As a citizen of the world...

By Brendan Donegan · 1 December 2012

During one of my visits to India I spent some time talking to people who were engaging with local processes of land acquisition for industrial development. I learned that local people took different positions on these processes. Some land owners felt that it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from agriculture, and anticipated that they could use the proceeds from the sale of their land to start a new life in the city. Some farmers believed claims made by the state government and companies that they would be able to get jobs in the factories that would be established, and believed that this work would be more remunerative than agriculture; in addition, they felt that office jobs in "shirt-pants" would be more dignified and higher status than working as farmers. Some landless agricultural labourers pointed out that 1) their lack of education meant they would not be eligible for the promised factory jobs, 2) the sale of the lands they work on would force them into different fields of employment which would in all probability involve even more precarious labour conditions than those they currently experience, and 3) under existing government policy they were not eligible for compensation for loss of livelihoods.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I received an email from a friend inviting me to add my name to an Avaaz petition. The petition relates to the creation of an industrial park in Tamilnadu, and the negative impact this has had on Thervoy, a village on the rapidly industrialising outskirts of the state capital, Chennai. The majority of Thervoy's residents are low-caste Dalits (otherwise known as Untouchables or 'Scheduled Castes'). The petition asks for a serious and independent Human Rights Impact Assessment before the project proceeds further. The target of the petition is Michelin, a French company that has been the first to establish itself in the park; the statement accompanying the petition suggests that while Tamilnadu state has ignored the villagers' claims, "Michelin, a company concerned about its reputation" might listen. The petition text begins "As a citizen of the world, I ask you to suspend the activities of the factory located in the Thervoy industrial park, in India…"

I think it is important to examine and question what this opening statement could mean and what it could do. Here Tavia Nyong'o's recent article "Queer Africa and the Fantasy of Virtual Participation" is good to think with. Examining recent struggles of queer Ugandans as a moment in the ongoing "moral showdown between 'the West' and Africa over human rights" (the initial furore over Kony 2012 has been and gone since Nyong'o's article went to press), Nyong'o raises issues equally relevant to the Thervoy petition. In the petition text and accompanying statement, what needed background information has been omitted? To what extent are the narratives presented by this and other petitions aimed at 'citizens of the world' complicit in reinforcing simplistic, popular and inaccurate stereotypes and frames of reference? The technology of online platforms such as Avaaz enables citizens of the world to respond to global subjects-in-distress with a speed and ease that would have been unimaginable in the days of letter-writing campaigns. Nyong'o suggests these individuals act on a felt sense of urgency, the need to 'do something'. Does this technology make it too easy for these individuals to feel they have done something?

Earlier this year Alessandra Marino and I 'exchanged' blogposts/comments on the use of 'occupy' as a signifier, and I think it is worthwhile to return to that exchange here (my blogpost contains a link to Alessandra's original article, and Alessandra responded to me in a comment that can be found at the bottom of the webpage). I agree with Alessandra that there can be considerable value in academics critically interrogating signifiers when they are deployed in ways that tend to flatten and grossly simplify complex situations. Such critical interrogations have the potential to provide a valuable antidote to overly-simplistic storylines, an antidote that might serve not to reduce the citizens of the world to inaction, but to encourage them to a deeper engagement with the situations and issues on which they feel compelled to act and, crucially, to encourage them to a more critical reflection on what might be a meaningful form of engagement in each particular case. (For example, signing a petition to show support for Occupy Wall Street is all very well - but wouldn't it make more sense to go occupy somewhere?) At the same time, however, ratcheting-up the level of complexity in the narrative accompanying a global 'call to action' works against the desire to "capture the marginal utility of the least committed, least informed browser who can be convinced to click a button and send an email" (Nyong'o page 49).

As an anthropologist by training, this line of thought reminds me of debates about the relationship between anthropology and activism. Some participants in these debates have presented the options open to anthropologists (and other critical social scientists) as a choice between two positions: either you stand alongside the activists fighting for the oppressed by reproducing their analysis, or you prioritise understanding and presenting the complexities of a situation, even where this goes against the narratives of activists. An important justification for the second position is that any group (e.g. residents of a village) affected by a common event (e.g. creation of a dam or an industrial park) will be divided by a range of responses to that event, a range shaped by a diversity of agendas and interests, shaped in turn by differences of gender, class, caste, ethnicity, etc. But it strikes me that this binary opposition leaves out a third and - to my mind - potentially valuable position: turn the anthropological gaze to processes of activism. By doing so, it might become possible to move beyond the presentation of a case for what might be gained and what might be lost by activists using a particular signifier or frame of reference, and to proceed towards an understanding (sympathetic or otherwise) of the exigencies of activist practice that lead activists to decide - for example - to describe their constituency as indigenous people rather than as peasants.

Before I left Britain to go to India, one of my mentors offered me the following advice: "Remember that it is not your country, that you are a guest there, and act accordingly." I have frequently pondered that statement since, and I will continue to do so as I reflect, act, and reflect again as an anthropologist of India and as an individual with dual nationality (Britain and Australia). Ultimately I feel it yields more questions than answers. Where is 'my country'? Is 'my country' the only place I can take a stand? I like the idea of being a citizen of the world, even though I suspect that my idea of what this might entail and imply is probably different to that of the person who created the Avaaz Thervoy petition. At this point in history, however, no one is a citizen of the world, and those who have tried to perform rather than merely declare this identity have faced the consequences of doing so.

About the author

  • Dr Brendan Donegan

    Activist Consultant
    Brendan Donegan
    Goldsmiths University of London
    The focus of my professional work has been teaching and social research, with a focus on poverty and inequality in India and in the UK. I completed my PhD in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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