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Monday, February 24, 2020

How to think about politics #4 - what is a nation?


What is a nation?

It’s an area of land which has borders (or a coast), a head of state and a government. There are 195 of them in the world.

Or, it’s a way of defining who you are. It’s a way of saying where you belong.

What does it mean to be British? To be American? To be French? Are British people inherently different from people born outside the UK? How is someone who was born or lives on one side of the road on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or between France and Germany, or between the United States and Mexico, different from someone who was born or lives on the other side? Why should I be expected to share an identity with someone who lives inside some lines on a map, and not with someone who lives outside those lines? Aren’t we all human?

According to the political theorist Benedict Anderson, a nation is an ‘imagined community’. That is, it exists only in people’s minds. And yet, there are things which people of a shared nationality are likely to have in common. Language; food; landscape; climate; how society is structured, how people behave; a system of government.

Then again, they could easily share any or all of those things with people of other nationalities. English is spoken in over 50 countries around the world; Indian food is not confined to India; democracy is practised by dozens of countries, and aspired to by many more; there is arguably such a thing as ‘a Mediterranean identity’, or ‘an Arab identity’, which incorporates many nations. Moreover, large countries such as the United States or China contain within them a wide variety of landscape and climate. Winter in Alaska is a very different experience from winter in Alabama; China is home to both Mount Everest and tropical plains. Some countries include a variety of languages and identities: official business in Switzerland is conducted in German, French and Italian. The powers of national governments are often dissipated by transnational bodies such as the European Union - arguably even more so by the power of transnational corporations.

Nations do exist, though, and not just in people’s minds. No matter how deeply you believe that we all share one humanity and that divisions between us are artificial, nations are, at the very least, convenient and necessary administrative divisions. 

It isn’t enough, either, to dismiss nations because they exist only in people’s imaginations. The imagination is a powerful force, and there is a strong emotional component to the way people see nations. Why do some people tear up (and / or stand up) at the sound of the National Anthem? Why do they treat a flag as a kind of sacred object to be treated with reverence, rather than just a piece of coloured cloth? For some people, their nation is like their family, an essential part of their identity and a way of understanding themselves. They feel it should be defended and protected as they would defend and protect their own family. Others fear the whole idea of nationhood, perhaps because they feel excluded from the nation in which they live, or because they feel threatened by other nations, or because they have seen the consequences, in war and division, of excessive national loyalty.

This brings us to three key words for understanding nations and how people feel about them: patriotism, nationalism and internationalism. What do they mean? 

If you love your nation, you are a patriot. If you hate or fear nations which are not yours, you are a nationalist. If you believe that our first loyalty is to humanity as a whole, and that nations are artificial divisions, you are an internationalist. Social liberals are more likely to be internationalist; social conservatives are more likely to be patriots or nationalists. (See our earlier post on social liberalism vs social conservatism.)

A good example of patriotism at its best might be the football World Cup, where, every four years, people come from 32 countries around the world to support teams which embody their national identity. They dress in national colours, wave flags, and sing national songs. They cheer on their nations to beat other nations. They enjoy being part of a national group, and often this effect spills back home, lifting a whole country in celebration of their team’s achievements. There might be the odd late tackle, but no one gets killed. In some ways, it’s ridiculous to be overwhelmed by emotion just because eleven men or women who happened to be born in the same general geographical area as you manage to kick a ball into a net a few times. But then we are emotional creatures; we need emotion. We also need a sense of belonging, and patriotism can give us that.

Nationalism at its worst brings exclusion, racism, war. The mass slaughter of the First and Second World Wars, and the horror of the holocaust, were born of nationalism: the need to dominate and control other nations, and to exclude those who are not part of the nation because of their race. In a less extreme form, nationalism is behind the harsh treatment of immigrants by the Trump administration in the US and by some governments in Eastern Europe. People tend to turn to nationalism when they feel abandoned, forgotten or overlooked.

Internationalism is most clearly embodied in institutions like the European Union and the United Nations, where nations come together to share resources and solve problems together. These institutions exemplify the idealism of internationalism, but also its limitations. They can be unwieldy and slow moving, and are at risk of being captured by their most powerful members. However, at least they are trying, reminding us of our common humanity.


