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Dancing parakeets, nation states and loyalty to my principles

12 April 2017 | by Peter Kinderman

It’s a sad fact of life that dancing parakeets get much more exposure on social media than the wisdom of professors of psychology.

Perhaps I need to just accept my place in the hierarchy.

But two of my tweets over the past few days seem to have struck a chord.

Following Michael Howard’s ludicrous and bellicose comments about Gibraltar, I commented that it was outrageous that, less than a week after the Prime Minister signed the ‘Article 50’ letter, we were talking about war with a European, NATO, ally.

And, a little later, I added that I felt more loyalty to universal humanitarian principles and fundamental rights, not feudal territorial boundaries.

This is a deep and, I think, important question, particularly for a psychologist, because it speaks to how we form and maintain our sense of identity, and therefore our loyalty.

These issues are psychological – who I think I am, why I form these mental models of my identity, how I relate to the communities that I am part of, and whether I have chosen or simply fallen into membership.

There was a fascinating article in the New Statesman recently, which argued, in part, that:

“…in fact, the modern concept of nation state is a 17th century institution designed for war, not regulating trade…”

I’d take that further. The borders of the nation state of which I am a citizen (or am I a subject of an unelected, hereditary monarch?) derive from feudal conflicts between warrior princes and the constitutional stitch-ups of politicians apparently driven at least in part by fear of having a sovereign of the ‘wrong’ Christian denomination.

I’m not fully convinced that is a great basis for loyalty.

Psychology has a long tradition of experimental evidence leading us to be cautious about unconscious (but powerful) influences on our judgments.

From Solomon Asch’s experiments into conformity to the apparent views of those around us, to the more direct impact of hierarchical leadership revealed by Stanley Milgram, psychologists know that our opinions and behaviours can be relatively easily influenced.

So, here, we are in a position where decisions about loyalty – powerful ideas that shape domestic and international politics, and even, if we are to believe Michael Howard and the Daily Telegraph, war with European allies.

So I think it’s worth stepping back and considering whether we have to accept some of these fundamental ‘givens’.

I’ve referred to Martin Luther King before, but it’s worth repeating that he asked us to be ‘maladjusted’. And so I want to make sure that my reasoning, my political and professional judgements, are free from inappropriate influence.

I am not minded to be loyal to the political entities constructed to reflect the happenstance that warrior princes once defined – at the point of a lance – the geographical boundaries between their feudal demesnes. Especially when, as in my case, my ancestors crossed those boundaries as migrants or refugees.

Instead, I would prefer to regard myself as loyal to universal humanitarian principles and fundamental human rights. I think that’s a sensible response to recent political events, and I think it’s a sensible psychological position.

P.S. Psychologists tend to look for metaphors in blogs such as this one. Sometimes they’re right.

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