Life Matters | Sep 18,2021
Apr 4 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye ( Christian Tesfaye (email@example.com) is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture. )
Christian Tesfaye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher and Fortune'sOp-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.
In mid-March, Abebe Abebayehu, head of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, tweeted in Amharic a sentiment that motivated a mini-outrage.
“Don’t leave us without a common enemy,” he posted.
It was a time, as it is now, when the country was facing threats to realising its ambitious construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) over the Blue Nile River and a day after the first confirmed case of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported in Ethiopia. It was also a time when views over nation and identity seemed to converge. A common cause finally - things we could all agree on and defend.
His statement was taken to indicate that a common enemy was a good thing. The response was outrage by a few out there with whom I deeply sympathise.
Why should it always be a common enemy? Why can it not be a common goal instead?
Ethiopians should not have to perpetually find an issue they could all coalesce against but something they could coalesce for, the critics proclaimed.
Indeed, the idea of something to stand for seems far more noble and sustainable instead of something to stand against. But what we often do not realise is that these things are often the same. One side of the same coin. We can stand together for a common goal, but only if that common goal is aimed at defeating a perceived common enemy.
There has never been a national identity built entirely on the inward understanding of the country itself. National identity is developed in relation to that of every other nation.
Take the United States. It is not so much a nation founded on the promise of the right to free speech, property and the pursuit of happiness as it is a nation founded against the oppression of Great Britain. The colonies united to become states of a federation against their lack of liberties by a colonial master.
It was not the need for development or their idea of liberty and democracy that brought them together. These would not have been enough to galvanise enough support for the founding of a nation. The force to propel the people of the colonies toward these ideals came from the threat Great Britain posed, a common enemy to defeat.
It is the same with almost any other country in the world. Identity is formed as a response to something else, usually a perceived threat.
It is born out of clear and present danger, not based on abstract projections such as, “if we work and strive together, in unison, we can create peace and development."
It is a nice sentiment, but it rarely succeeds in getting anyone off of their couches.
The same goes for human behaviour. We do not form our identity purely as a response to our inner emotions, feelings and thought processes. We form it in relation and in opposition to all of the emotions, feelings and thought processes around us.
I am Christian Tesfaye only because I am not Donald Trump, Abiy Ahmed, the seven billion people currently living across the world and the memory of the countless dead. I am me only because I am not anyone else. This does not necessarily mean that everyone else is an enemy, but it gives an idea of how identities, either national or of the self, are formed.
A common goal indicates that such identity arises internally. This is not true. It does as such from the external.
The fight against COVID-19 thus creates the perfect opportunity against which we can build a common national identity. Our solidarity, our ability to rise above the challenge, to improvise and imagine our way out of this pandemic will be stamped on our national psyche. It will serve as a critical input in the way we see ourselves, our nation and our society.
Is this process of identity creation in relation to the "other" usually abused?
Yes. That is why nationalism, racism and sexism exist. But we can also look at this as glass half full. It is because we face common threats against our survival as a species that we have managed to achieve a civilisation that allows us to go to the moon and treat diseases that devestated our ancestors.
As much as the common enemy is a source of destruction, it can also be a source of inspiration for good. The common enemy, when it is nationalism, can be used to justify the invasion of Poland. It can also be used, when that common enemy is war and destruction, as a justification for setting up a liberal world order.
PUBLISHED ON Apr 04,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1040]
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