avoidable?

In Britain, party politics divides us all – especially in light of the recent Brexit referendum in 2016, where the UK chose to leave the European Union with a slim majority of 52% to 48% and the UK is still pretty divided on this issue, with it continuing to impact day-to-day politics. Another argument put forward by Davidson is that humans are a “tribal species” and that “in our effort to make sense of the world, it is simply easier to draw boundaries of our own identities [and] reject the ‘other’”.

However, even if we do have an innate tendency to ‘be nationalistic’, the challenge is how we react to this.

Should we submit to these alleged urges, implement a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality to ‘make Britain great again!’ and cut ourselves off from the rest of the world because globalisation equals unfair job prospects and terrorism? No, of course we shouldn’t.

I do not think globalisation is something inherently negative, and arguably, it can only be viewed as such if one has this mentality of some countries being superior to others. Or, the mentality that by being a citizen of a country you are more entitled to the benefits of citizenship over others because of your nationality, and not your qualifications (a topic of contention to be explored in another article, perhaps).

George Orwell and Ruth Davidson have clearly illustrated the apparent differences in the interpreted definitions of these two seemingly identical ideologies, but also how they are societally enacted, and have challenged the idea that nationalism and patriotism are synonymous. Although both embody support for one’s country, patriotism (unlike nationalism) does not inspire isolation or monism. Instead, patriotism celebrates plurality and (again to quote Davidson) ‘[the] accidental geography [of life]’.

However, if human beings do have an inherent desire to follow a nationalist instinct, then is it therefore contrary to human nature to follow the path of patriotism instead? Moreover, can it really be said (as Davidson writes) that “our love of what is ours does not rely upon the ‘othering’ of what is not”?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s a question I can answer. But, drawing a distinction between the two terms is crucial because as Davidson points out, ‘this question of identity and nationalism is one that now dominates our public discourse’ and therefore it is important to be able to make conscious and informed decisions on these issues.


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