Global identity must be shared

2008-07-01 00:00

How are we to rid ourselves of the curse of xenophobia? To my mind we need to recognise its deepest roots in the soil of cultural identity and then work for an entirely new kind of human identity as earthlings, while also dealing with its other, less profound causes.

Who are we really in this country? South Africans, football fans, Christians, Hindus, lumps of living clay, clusters of genes, sons and daughters of a deity, or what exactly? These are some of the ways we define ourselves. But notice that when these self-definitions are treated as our true identities, they all divide us from our fellow human beings and from the rest of life on this planet.

The recent wave of ugly brutality towards foreign nationals in our midst comes from a number of sources. Differences of language, culture and territory give rise to the multitude of ethnic identities that characterise human existence. Most of these have histories that can be counted in centuries and even millennia, giving them plenty of time to embed themselves deeply in our sense of self.

Apartheid accentuated these ethnic distinctions. For some people, poverty and a heritage of violence add their force to an already strong feeling that foreigners are aliens and bad news. Small wonder that some of us struggle to see beyond these differences to a common humanity.

To rid the country and the world of xenophobia we need a change of identity, from things that divide to things that unite. We need an enlarged sense of self, one which will bring us together without denying the good things that make us feel and behave differently from others.

Three main forces have made our differences seem more im-portant than our shared humanity. Ethnicity is the oldest of the three, shaped mostly by language, kinship and territory. Next are our religions, which create a new set of divided identities. Thus, I am no longer first and foremost black, white, or yellow; no longer a Mandarin- or English-speaker, but above all a Taoist, a Christian or a

Muslim. The third great force is nationalism. We all know how powerfully it can and often does divide people.

There is a way out of this divided situation. We must develop a sense of global identity that we can all share equally, and add it to our other, more particular and separate identities. Why not come to see ourselves as earthlings who are also Christians, Muslims, Gujarati-speakers, Zulu traditionalists and the like?

Is this really possible? After all, we are born into an American, or Arab, or Zulu, or Hindu community and we learn its language as our mother tongue and experience its territory as our homeland. Can the separate identities that this produces ever be transcended?

My answer is that while biology indeed makes us belong, it doesn’t set in concrete what we come to belong to. A Zulu baby orphaned by Aids and adopted by an Afrikaans-speaking Cape Town couple will most likely not grow up believing he or she is above all a Zulu. He or she will form an identity from where and how he or she is raised.

Nor are we locked into our early nurture. That is why some secularists become Christians and vice versa, or a woman raised Jewish can end up a Catholic nun.

So what is there to make it impossible for us all to see ourselves as earthlings of the many kinds that basic identity takes? We are a hugely creative species.

Reinventing ourselves as earthlings is arguably the most important creative opportunity now open to our species.

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