Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

Belonging and Deserving

In the aftermath of the British general election two key debates have emerged, firstly why the pollsters got the result so drastically wrong in the weeks leading up to election day and, secondly, what this result will mean for the future landscape of British politics? Looking behind these debates and focussing instead on the policies, rhetoric and idea(l)s expressed by political parties during the campaign period we can see how notions of citizenship, nationalism and belonging were core to many of the core campaign messages. This includes one-nation-ism and (the threat of?) Scottish nationalism, the discourse of 'shirkers v strivers' in debates about welfare and austerity, and the apparent cross-party consensus on the need to reduce immigration and exclude 'non-deserving' migrants, with some even questioning the legitimacy and 'Britishness' of political candidates born of immigrant parents.

Within these various discourses we can see how citizenship is linked not only to the question of who does and does not belong, but of who does or does not deserve to belong to the nation and, by extension, of how they are expected to behave as 'good' citizens of the nation. The casting of who is 'deserving' is a complex and contested process – one in which multiple approaches and ideologies are at play, and which are mobilised, broadcast and negotiated through multiple media and contexts. On the one hand we see 'official' narratives of belonging (and deserving to belong) mobilised through citizenship education curricula as well as 'citizenship tests' that immigrants must pass in order to be granted citizenship (you can test yourself with some practice questions from the British citizenship test here ). Through these pedagogical encounters specific understandings of citizenship are developed. However, other media and messages also influence popular conceptions of who is/not and does/not deserve to be a citizen – sometimes supporting these 'official' curricula and sometimes contesting and contradicting them.

During the British election campaign we witnessed a resurgence of strongly anti-immigrant rhetoric and closed and exclusionary construction of 'Britishness', 'British values' and 'British citizenship' from politicians from a range of parties (for summaries of relevant policies and popular opinion see this, this and this), as well as in much of the UK's popular print press (not least in The Daily Mail and The Sun). It is not only during this election campaign that such popular citizenship pedagogies have challenged notions of multiculturalism and tolerance as components of British-ness. For instance, how does one reconcile the teaching and promotion of ideals of multiculturalism, anti-racism and global citizenship – within school textbooks, various government-backed campaigns (such as the One Nation campaign in response to Scottish nationalism), and civil society-based initiatives (including the 'I am an immigrant' campaign by the Movement Against Xenophobia) – with political campaign rhetoric positioning immigrants as dangerous and a threat to 'British values' (whatever they are – although Conservative politician Michael Gove seems to think he knows , but I doubt these are the same as the satirical response this provoked on twitter under #Britishvalues )?

The power of such narratives and pedagogies of citizenship in shaping attitudes and dispositions is evident not only within the UK. In the three countries within which the You-Citizen project is working - Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon, and South Africa, similar concerns are evident – both in terms of the understandings of who does and does not (and who deserves and does not deserve) to belong and the pedagogies and avenues through which these ideals are promoted – or not. 

In South Africa, for example, the post-apartheid nation-building project has sought to develop a nation united in its diversity in order to overcome a profoundly divided history. As debates continue as to the effectiveness of this nation-building project we have witnessed in recent years, and again recently, a surge in violent manifestations of an exclusionary aspect of belonging: violent attacks aimed at African migrants to South Africa. The drivers of xenophobic attacks in recent years are multiple and highlight continued challenges in the South African nation-building project in relation to values of tolerance and inclusiveness. At the same time, many teachers and schools have struggled to know how to respond to popular discourses of xenophobia – a challenge that echoes both the difficulties encountered in finding a language through which to talk about division and discrimination without re-entrenching this or entering into a blame-game, and the problems faced in promoting notions of non-racialism and equality in the face of popular narratives of continued racialism, inequalities and exclusion.

The experiences from a range of contexts remind us that while notions and meanings of 'citizenship' may often seem rather abstract and difficult to define in everyday language, it is a concept that is intimately bound-up in everyday life. We are constantly exposed to ideas and discourses that influence how we think about who does or should/not belong to 'our' nation: the pedagogies of citizenship surround us, from formal citizenship education curricula through political campaign pronouncements to media constructions of 'us' and 'them' and to inter-generational transmission of ideas about who and what the nation is.

Dan Hammett, University of Sheffield
15th May 2015

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