The epitome of my ignorance

Miriam Abel - Senegal


March 13, 2019

I always knew that my thinking and my opinions are shaped by my culture, langauge and history. Isn’t that an obvious fact? Isn’t everyone aware that how they think evolves from factors that we just cannot control?

However, is being aware of this enough if we do not actively think outside our own cultural box?

Senegal has forced me to leave my known, cultural-context-thinking and explore how I think when I try to stop relying on the outcomes on my upbringing and Germany. I want to share a specific moment today – the conversation I like to call “The epitome of my ignorance”.

Last week, as usual, my English Club and me started our discussion about a topic of their choice. This time, we wanted to discuss “Nationalism or Globalism – Which one leads to a more developed country?”

The discussion started and the groups were supposed to choose which one is better – more beneficial for a economically, socially, politically and culturally developed country.

In our opinion, Globalism refers to various systems with scope beyond the merely international. It describes “attempts to understand all the inter-connections of the modern world — and to highlight patterns that underlie them.” In short words, when you are a Globalist, you define the world as one place which is characterized by networks of connections that span multi-continental distances. The world is a global village – interconnected and able to progress together.

On the contrary, Natioalism describes a strong loyality and pride for your own nation. This expresses especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests over other countries and contexts. You are not a nationalist if you get excited when you see your country’s flag or when your football team wins a match. This is patrioism. Feeling proud to belong to a culture and a place does not make you a nationalist. Nationalist is on the extreme side of the spectrum of feeling loyalty to a country. However, Nationalism also stresses that you see your nation as superior to other states. This is important.

The last sentence is the reason I was completely against Nationalism in our discussion. I could not see any positive effects that Nationalism could have on any nation. As hard as I tried to think, I could not agree with some people’s opinion that there are advantages to Nationalism. Moreover, I got mad and was dissapointed to hear people supporting such an idealogy. This radical opinion and inability to be open to opposing perspectives comes from my cultural background. In Germany, if someone consideres himself/herself as a Nationalist, he or she is directly labelled with words such as Holocaust, Nazism, Racism, Facism and The Third Reich. Nationalism was one of the reasons German history was shaped with the horrors and cruelties of the Nazies and the Holocaust. To me, Nationalism was one of the causes why the Jewish genocide occured. My country’s history shapes my stand on Nationalism immensely, even though I have not lived through the Holocaust or the Third Reich. I realised, just because I identify as a German, my ability to compromise on this topic and leave my cultural lense was almost impossible.

Then, the two other groups presented their opinion. One supported Globalism, while the other prefered Nationalism. I was shocked. Supporting Nationalism? With what justification?!

Despite my direct anger and judgement, I decided to listen. In the end, this was the least I could do. While I listened however, I was preparing to come back with another argument to make a clear stand on how negative Nationalism is – I was determined to change their opinion.

Then, one of the members stood up and said: “As a colonised, inslaved and dependent country, we must be nationalistic and prefer Senegal’s development before any other nation’s in order to become the nation we aspire to be. This did not yet happen in our history. Our agency and autonomy was sold to the West, then we were encaged by the West and now, we are dependent on the West. Globalism helps the West and rich nations because it forms the world into one context that values western perspectives more than those of indigenous and minority groups. Globalisation translates into the more powerful nations controlling the less powerful nations. So, very radically speaking; how do stop globalisation becoming modern colonialism?”

“Wow”, I thought, “this is a different opinion. It is definitely the opposite understanding of Nationalism. They see benefits while I see many disadvantages.” And the beautiful thing? We both understood each other. They realised how my history made sense in my understanding – that Nationalism lead to Facisim which lead to the horrible crime of the Holocaust. That Nationalism can be a distructive and dangerous force that spreads racism and hate. However, I understood their point too. As a colonised nation, that has been stolen their autonomy, their pride of their nations and their cultural identity, the desire to be nationalist – carrying more pride for your country than any other’s, comes naturally.

We both understood that our opinions lie on both radical ends of the spectrum. We also noticed that these extreme viewpoints can be combined. What if we were aware of the risk that Nationalism can lead to Facism and Racism, while also seeing the need of Nationalism for decolonalisation and reconciliation?

I cannot stop thinking about this. How my ignorance due to my limited, historical understanding prevented me from truly understanding what my Senegalese peers tried to explain to me. How mad I was in the beginning and how much I judged their opinion because I was shaped by my history in a certain way. How I was not able to overcome my cultural lenses until I heard the other extreme viewpoint on this topic. Why was I not able to remove the layer of ignorance that covered me during this discussion?

I am sharing this because I feel like I woke up. Senegal teaches me everyday, but mostly it shows me how much I do not know. Due to this discussion, I lost a fraction of my ignorance. Most importantly, I started to be aware of how much I am shaped by my history and how much others are too. I cannot stress how important this will be for me to have reflective and more informed discussions. While I am aware now, I want to commit thinking even more critically. I want to understand how much I still depend on my bias, my stereotypes and my own opinion even though I consider myself as critical and reflective.

How critical and aware am I if I cannot see beyond my cultural lenses that hinder me to truly understand a different point of view? And how much less racist, facist or unfair would this society be if we started paying attention to what we say, what we think and who we hurt unconsciously?

Miriam Abel