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Dear ‘citizens of nowhere’, you are not alone

written by James Shackell January 18, 2017

Last October British PM Theresa May issued a warning to all those who consider themselves global citizens. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world,” she said. “you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.” Now this sort of thing isn’t particularly surprising in a world that’s goose-stepping towards nationalism, a world of clearly defined Us’s and Them’s. Still, the condescension rankles. It’s basically implying anyone who believes in a cosmopolitan ideal is too thick to wrap their head around the difference between countries and planets.

Call me naive, but I do believe in a cosmopolitan society. Global citizenship isn’t just a bumper sticker slogan. It’s an enlightenment ideal that goes back thousands of years. You can trace it through the ages all the way back to Diogenes, the Greek philosopher. The story goes that a passer-by asked Diogenes where he came from, and he answered “I am a citizen of the world.” A kosmopolitês. (It’s also rumoured he lived in a barrel and carried a lantern in order to search the world ‘for an honest man’. He was really committed to the whole philosopher thing.) Diogenes was the founder of cosmopolitanism, and you can feel his influence in everything from the Declaration of Human Rights to the far-flung Turkish diaspora that ends in the garlicky crunch of a Saturday night kebab.

Immanuel Kant even believed global citizenship was the road to perpetual peace. The old one-in-all-in approach. Naive? Maybe. But it was one of the original tenets of the most important organisation of the 20th century, the United Nations (of which the UK is a founding member, just FYI). If you read the Declaration of Human Rights, you’ll notice it doesn’t set a lot of stock in nations. Mostly because the UN had just seen first-hand what nationalism could do. The Declaration talks more of a “human family”, a “common people”. One free from tyranny and oppression and arbitrary borders. A society devoted to something bigger than a flag. What are we all doing on this rock if not working toward that ideal? Making some money? Killing time? Can anyone really argue for self-interest on a national scale over shared prosperity on a global one?

The funny thing is, Theresa May thinks she’s speaking to some shadowy liberal elite (probably the one with all these overqualified ‘experts’ we keep hearing about…) but she’s actually disparaging over half the people on the planet. Turns out that’s how many identify as a ‘citizen of the world’. In an 18-nation survey released a few months ago, 47% of Brits identified more with the label ‘global citizen’ than they did with ‘British’. Globally, the number was actually 51%. That’s over 3.6 billion people that want to belong to something bigger than just a country – 3.6 billion proud citizens of Nowhere.

Here are the numbers, if you’re interested.

global-citizen 2

The company that runs the survey, GlobeScan, has been doing it since 2001, and this is the first year recorded when more people than not considered themselves global citizens. If anything, the population of Nowhere is booming. We all want a visa. And it’s developing countries leading the charge too: countries like Nigeria, Peru and India.

‘Cosmopolitan’ has become a bit of a throw away word, used to describe anywhere you can get a banh mi and a burger on the same city block. But really it’s about sharing and understanding between different people. Which is a pretty neat description of why we travel in the first place. It’s why travel has been shown to boost empathy, increase creativity, change personality, make us better, keener, less rigid thinkers. It’s the process whereby a rough and brittle character, full of half-formed ideas and weird prejudices, is bounced around and made smooth, like a river stone. A lot of the time, you don’t even feel it happening. It resurfaces later, back home, in unexpected ways. Being a little less hasty to judge, a little more open to change. A little more thankful for what we have, and a little more compassionate for those that don’t have it. When you identify as a ‘citizen of the world’, you’re not just posturing to impress girls (well, not all the time), you’re identifying as someone that gives a damn.

If that makes me a citizen of Nowhere, then sign me up. I’d be proud to call it home.

Feeling inspired?

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8 comments

Kathleen Parisien February 19, 2020 - 3:10 am

Amazing read! It’s so refreshing to read about these values. Kant may have been naive when writing perpetual peace, but I like when you questioned, “What are we all working for then?” Embracing humanity is much deeper than pledging allegiance to a flag. Being a Citizen of the World is believing in the prosperity of everyone. This is the essence of my book, Citizen of the World a Guide to Adventure and Self Discovery. Through traveling throughout the Middle East and South America, I didn’t feel Canadian anymore. Instead, I felt like a citizen of the world. The thought provoking book can be found here https://citizenofd.world/

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rick be January 20, 2017 - 3:25 pm

Rob is certainly right about what makes travel interesting that’s why I go somewhere new every year.I remember what I told the Sergeant at Checkpoint Charlie,”If I wanted to be completely safe,I wooda never left my living room.

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Rob January 20, 2017 - 6:18 am

It all sounds very nice but I would like you to think about this: if we have a world that reflects the John Lennon dream of no countries and no religions, you would remove one of the mains reasons to travel, which is to experience different cultures. The effect of global citizenship is to reduce culture to food and clothing and perhaps religious rituals stripped of their meaning.

When I go to Thailand, I want Thailand to be Thai. When I go to France, I want France to be French. I appreciate other countries because of their differences. I want the rough and brittle characters — I don’t want everyone to be the same, well-rounded smooth stone. I don’t want to live in a safe utopia where there is no conflict because everyone thinks the same thing because all their differences have been washed and ground away and made superficial and therefore meaningless. I want to queue at borders because I want to feel that the countries on either side know that they have something special to preserve. Singapore is unique because it is Singapore; Malaysia because it is Malaysia. An hour waiting at Johor is an acceptable price to pay to allow the two countries to retain their own integrity. I don’t want Australia to be Indonesia and I don’t want Indonesia to be Australia. I don’t want Scotland to be England and I don’t want England to be Scotland. I don’t want Myanmar to be Bangladesh and vice versa.

Cultures have deep differences that go beyond food, clothing and rituals. Borders allow cultures to thrive. Borderlessness destroys cultures and replaces them with Starbucks.

The things that give people meaning in life are family, nation and religion. The John Lennon dream brings peace by taking away meaning. We’re supposed instead to create our own meaning while those traditional sources of meaning are denied to us. The results is the wandering global citizen blogging from his MacBook in Starbucks in Kanchanaburi.

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Katie Bak January 19, 2017 - 10:49 am

I loved reading this! I believe that nationalism and the “us” vs “them” mentality mainly comes from a lack of travel. It’s easy to see others as “them” when we have never seen their country, or met their families. Traveling connects people!

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Anonymous January 19, 2017 - 9:33 am

Love this blog and totally in accord with my sentiments.

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Robert Hicks January 19, 2017 - 7:44 am

Maybe you should consider the fact that there are other people out there who want to take advantage of your naiveté, and implement their version of how you should live upon you… Maybe you should actually go live in those areas of the world where there is crushing poverty, no education, and deep distrust of all that is foreign – and yes, you are foreign to most of the world?

If you want a shortlist, how about going to Malmo in Sweden, or certain parts of Paris, or in the hills of the former Yugoslavia, or certain parts of London or York (the locals will tell you which parts you shouldn’t be in!). None of those places want you there, or want your values or “enlightenment”. That’s just in Europe! Mexico, outside the gated tourist areas… Almost any part of central Detroit…

Being a citizen of a country has been devalued by leftwing thinkers, but what amazes me is that the more of the world some people see, the less value they see in preserving what they have at home.

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Barry Thomas February 11, 2018 - 11:35 am

Left wingness is something you need to expand upon. As it is it is a meaningless part of your argument, However, I don’t really think you are entering a debate – you are attempting to articulate a conclusion.

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David January 18, 2017 - 10:01 pm

Citizens of Nowhere Unite! Great blog!

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