What Is a Global Citizen, and Can it Save Us?

Headlines this past week claimed that for the first time ever more than half of poll respondents around the world said they saw themselves more as a global citizen than as a citizen of a country. What did they mean in saying that?

Well, first of all, to lower the heart-rate of U.S. readers, we should state that they clearly did not mean that they were aware of a secret global government to which they had sworn loyalty until the Dark Side crushes all light from the Force, or until Mom, apple pie, and sacred national sovereignty expire in the satanic flames of Internationalism. How do I know this? Well, for one thing, something that a majority of the planet is aware of is the opposite of a secret. But, more importantly, what’s at issue here is the poll respondents’ attitude, not their situation. In many nations, the responses were almost evenly split; half the people weren’t wrong, they were just differently minded.

Still, what did they mean?

In the United States, rather stunningly, 22 percent of respondents supposedly said they strongly agreed that they saw themselves more as a global citizen, while another 21 percent somewhat agreed. How you can somewhat agree with a binary choice I haven’t the foggiest idea, but supposedly they did. That’s 43 percent total agreeing either strongly or somewhat in the land of flag-waving militarized exceptionalism, if you can believe it — or if it doesn’t actually mean much.

Canada is slightly higher at 53 percent. But what does it mean? Were respondents shocked into agreement with a sensible sounding idea they’d never heard mentioned before? Is a strong minority really enlightened beyond the common nationalism? Russia, Germany, Chile, and Mexico had the least identification as global citizens. Should we look down on that? Nigeria, China, Peru, and India had the highest. Should we emulate that? Are people identifying with humanity or against their country or in support of their own desire to emigrate, or against the desires of others to immigrate? Or are people employed by globalized capital actually turning against nationalism?

I’ve always thought that if people would stop speaking in the first person about the crimes of their country’s military, and start identifying with all of humanity, we might achieve peace. So I compared the “global citizen” results with the results of a 2014 poll that asked if people would be willing to fight in a war for their country. The results of that poll were also stunningly encouraging, with strong majorities in many countries saying they would not fight in a war. But there does not appear to be a correlation between the two polls. Unless we can find a way to correct for other important factors, it does not seem that being a global citizen and refusing to fight have anything consistently in common. Nationalistic countries are and are not willing to fight in wars. “Global citizen” countries are and are not willing to fight in wars.

Of course, the willingness to fight responses are sheer nonsense. The United States has numerous wars up and running, recruitment offices in most towns, and 44% of the country saying it “would” fight if there were a war. (What’s stopping them?) And, again, the global citizen responses may be largely nonsense too. Still, Canada does roughly as much better than the United States in each of the two polls. Perhaps they make the sort of sense I’m looking for but only in North America. Asian nations, however, are both biggest on global citizenship and most willing to participate in wars (or to make that claim to a pollster).

Whatever it may mean, I take it to be wonderful news that a majority of humanity identifies with the world. It’s up to us to now make it mean what it should. We need to develop a belief in world citizenship that begins by recognizing every other human on earth, and other living things in their own way, as sharing in it. A citizen of the globe does not expect to necessarily have much in common with the inhabitants of some far-off corner of the earth, but does certainly understand that no war can be waged against fellow citizens.

We don’t need clean elections or an end to war profits or the expansion of the ICC to impose the rule of law on countries outside of Africa in order to create world citizenship. We just need our own minds. And if we get it right in our own minds, all of those other things had better get ready to happen.

So how do we think like world citizens? Try this. Read an article about a distant place. Think: “That happened to some of us.” By “us” mean humanity. Read an article about peace activists protesting war who say aloud “We are bombing innocent people,” identifying themselves with the U.S. military. Work at it until you can find such statements incomprehensible. Search online for articles mentioning “enemy.” Correct them to reflect the fact that everyone has the same enemies: war, environmental destruction, disease, starvation. Search for “them” and “those people” and change it to us and we humans.

This is in fact a massive project, but apparently there are millions of us already identifying with it, and many hands make light work.

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