Fiction and Patriotism

In my last post I looked at some ways in which my emotional involvement when watching a sporting event on television was like my emotional involvement when reading fiction. It seemed to me that in both cases there was a similar conscious willingness to suspend my normal commitment to the truth of the matter, for the sake of a story, with suspense and a happy ending.  And I thought that was interesting because it threw a bit of extra light on the so-called paradox of fiction. The paradox of fiction is that we can feel emotionally responsive to characters and situations that we know not to exist, so that our emotions seem to be freed from the normal belief-dependence that we might plausibly think them to have. I argued that when I watch sport I willingly succumb to a narrative of the event that omits some facts and prioritises others to the extent that that narrative is an artifice, aimed not at truth but at building a satisfying, story-shaped experience of the race. I knowingly base my response on a selection of data that I fully believe to be partial and distorting, and in that sense my emotional engagement with elements of the real world seems to have the kind of believe-independence that is involved in the paradox of fiction.

I ended that post by asking whether we sometimes need to allow our emotions this kind of partial autonomy from truth-tracking, not just for the purposes of catharsis, but in order to inform and motivate our truth-oriented engagement with the world. Where situations are complicated and the best outcome is unclear, we need a preliminary stance to guide us, some loyalties that can thrive even in the absence of the kind of beliefs that might warrant those loyalties. Frequently, our commitment to seeking “the truth of the matter” does not mean that we begin our researches in a state of cold, static objectivity. We begin instead in medias res, from some engaged perspective which we know is unlicensed by our knowledge of the facts of the matter but which nonetheless motivates us to care and to act, and then to question our actions, and to question the emotionally charged allegiances that prompted them. If we didn’t start from somewhere, we would never get anywhere.

I said in my earlier blog post that I had had two new experiences courtesy of the Olympic Games, and I’m coming now to the second of those two experiences – an unfamiliar twitch of patriotism. It is patriotism of some sort or another, quite frequently, that supplies us with a ready-made engaged perspective, a preliminary action-guiding source of emotional affiliation that is arguably unlicensed by relevant facts.

The term “patriotism” lacks a well-agreed meaning. It is sometimes taken to involve a set of beliefs about one’s country – that it is superior,  for example, or that it has special claims that trump those of other countries, that it has some “mission” in the world, and so forth.  On another account (and this is the version of patriotism I want to talk about here), patriotism is not a matter of beliefs about one’s country: it is instead an affectionate identification with one’s own country, including a propensity to take that country’s interests as an object of special concern. One might experience that affectionate identification whilst acknowledging that one does not have good reason to do so, and in that case the emotional engagement that one feels with one’s country might seem puzzling. It does seem puzzling: why, for example, should I feel elated by the fact that Britain has hosted a successful Olympic Games, or won 65 medals? I didn’t do it: I contributed nothing to the Games. Why should I throw in my lot with an ill-defined geographic-legal entity within whose jurisdiction I happen to have been born? Patriotism has it in common with the consumption of fiction that it is an arena in which our emotional engagement is not, or at the very least is not fully, warranted by relevant beliefs.

Perhaps we can go further. Perhaps we can say that patriotism is not only like the consumption of fiction: it is the consumption of fiction. My recent glimmering of patriotism was aroused by a story: the story that the Olympic opening ceremony told of Britain’s progress from rural idyll to industrial powerhouse, under the influence of a class of industrialists explicitly likened to Shakespeare’s Prospero, raising wonders on a mysterious island, relying, not on sorcery like Prospero, but on the stoic endeavours of a heroic working class. It is easy to see that that is not a fully realistic but a somewhat mythic account of British history. Over the years I have been exposed to numerous other popular histories of Britain that are similarly suffused with fiction. And when I am looking at real-world developments relating to my country – domestic politics, my country’s conduct of international affairs, and so on – I am not immune from viewing matters through the prism of such stories, so that I experience my country in a somewhat fictionalised way. I think (although there isn’t space to explore it here) that equally unrealistic myths and legends, and people’s capacity to synthesise these with their perception of real-world events, tend to be at the core of patriotisms everywhere.

A patriotic British citizen feels elated when she has no reason to (it isn’t she who has triumphed, only a part-fictional entity), because she is reading the story avidly. She feels shame and guilt in relation to Britain’s misdoings, even when she has no reason to, and apprehension at the thought of the wrongful actions Britain might yet undertake, because she is enthralled by Britain’s story.

Our patriotic engagement with a nation is like our engagement with a character in a novel. When I read Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell’s role in Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn, I feel pleasure in Cromwell’s love of his daughters, apprehension about his capacity for ruthlessness. I travel with the protagonist for the duration of the tale. I share deeply in his concerns, even though they are not mine, and even though I know that the Cromwell that Mantel writes about does not really exist, but is instead a fictional creation, only partly founded in her historical knowledge. Similarly, the character “Britain” in our patriotic stories is a fiction, but that need not stop me caring about that character and adopting its concerns as my own.

