If you were to ask the average person on the street what patriotism is, you’d probably get a response about loving or feeling pride for someone’s country. Other responses could possibly include actions like showing deference to a flag, to some song like the anthem or joining the armed forces. Personally, I disagree with such responses, andI will use this post to evaluate how well those ideas fit in the modern world, where they fail and succeed and to propose, what I think is, a better definition.
Why I disagree with the usual definitions of patriotism
There are several reasons why I disagree with the usual responses to the question of what patriotism is. To begin with, relating patriotism and love seems weird to me since I’ve never felt love for my country. Perhaps gratitude, maybe longing for specific people, places, and food when living overseas, but the feeling of love never crossed my mind. Of course, that’s my own experience and yours might be different, but the love response has a couple of other problems. On the one hand, how does the love you feel for your country differ from the love you feel for your spouse, your kids or your parents? On the other, how is love for country expressed? I won’t address the first of those questions since the concept of feeling love for one’s country seems weird to me, but I think the second question is key.
The thing about love is that it requires some sort of evidence, actions that back the feeling up and keep it alive. The way you love your kids is clearly not the same way you love your spouse. Even though the feeling might be similar, you re willing to do different things for each of them and engage in distinct activities with each one. Expressing love for country must, therefore, come with some sorts of activities that demonstrate and reinforce it. Now, this is where some might say that respecting flags, anthems and joining armed forces comes in: those are the ways to show patriotism if you relate patriotism with love of country.
Again, to me, that definition is not a good one, and I don’t buy that doing those actions turns you into a patriot. I mean, you can do those actions without feeling any love for your country, right? You can pretend to care for the sky-cloth, learn the tune and words of the magic-song and just join the military because there are very few other jobs. So even if you think that patriotism and love of country come together, you also must admit that the usual patriotic displays are lacking. I will call those sorts of actions fake-triotic with the understanding that the term means faking to be a patriot or faking patriotism.
Still, the love-patriotism connection is interesting because there is one thing we are willing to do for those we love and that fits the concept of patriotism better: sacrifice.
There are a couple of key ideas that are worth talking about in this section: what sacrifice is and its voluntary nature. We’ll stick to a simple definition of sacrifice: willingly giving up something of worth without the expectations of getting anything in return. Such definition encompasses charity, volunteering, and other sorts of donations in kind, time or life. However, you can give up your wallet or dignity if someone’s holding a gun to your head, so the real value of sacrifice is that it’s a completely voluntary action, perhaps even anonymous or functionally anonymous since there will be no gain.
I do not have the numbers to argue the point, but I’d wager that it’s sacrifice that we, as a society, value and reward the most. Consider how many awards and decorations are given in recognition of action putting the receiver in greater danger than what is normally expected, or for actions that are carried out despite offering little immediate reward. This is something that makes perfect sense since society tends to survive and thrive due to the willingness of its individual members to put themselves at risk for the greater good.
A more appropriate definition
I hate quoting politicians, but John F. Kennedy’s words do serve this post’s purpose,
Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country
I also like this quote because it greatly softens the blow that a word like sacrifice transmits.
Patriotism, when viewed this way, loses the usual symbols and rituals that readily come to mind. Additionally, it gives each and every one of us way to contribute to our own country’s success. Those of us who are scientists have some ways to contribute, musicians have other avenues and so on and so forth. Thirdly, and I think this point is critical, it helps citizens become community minded while, at the same time, not fall for the falsehood that following the prescribed recipe for patriotism is actually patriotic. Actually, that is a topic worth talking about in a later post, why are flags, anthems and other symbols viewed as patriotic? Who benefits from that? I mean, the gist of the answer is pretty obvious, but it does have to be said from time to time.
In any case, rather than a passive definition of patriotism, like the ones alluded to previously, I suggest a more active one. Perhaps something along the lines of “voluntarily contributing to your country’s betterment by putting its interests before yours”. Simple and, therefore, may miss some important details, but I think it works as a starting point.
What do you think? Do you agree or do you disagree?