So are nations good or bad? Like so many other things, it depends what you do with them.


Motions that go with this topic:

  • This house would abolish immigration controls

  • This house would abolish the United Nations

  • This house would institute a world government

  • This house would only admit immigrants with particular skills

  • This house would grant independence to Scotland

  • This house is proud to be British / American etc.


  • This house would rejoin the EU

Monday, February 10, 2020

Tricks of the Trade #3 - epiplexis, epistrophe, erotema and hypophora

Four more rhetorical techniques this week, with examples of how to use them in speeches on the motion: 'This house would make homophobic speech illegal.'

Epiplexis (a series of rhetorical questions)

This is when you ask several rhetorical questions (see erotema below), usually to express anger or indignation. ‘Are we going to stand by as gay teenagers are bullied? Will we do nothing as they self-harm? Will we remain silent as the suicide rate mounts? Will we be able to sleep at night if we do nothing? Are we really that unfeeling?’

Epistrophe (repeated endings)

This is a kind of opposite version of anaphora, in which the same word or phrase is repeated at the end of phrases or sentences. 

‘Controlling what people write in newspapers is oppressive; saying what they can and can't write online is oppressive; dictating to them what they message or say on phones is oppressive; policing what they say to each other is oppressive; forcing them to censor, perhaps, even their own thoughts, can only be described as oppressive.’

Erotema (rhetorical question)


A question which can only have one answer; one which will reinforce your argument. ‘Is it right that gay teenagers should walk in fear?’ ‘Do we want to live in a society where you can be sent to prison for what you say?’


Hypophora (asking yourself questions and answering them)


This is a technique much used by politicians, as it makes it look as if they are subjecting themselves to scrutiny, when in fact it is the equivalent of setting your own exam and then marking it yourself. However, it can be an effective, easy to follow way of setting out a case. ‘Why should we make homophobic speech illegal? Because words are not just words; they lead to actions. How do they lead to actions? Abusive language licenses violence. How does it license violence? If you demean people in the way you speak about them, you make it more acceptable to attack them physically.’


Monday, February 3, 2020

Recommended book #3 - The Noisy Classroom


When I began teaching, over thirty years ago, it was considered a badge of honour if people could walk past your classroom during a lesson and think there was no one inside. That has changed for the better. Teachers recognise that students can and should learn by talking, and students value the opportunity to discuss, argue and debate in lessons. Oracy - the ability to speak and listen well - is now considered as important as literacy and numeracy. A noisy classroom can be a productive classroom.

Someone who has done more than most to promote the values and practice of oracy is Debbie Newman, the founder and leader of the excellent consultancy The Noisy Classroom, which runs, among other things, the popular Up for Debate competition. Now she has published a book sharing her ideas for teachers to use in the classroom. 

The Noisy Classroom: Developing Debate and Critical Oracy in Schools is packed with practical suggestions for things to do in lessons. These range from formal debates to easy to set up, quick fire activities, all of which will get students engaging in debate and discussion. She shows how debating in the classroom does not have to be restricted to the humanities, but can extend to Science and Maths as well. 

She also makes a powerful case for the value of debating in schools and beyond. In answer to the criticism that debating teaches children the kind of dishonest tricks used by unscrupulous politicians, she points out that ‘not listening to their opponents, failing to answer the questions posed to them and asserting arguments without providing evidence or thorough analysis … would have them knocked out of the first round of any debating competition.’ She reminds us of the value of debating in protecting young people from manipulation when she says, ‘Far from equipping tomorrow’s demagogues, giving all students the skills of debating will help to build a more politically literate society whose members are better able to tell a good argument from a bad one’, and she shows how debating can actually build a more united society when she argues, ‘Giving children the ability to argue both sides of the case does not rob them of their principles; rather, it helps them to see that there is usually more than one side to every story.’

This book should be on the shelf of every teacher of every subject, even if they’re not actively involved in debating. If you’re a student, tell your teacher to buy it - it will make your lessons more fun and more productive!