In principle, these emotional reactions to the story are capable of  informing our perception of Britain and also teaching us about ourselves, just as our emotional reactions to any great novel help to inform our interpretation of the characters in it and to see ourselves more clearly. Depending of course on the quality of the patriotic stories we tell ourselves (superficial and formulaic fiction tends to leave us pretty much where we started), patriotism might not be something static. Instead it might function as the kind of  preliminary perspective I spoke of above, an affiliation unmotivated by the relevant facts of the matter, which nonetheless motivates our actions, but also causes us to question those actions and refine or even overturn our loyalties.

As it is used, the term “patriotism” tends to be reserved for positive emotional engagement in one’s country – pride, joy, contentment. We perhaps lack a corresponding term for the shame and guilt and apprehension we feel about our country’s misdeeds. But since these negative emotions arise from the same sense of engagement with one’s country as  the positive ones, a rounder, fuller concept of patriotism might embrace them. If patriotism did explicitly embrace such shame, guilt, and apprehension, as well as elation, pride, joy, it would more easily recognised as a source of constructive criticism of one’s country. Patriotism, like all the other story-reading we immerse ourselves in, would be a resource for learning how to act well.



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  1. An insightful ‘take’ on the strange tangle that is the patriotic emotion. It is interesting that the ‘suspension of disbelief’ that allows a full emotional response to patriotic ‘triggers’, to written fiction, to drama or film characters and events is shared with the experience of music. Here the emotional features are even less readily comprehended since music is entirely abstract. Nevertheless, music shares with fictional literature and the rest those qualities of being evocative and emotive. That is does so explains a great deal of music’s attraction. But it should serve to reinforce that we have so little insight into what really goes on between our ears (i.e. the brain where, despite the alternative anatomical labels beloved in fiction and speculated in pre-modern physiology, the emotions are actually triggered, experienced and resolved).

  2. The belief in my country, patriotism, as a result of watching the Olympics, is different than the belief in a fictional character, say, Raskolnikov, insofar as I trust Dostoyevsky and from long experience, I have learned not to trust the mainstream media elite, those in the media who try to program or influence my reactions with certain ends, generally ends which favor the interests of the dominant classes and of those with economic and political power.

    Now, when I say that I trust Dostoyevsky, I do not mean that I always believe what he says, but that I believe in him, in his authenticity, in his will to tell “his truth”.

    The mainstream media, on the other hand, are constantly trying to manipulate my tastes and opinions in order to sell me something, to sell me products, services, a way of life which profits the classes and groups which they represent and political views which benefit those classes and groups or sectors of those classes and groups.

  3. Claire Creffield

    The point about music is interesting. I’ll have to think some more about that.

    I entirely take the point about a manipulative media. I was writing in isolation from all sorts of truths about how the media works and what its motives are, just to get at a core idea of susceptibility to narrative. Perhaps you could think of the difference between cynical, manipulative media on the one hand and trustworthy media on the other hand as being a difference between bad fiction (formulaic, superficial, manipulative) and good fiction. Like the difference between Dostoyevsky and some product-placing airport novel?

    I’m going to make a small edit to the article, by the way — just to insert a hyperlink to the earlier post. I’m not sure of the conventions about editing a piece and making the edits clear, but I won’t make any other changes.

    If I seem unresponsive to any future comments, it is because I’m going away for a week.I’m looking forward to responding to comments when I return

  4. Have a good trip.

  5. Concerning Patriotism two points occur to me here.
    1/ It may be, whilst not neurologically hard-wired, acquired in a manner similar to our liking for particular music.
    2/ It is an evolutionary trait related to survival.
    These processes have their beginnings in early infancy and are ‘stamped in’ from those early days and accordingly become a part of our nature that we find near on impossible to eradicate even if we wanted to.
    1/ The music to which one has been exposed to especially as a child and an adolescent most often remains with us for life as a preference for that type of music. Children are very suggestible and accordingly develop traits which may well last a lifetime. It may only take a few notes of an old tune to arouse in the adult a feeling of pleasure, intimacy, and very likely the feeling of “now that was the real stuff; that’s what I grew up on”
    A similar process I think occurs in the development of Patriotism. The child becomes aware of itself in a certain environment and develops the trait of needing to belong there. As the child develops intellectually he/she begins to embrace the culture, history, politics, literature of the land in which he/she lives and in which he is nurtured and is most happy. All his/her understanding is against this background. The result is eventually the child becomes when passing into adulthood more or less Patriotic. This is to say the degree of patriotism varies from person to person. It may lie dormant but as in the above example of music it can be awakened by many events and watching one’s countryman/countrywoman succeeding in the Olympics can evoke such feelings.
    2/ There is safety in numbers. In the evolutionary process of humans it transpired that survival value was enhanced if the organisms worked in unison. Fleeing, feeding fighting and reproduction was better achieved not singly, but in a group in which all members cooperated towards the same objective. It must surely be here that the first elements of what we now call Patriotism evolved. Competition between groups, and groups which succeeded at the expense of others, developed the emotion of pride and attachment to that group, they had the best survival values, and their genetic pool ensured this was preserved.
    So if we are surprised, at finding ourselves a little patriotic at times, it is only a “knee jerk” reaction having its origin in the depths of the past.

