Friday 23 June 2023


Finished June 10
Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship by Adrienne Clarkson

This set of essays / lectures was the CBC Massey Lecture series of 2014. The first essay talks about the circle we live in, with us at the center, widening to our immediate family, our community, and continuing. There was a line here that I found really spoke to me:
If we concern ourselves with the idea that we exist because others exist, that we are in a web of human relationships, then we understand our individualism in a different way from that of the solipsist. Individuals are no independent of each other. We have individual rights, but we also have duties to others
She goes on to look at this idea of circles in different cultures, from the North American indigenous cultures to the evolution of Eygalieres, a village in southern France, She refers to a 13th century experiment by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who wanted to see what humans natural language was, without outside influence, but instead discovered that humans need the interplay of human contact to survive. She also talked about how we create identity, using the story of Martin Guerre as an example of recreating oneself.
The second essay begins with the idea of Greek democracy. Clarkson talks about the difference between acting as a private individual and acting in or for the state. The price of belonging to a state meant that a citizen's rights were subject to being taken away if the community felt its values or status were threatened. She notes that the Athenian rights were a privilege granted by their fellow citizens as a community. This leads to the freedom to speak, whether in the Athenian forum, in our own Parliament, or in other public venues. "At best, citizens belong to each other because they trust each other, and that trust is the key to all political functioning and fundamental to our modern notions of what a society can be." She emphasizes that Athenian democracy was not a utopia. Slavery was a reality, and women and men not born in Athens could not be citizens. One idea that I found important here was: 
To be able to belong and yet able to criticize -- to  disagree, to withdraw consent -- is quintessential to belonging, and it is a fundamental notion that has been carried down to modern times. But it must always be remembered that to subjugate all your selfhood, ideas, inclinations, and emotions in order to be part of a collective is not belonging. This kind of sacrifice to others in the group is conformity and, carried to an extreme, bondage. Belonging, in its truest sense, means understanding the nature of the connections between one another -- the very nature of interconnectedness. It can never mean dominance or submission.
She continues to the modern ideal of France with its "liberty, equality, and fraternity" and how the French Revolution influenced that. Quoting Edmund Burke who critiqued some of the worst aspects of that Revolution "liberty is secured by equality of restraint . . . another name for justice. Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither is . . . safe." Burke believed that when building a new society shouldn't start from nothing, but should take the best of the past as a foundation for the future. The good that came out of the revolution was the idea of personal responsibility. Clarkson talks about the differences between the ideas of citizenship in Athenian democracy and now in present day Canada. She ends with a quote from Margaret Laurence who urged us "to feel, in your heart's core, the reality of others." I really like that as a basis for living a good life, that we work for the benefit of and with the coordination with others. 
The third essay deals with the cosmopolitan ethic of belonging in Canada. From her own personal connection to the Chinese head tax, and about how it didn't fit with her experience. As she says, it isn't the laws that make you feel you belong, but the people. Whether they are people in your school, your work, the organizations you belong to, your neighbourhood, or even people you encounter more casually in the course of your day, it is these other people that make one feel a part of a larger group. She includes a 1913 photograph that states the duties of a citizen, one of which is to work for others and refers to the Icelandic Althing, where annually the citizens met to affirm the rights of all. Clarkson discusses the importance of public discourse, of listening to the ideas of other people, of engaging in conversations. In our private lives, we tend to seek out people like ourselves, who believe in similar things, and have the same experiences. Conversations that deal with larger societal issues can be difficult because they can touch emotions, make us feel threatened, or touch on deeply held beliefs. We must be able to have these conversations through seeking mutual understanding and hearing out the other person. This is something that is less common in our world. We don't do enough real listening and critical thinking about what we hear and read, about what our leaders say, and this idea leads to the importance of civic participation. She says "without every citizen's active participation in maintaining the public good, society cannot be expected to sustain the same benefits and freedoms." Democracy requires our ability to accept and include the Other. Democracy deals with obligations as well as rights. It requires us to be civil and treat each other with respect. Again, it comes down to the people. She also talks about volunteerism, and the large amount of this that we do in Canada. "We don't understand that as a society, we in Canada were always a poor country and that, to a large extent, that poverty created our national character." She compares us to our southern neighbour in terms of immigrants, beginning with terminology. Here we have the term "permanent residents" for those foreigners to come to live here after they've been here a certain amount of time, compared to the U.S. "resident aliens", and that in Canada 84% of immigrants become citizens, compared to 40% in the U.S. The period of engagement as future Canadian citizens work towards that goal is a key step in belonging. She talks about how we haven't until recently talked about much of our history that involved people who weren't white, but how important it is that we do. Clarkson came to Canada as a refugee, and she sees her determination to make this country home in the eyes and actions of later refugees from Roma to Somali people. 
The fourth essay is about ubuntu, a South African philosophy based on the concept that all humanity is connected, that the relationship between an individual and their community is interdependent and mutually beneficial. Clarkson begins with Canada's stance on South Africa's request to rejoin the Commonwealth in 1961, and the declaration that was made a requirement for membership. The South Africa of that time was one that had wandered away from the idea of ubuntu, an ancient value of African tribes. "Ubuntu implies seeing another human being as yourself and treating them as you would treat yourself, with love and respect." It is a way of making a deeper connection with those around us. Ubuntu isn't tied to religion or politics. Some religions have aspects that are similar, such as the Christian "love one another as we are loved by God," but the idea of ubuntu is often disparaged as simplistic and discarded in favour of economic philosophies and the emphasis on individual wants. She gives a lot of statistics on what Canadians believe about who can be a good citizen of our country, which is enlightening in its statements if not its practices. She talks about the failures of Canadians in terms of ubuntu, particularly when it comes to our indigenous peoples, but she also gives examples of where we have lived up to this idea.
The fifth essay touches on happiness, about how we treat people affects outcomes. Examples such as treating newcomers to Canada as if they will stay and become citizens leads to that happening most of the time, and the idea of acting "as if" is an important one in terms of creating happiness. She discusses Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness which is based on the Buddhist concept of interdependence. They believe that an ethical and moral life would bring genuine happiness, a happiness that is based on living well and acting well. There is also the idea of honour, and its ties to responsibility and a discussion of ethics: "to act ethically is to act outside of any expectation of reciprocity." Another part of gross national happiness is tolerance, which is something that has been a deep-rooted practice here at the human level, despite some of the official decrees. The fourth part is perseverance, which encourages us to think long-term. Some examples of this are the Manitoba Access Program and changes regarding our natural environment. When we harvest, we need to think about sustainability Clarkson says that Canada is a nation of immigrants, with a history that includes a collection of diverse traumas. Wherever we have come from, there were events that led us to this country, so the past matters, but it should not define our future. "A life defined by loss is not worth living." This discussion takes us back to the circle through the words of John Kelly who says the circle grows as "Canadians of all colours and religions are entering that circle" Clarkson ends with the idea of the paradox from the series title, that "we are most fully human, most truly ourselves, most authentically individual, when we commit to the community."
This is a book that I read slowly, stopping to think about the ideas raised and how they reflected in my own experiences. Definitely worth reading. 

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