Patriotism and Violence

Here’s some background:

What is violence? For something to be defined as violence, it must have a victim, or many victims. It is not always physical- it can be violent to the mind. Examples of violence that we might not always think of first are things like: forcibly removing a woman’s veil, refusing to recognize someone’s gender identity, or entering a country and changing its structure under the guise of “knowing the right way to run a nation”. All of these things do a sort of violence to the people involved. It might then, be easier to think: What is not violence? There are not, I feel, many answers to this.

Let’s take nationalism and expand on it. The definition of nationalism is as follows:

-patriotic feelings, principles, or efforts

–an extreme form of this, especially marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries

—advocacy of political independence by a particular country

I want to hone in on the first two points. Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism (vigorous support for one’s country and preparation to defend it against enemies or detractors). In fact, we might look at nationalism as the ultimate form of patriotism- the absolute most patriotic among use are nationalists. They put country first, always. Patriotism is already a part of the definition of nationalism- which is the clearest connection between the two that I can show.

Patriotism is defined with action words, forceful ones. It is vigorous, it is defensive, and it recognizes enemies.

Now that we have the basics down, let’s really get into the deeper stuff.

Being a patriot means being part of a community, an “us”. And if there is an “us”; there is a “them”. This “them” is the enemy. It is the thing that we have to defend our country against. In the white, masculine, heteronormative world of the United States, the “them” is many. It includes queers, women, non-christian religions, minorities, any person of color. This extensive list has a long and documented history of their them-ness. Laws, wars, imprisonment, and denial of rights all point to the actions of patriots defending their community from those who would detract from it. One could argue that over time, patriots have expanded to include minorities, women, and other religions- though I would argue its partiality. Indeed, researchers have shown that strong patriotism encourages unjustified hatred- a study in 2013 at the University of Texas definitively correlated “national in-group identification (re: nationalism/patriotism) and negative feelings toward Latino immigrants”. Negative feelings towards any particular group almost always leads to violence- whether it comes in the form of hate crimes or the absence of protective programs and services.

We can also talk about the way that patriotism makes violating rights acceptable. The Patriot Act itself violates at least five constitutional amendments. What about the push to criminalize burning the flag? A symbol for our country, the flag represents all of the things that America claims it stands for. Were the burning of the flag to become illegal, our very first amendment would be violated. Even criticizing the country brings violent and angry backlash from “die-hard” patriots. We used internment camps under the guise of protecting the country, we have used horrific war and interrogation practices under the guise of defending our nation. In the same vein, the government can use censorship under guise of patriotism- bans on the media showing military caskets, bans on the media showing the destruction after 9/11, and the Alien and Sedition Acts all silence particular voices and narratives- doing a kind of violence to them.

So, the micro lens is that patriotism allows for hatred, racism, and sexism among individuals, and the macro lens is that patriotism allows the government to control a particular narrative and claim a certain history for the nation.

I am not saying the pride in one’s country is inherently violent (though someone could make the claim that is becoming a citizen involves a collective forgetting of violences and oppressions, then that pride is doing a sort of violence to those histories), but what I am saying is that patriotism and nationalism allows for all sorts of violent and dangerous behaviors to become acceptable under that claim for “love of one’s country”. It is much the same as masculinity, I think. “Masculinity” uninfluenced alone is not harmful, but in the context of America’s socialization- it can be extremely dangerous. In the same way that we can teach masculinity to mean care and courage and love and acceptance, we can expand the definition of patriotism to include a healthy dose of critical awareness of the harmful actions of one’s country and an acceptance for all forms of “others”.


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