Where are you from? What is it worth?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a New York Times article on Facebook, where the author, Lev Golinklin, shared his difficulties with coming to terms with where he was from: “Well, technically I’m from the Russian-speaking region of a Soviet Socialist republic [Ukraine] that used to be part of a country that isn’t there anymore. It was called the Soviet Union, and you can still find it on old maps. “It’s complicated.”

My friend, who works on international law, added the following comment: “Thought provoking story but certainly the author should know that history is full of different peoples being shuffled around from one legal entity or country to the next. Lev Golinkin is from Ukraine. It’s not a hard question.”

Perhaps this is not a hard question from certain (maybe legal) perspectives. However, I believe that there is more to it than this.

The question – where are you from? – is a descriptive question. Yet, there seems to, in situations where peoples are, so to speak, shuffled around, no way of settling the issue of where someone is from in a non-evaluative manner.

Sometimes, it seems to me as if peoples that get shuffled around might have justified complaints about the descriptive validity of the re-definition of where they are from. Sometimes there can be justified complaints about the accuracy of the new order. A person born to Russian-speaking parents in current Estonia who lost her citizenship when Estonia became independent might, justifiably, object to the idea that she is from Estonia. I imagine that certain persons on the Crimea peninsula might, on good grounds, object to the statement that they are from Russia. If ISIS were to establish a state, it appears justified for Kurds born in the region to dismiss the idea that they are from the Islamic State. We can also, quite plausibly, imagine Texans objecting to the idea that they are from Mexico, if Mexico were to occupy the state. Charles de Gaulle was presumably also in 1942 French, at not from Germany. Edward Said is, as far as I can tell, generally considered to be from Palestine, and not Israel. But sometimes, the complete opposite is true: it is only the new order that matters. No one seems to object to the idea that a person born in Dresden in 1983 might simply be German, and not East-German. Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was, we like to think, from Norway. Amos Oz (b. 1939) is from Israel. Norway became independent from Sweden in 1905; Israel was recognised in 1949.

What non-evaluative criteria could separate these cases? I can’t see that there could be any non-normative criteria. It is because someone has wronged that we allow for certain people to claim that they are from a place that might no longer be an autonomous entity, or alternatively because something in some sense has been corrected: Germany was re-unified, Norway and Israel became independent states.

This is unproblematic in some cases. Few question where Ibsen and Oz are from. However, it seems very problematic in other cases. Russian speakers in the Baltic countries, Golinkin, Kurds, Native Americans are some examples that come to mind. Separatists in Catalonia, Scotland, Corsica, Quebec and elsewhere could be other examples. Occasionally, we don’t need to provide an answer to the question of where someone is from. In small talk with taxi drivers, or perhaps even with policemen, the question doesn’t need a clear answer. In other situations, it seems as if we need to answer the question. For example when we write history, when we gather statistics, and for official records. In article 15.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is stated that everyone has the right to a nationality.

How do we deal with the situations where we for some reason see the need to provide an answer to the question “where are you from?”? It appears utterly absurd to leave it completely up to the individual. No one is from the Islamic State. However, it seems to be an affront to the individual to superimpose a nationality on her against her will, which is also captured by article 15.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states that everyone has the right not to be deprived of her nationality, nor denied to change it. Yet, this – I suspect – is what recurrently seems to happen. Individual rights to self-determination are recurrently violated when we treat and talk with and about people in terms that are coloured by our own geopolitical normative opinions.

We find ourselves with a conflict of principles that is difficult to deal with. It is a dire, and deeply illiberal, situation if the question of where you are from conclusively depends on whom and what is considered good, bad, right and wrong, by you and those who are in power where you happen to be. However, again: no one is from the Islamic State. Perhaps this illustrates the limitations of liberalism and the impossibility of value neutrality. Perhaps it reveals the complexity and inconsistency of goods.

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2 Responses to Where are you from? What is it worth?

  • Andrews says:

    What non-evaluative criteria could separate these cases? I can’t see that there could be any non-normative criteria. It is because someone has wronged that we allow for certain people to claim that they are from a place that might no longer be an autonomous entity, or alternatively because something in some sense has been corrected: Germany was re-unified, Norway and Israel became independent states.

    At what point does the Blue Nil become the White Nil? What are the boudaries of the Mount Everest? The answers are bound to be somehow arbitrary. But from this it does not follow that the answers will be essentially evaluative. Law is not evaluative, yet it is arbitrary. So let us distinguish between evalutative arbitrariness (“p should be the case for evaluative reasons q, r…”) and conventional arbitrariness (“let us agree that p “). To support your conclusion, you thus need to show that the “where are you from” questions cannot be answered by either form of arbitrariness. Yet you have only ruled out the former…

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    We each have a stack of identity context. I am from Sweden, and hence (since the mid 90s) from the EU. In some documents the parish where I was born is stated. But I can also correctly call me a member of Western civilization, especially since I regard some of the liberal and humanistic values as more important too me and my identity than what it says on my passport. Plus, I regard myself as an inhabitant of Oxford, with a bunch of concomitant associations. To answer the “where are you from?” question I should give the relevant parts of the above, or the entire stack.

    The idea that everybody has a right to a nationality may have two parts: we have a right to be under the protection of a state, and we have a right to belong to a group. It is only the second one that really deals with the question in the post. The issue seems to be what right others have in defining what should be in the identity stack, especially adding certain places and selectively removing others. It only matters when this touches identities we care about: somebody denying that I really am from the EU is not affecting me much, but if they claim I cannot regard myself as a westerner I will likely resist.

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