Opinion: The Hoax of Nationality - Authenticity Week


By Nicole Stinson

Image courtesy of Family MWR.

As outdated as it might sound, many people still cling to nationalized stereotypes and romanticize about what is to be “British”, “Australian”, “ American”, “Indian”, “Chinese”, and so on.

However, there are some like Mark Pagel who would have us believe that globalization leading us towards a homogenous culture or a “one world” nation. In his article for the BBC, he describes the process as “seemingly unstoppable and ever accelerating,” but I have to disagree.

Here is a little test: When you read the word “British”, what comes to mind? Now what about the word “French”? I have little doubt that a few stereotypes of tea and scones, tennis, English gentleman or croissants, cigarettes and art might have crept across your mind. But do not worry you are not alone.

Goren Therborn, a professor of sociology at Cambridge University, tells BTR that people are actually becoming more aware of nationalities particularly in the way they interact with others.

“Stereotypes are still very significant, and resurface again and again,” he says. “In themselves, stereotypes are means of reducing complexity and making the world simpler than it is.”

Let’s look at the concept of being British again; can anyone really say that there are special characteristics that make you “British” other than maybe a passport or birth certificate? When trying to assign any common trait to all people in one demographic, we quickly see that it is not only arrogant, but more over, impossible.

Nick Bryant, in an article for the BBC, criticizes the stereotypes surrounding being Australian. He says the world has got it wrong.

As an Australian, now living in New York, I can attest to being the victim to many of the clichés that Bryant raises, such as our tendency to be typecast as sports-addicts, crocodile hunters, or binge-drinkers. Australians are not those things.

Take for example, my high-school sports teacher. I had recently moved to the British International School in Manila in the Philippines and he was astounded to find out that I had not learned to play that many sports. Truthfully, I played two. I still remember him saying, “but I thought all Australians played a lot of sports.” Imagine his further disappointment when he realized I didn’t actually like sports. I guess I am just not your “typical Aussie”.

Bryant blames Australian tourist campaigns for building most of the Australian stereotypes.

“Australia itself is culpable,” he says. “The country has a tendency to typecast itself”.

First, in 1984 there was the Paul Hogan “Crocodile Dundee” shrimp on the barbie advertisement which featured “Aussie” words like “mate” and scenes of the outback, the beach, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Then there was the controversial “Where the bloody hell are you?” advertising campaign featuring more beaches, more outback, and more beer. In an stereotypical advertisement to end all stereotypical advertisements, Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann directed the “Walkabout” tourist campaign which featured, you guessed it, more of the outback. Now I cannot speak for all Australians, but I am a city girl and I have never visited the outback, but that is apparently what we Australians do.

Tourism Australia, the government’s tourism agency, is not the only one creating and romanticizing a national identity to attract tourists. Visit Scotland also paired with the release of Disney’s Brave as part of a tourism campaign adopting the main character, Merida, as the stereotypical Scottish, fiery redhead.

Kristin St. Jean, an academic from the University of Northern British Columbia, says that tourists when traveling abroad seek an authentic experience.

Now that there is an “increasing interest in cultural and indigenous tourism, many places are trying to stage authenticity,” she says. “Staged authenticity is when a host community may take a stereotypical national identifier, whether it would be a person, place or thing, and adapt it into something that reflects the traditional values and customs of the people.”

In a way this is what Tourism Australia, the government’s tourism agency, or Visit Scotland has been trying to recreate, because we, as tourists, romanticize our travel itineraries and cling to the stereotypes trying to immerse ourselves in something different than what we know.

But we cannot measure the authenticity of this experience because it is a social construct beyond the tourism campaigns or the official passports. We cannot truly define a nationality as anything other than a person’s home country.

“Communities are defined not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined,” writes Benedict Andersen in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

Certainly nationalities do exist. But despite having created them, there is not a true “Australian” or true “American” and so on. There are only the stereotypes that we decide to create and imagine: lines in the sand to differentiate that which is familiar from that which is foreign.

So are we heading towards a “one nation” as many would have us believe? To be honest, I think that is too simplistic a term for world as complicated as ours. We may be traveling more and mixing with other cultures on a regular basis, but we are still just as quick to identify ourselves as belonging to a nation. We still go to war for our nations. We still celebrate the 4th of July, Australia Day, Waitangi Day, Bonfire Night and they are also symbolic of our pride for our nations.

I may not like sports or beer and I probably would not go to war for my country (I am not the biggest fan of guns), but if anyone dared to say that I wasn’t a “true” Australian I would set my pet kangaroo on them.