Savvy Saturday – The Purpose and Practice of Patriotism

Happy Independence Day! For today’s blog post, I’m going to discuss the idea of patriotism and how fantasy authors can use it for good – or evil. (Muahahaha!) Patriotism, the love of one’s country, is a powerful motivating force for citizens/subjects. Patriotic individuals can be motivated to work harder to create more resources (a positive force, leading to greater wealth gain overall), to give up their resources (a negative force, leading to different distribution of, or even destruction of, wealth), and to support a country’s political leadership (a stabilizing force, leading to greater freedom to act without being questioned).

For obvious reasons, then, politicians and rulers like their citizenry to be patriotic. If people can be spurred to turn their mental, emotional, and physical energies to the good of the country rather than to their own betterment, if they will willingly and cheerfully give up their hard-earned resources to the government, and if they will support and not question their government’s decisions, a political leader can have a much better chance of accomplishing his will both at home and abroad than he would if he had to fight his own people as well as his political enemies.

In any fantasy or science fiction world, then, a savvy government should seek to inspire patriotism in its citizenry. Unfortunately, identification with a group – in this case, with one’s country – is most easily achieved by making negative comparisons between one’s own group and other groups. Other groups, outgroups, are “bad,” and our group, the in-group, is “good.” Further, the strength of in-group solidarity grows in the face of external threats.

If there are not seen to be external threats to a group or nation, then people in that nation are more likely to magnify and focus on the differences between subgroups in the nation and problems occurring in the nation itself. If an external threat to the nation emerges, however, the nation tends to band together and view itself as one homogenous group of people. “We are the same in the ways that matter,” becomes the catchphrase, “and we will not be beaten.” This is the reason that unscrupulous rulers tend to be constantly making war, or threatening war, against other nations – it keeps their citizens from questioning their authority and keeps them looking outside of their borders for threats instead of inside.

There are other ways of promoting patriotism besides painting members of other groups as bad. One of the major ones, sociology theory tells us, is through ritual. When people all take part in a formal, important activity – a ritual – together, they suddenly share something with each other. The greater the time spent in the ritual, the greater the emotional energy invested, the more important, or the higher the symbolic meaning that can be poured into the ritual (see last week’s post for a discussion of how to create symbols), the greater the unifying ability of the ritual to bind people together. By doing things together, a group of individuals becomes a collective, and “I” turns into “we.”

It is for this reason that Important Events in a country’s history – days honoring great leaders, or momentous victorious, or somber defeats – are recognized with formal activities year after year. Parades, speeches, fireworks, flag ceremonies, songs, prayers, salutes, marches…all are designed to remind people of who “we” are, and actually to generate a greater sense of “we”-ness than was present before. Good-hearted rulers or politicians can use these practices and rituals to keep a nation’s spirits up, to remind them of the larger ideals that bind them together, to help them stand strong under fire, and to inspire their citizenry to live peaceably and kindly with each other. Not so good-hearted rulers and politicians use these same tools to blind their citizenry to their own nefarious purposes, to incite them toward hatred of other nations, and occasionally, to try to take over the world.

How do the countries in the worlds you create try to generate patriotism? What historical events or people are the focal points for ritual gatherings and solidarity? Is the patriotism generated only positive focused (celebrating the things that make that particular country great) or also negative focused (condemning the things that other nations or groups do, and warning that our country’s greatness is being threatened by them)? What impact will these events and cultural practices have on the way the citizenry of the country thinks and acts toward each other and their leaders?

With all this in mind, I hope you have a very happy, safe, and positive focused Fourth of July weekend.

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