I have recently found myself reading some of the greatest British thinkers and writers of the 20th century. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy looks at me every time I sit on my desk—I am still in the pre-Socratics. Christopher Hitchens’s books—Hitch 22, Mortality, Letters to a Young Contrarian, The Missionary Position, and more—await in my tablet. And George Orwell, of course, George Orwell. Although my first contact with Orwell came probably due to his Homage to Catalonia—what is more Catalan than celebrating others talking about our defeats?—I also read 1984 several years ago. I have re-read it recently; one should do that with such modern classics: there is so much that I missed in my first read. A vivid memory of that time, now that I think about it, is realising that the government in Barcelona had installed a camera in the George Orwell Square.
The very first non-fictional text that I read by Orwell is Notes on Nationalism. Orwell defines nationalism in a very broad sense, most closely in meaning to tribalism—ethnic, religious, national, regional, or even ideological. As he puts it, it is “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interest.” He highlights a key characteristic, the inability of accepting facts that contradict its own position: “All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts”. A nationalist abandons rationality for a broad set of different emotions: “The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged”.
The neural processes that govern these instances are fascinating. Sam Harris, together with other co-authors, tested in a paper which parts of the brain react when one is presented with facts that contradict their strongly-held beliefs. In this instances, as the authors say, there was “increased activity in the default mode network—a set of interconnected structures associated with self-representation and disengagement from the external world.” It would seem that the brain, to spare us from the terrible effort of changing our beliefs, decides to treat this information almost as fiction, almost as #fakenews.
Coming back to Orwell he admits there is no way out of nationalism (now that we are getting an understanding of the neural processes involved, there is no reason to think that a pill that forces the brain to treat all information as non-fiction will not be invented). What one can do, however, is to try to understand where some positions come from. “It is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort”. Why do you get so angry when talking about the European Union? What do you despise the Tories—any Tory? Understand the nationalism, the tribalism, in you, and think what is the goal of any conversation. The goal has to be understanding the other’s position, where this position comes from, and help them—if that is the case—to identify the logical mistakes or the wrong assumptions they are making. Sometimes we will have our minds changed. But it all starts by recognising the nationalism in us.