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    @Don Bird,
    1/ Ok. There may be a correlation between patriotism, music and the marching band.

    2/ What you are describing are trust, pride, identity and kinship. However, a definition of patriotism should be restricted to identity with an ancient Greek political invention of citizenship and nationality. The ancient Greeks held an Olympiad but it had been abandoned for millenniums. One reason the Olympics were restored in the 19th century was to increase patriotism. It was felt that the Olympics would give different political ideologies an opportunity to test their character in a sporting event rather than a war battlefield (women were not allowed in the Olympics until 1900). Even the Olympic awards were based on Plato’s Republic system of people of gold, silver and bronze. In that regard, the definition of patriotism is not an evolutionary process, but a fictitious political invention.

    The Olympics have been successful in that it inspires a temporary patriotism as it supposed to do. An important question is – Have the Olympics reduced the chance that populations will test their patriotism on the battlefield?

  7. Don:

    It’s probably true, as you say, that evolutionary factors lead us to identify with one group or another, to feel part of an “us” in contrast to a “them”.

    However, who is “us” and who is “them” seems to be the result of education or even indoctrination.

    In some cultures or sub-cultures “us” is the nuclear family; in others, the extended family; in still others, a tribe.

    For some people “us” is a religious group; in others, a political party or ideology; in still others, a social class or even a sexual orientation or gender.

    The media put lots of emphasis on identification with one’s country, especially in ceremonies like those of the Olympic games, but there is nothing “natural” about identifying with one’s country instead of with one’s race or one’s religion or with all philosophers everywhere, unite, you have nothing to lose but your illusions.

  8. I don’t have space for a detailed argument here, but I think it is wrong to call our patriotic stories fictions or to say that the nations in those stories are simply characters. These stories and the ensuing feelings of patriotism are constitutive. The US (I’ll use my country in my example as a small act of patriotism) is often described as being created by The Constitution, but that document has no power without the people’s belief in it. And that belief, in large part, is based on George Washington and the Cherry Tree and Lincoln’s Log Cabin and Roosevelt’s Big Stick. I agree that there are many parallels between national narratives and fiction, but these national narratives are functional in a way that fiction is not.

  9. Re Dennis Sceviour and Swallerstein 16th Aug
    Dennis you ask “Have the Olympics reduced the chance that populations will test their patriotism on the battlefield? “
    I do not really know. However were I a betting man, and giving consideration to what I have observed of human nature, I am inclined to place a bet that the Olympics have increased the chance that some populations will test their patriotism on the battlefield.

    The points you mention did cross my mind when writing but I decided to try to keep my views as basic as possible for to deal with the matter in any greater depth would for me at least, entail some research, and possibly rethinking. Generally I agree with what you say. However I see no reason why one cannot simultaneously show allegiance to say a religious group and a patriotic group provided there is no conflict between Religion and Patriotism. When I was in the Army these two were near on conjoined. I was however always mystified as to how the killing which Patriotism at times demanded, squared with the Christian Religion.
    Very in interesting you mention the word Indoctrination. When I was describing the young child being exposed to such influences as would be conducive to Patriotism, the words Brain Washing came to mind. Just as an example: when I was a young child in the infants school, more than a few years ago, we had talks on the Royal family and our brave soldiers, There was a song we were taught; I cannot remember all of it, but it was concerning the Red White and Blue Union Jack. I remember singing “Red for Bravery, White for Purity, Blue for Loyalty” To this day I suppose this, amongst other factors, I mentioned before, accounts for the reason that when a British person wins I am a little more pleased than when a non-British person wins. In the depths of my mind I can still detect the vocal shadows of “God and my Country” lingering. On the clasp of the German Army belt in WW2 was inscribed “Got mit Uns” God with us. Indoctrination, can you ever get away from it? Maybe, I am now a threshold Atheist, and not especially patriotic.

  10. Don:

    No, I don’t think that I can ever entirely free myself from my childhood indoctrination, from the certainly well-intentioned stories, in the guise of children’s history, I was told in order to inculcate certain values.

    Even today I have only to say “their finest hour” or “Stalingrad” or “D-day” to myself to have a good cry.

    However, with the study of philosophy, history and critical reasoning, inspite of my visceral reactions, I can distance myself from the myths that I learned when young.

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