Whether you celebrated Canada Day earlier in the week or are celebrating Independence Day today, this is usually the time of year when the flags are unfurled, the fireworks lit, and national narratives reinforced. If, like me, you're from Canada, you likely heard stories affirming our peacefulness, our tolerance, our multiculturalism, and our general goodwill at home and abroad. If you're from America, then you likely heard something about your hard-won freedom and your indomitable light-on-a-hill exceptionalism.
In one sense, I like the idea of national narratives. They provide us with a type of imaginative framework that merge us together with many unlikely and unknown individuals (both living and dead) into the larger body politic.
Yet people are not so easily merged, which is why I'm also always suspicious of these narratives. The more boldly they're pronounced, the less likely they are to show us who we were or are, rather than who we merely want to be. We are rarely a fraction as good as the stories we tell about ourselves, individually or collectively. Our stories, then, might provide us with guiding principles for our practice, yet we almost always fail to conform to and be informed by those principles well (if at all).
So at their worst, national narratives become the shouts of triumph that effectively drown out the quieter voices—those of the oppressed and marginalized, those with counter-narratives, those of the downright sinister—that might temper our idealism and redirect the narrative arc within which we operate.
"Multiculturalism" and "exceptionalism" are simply the storylines that we stretch across our nations, taut as drum skins. The rhythms created might resonate with some, sure; but we only praise and dance to these beats if we ignore the discord below the surface.
Can we speak so proudly of multiculturalism in Canada without acknowledging residential schools? Freedom in the United States without acknowledging the wounds of slavery that still fester? Our prosperity without looking at massive pockets of poverty? Tolerance without attending to ongoing racism, misogyny, and increasing religious intolerance? What of exceptionalism in a land where educational and living standards plummet far below other countries, where school shootings and obesity are epidemics? What of peacekeeping when we rely so heavily upon the big stick of our southern neighbor(u)rs?
I'm not saying, as some tend to, that our nations are simply the amalgamation of all these negative realities. I believe there are exceptional elements to the United States and Canada, as do the tens of thousands who seek to make them their home each year.
There are incredible benefits to having robust national narratives in which we find our identity and our pride, but perhaps this is the wrong way for us to think about our countries and, more precisely, our places within them. While they might project the image of one big happy family, any of us who have lived in such a family know that what appears to be perfection on the outside is often a superficial layer covering the discord, competing claims for attention, disagreements, laughter and sorrow and anger, hair-pulling and hugs, allegiances and counter-allegiances.
So this week, as we hear the stories and themes we've grown familiar with, perhaps we need to think less about our national narratives and more about our national conversations, or even better, our national arguments. A narrative is too neat, too harmonious. This side of eternity, I think such narratives can only be made true in the most ruthless of totalitarian regimes. (And even when all other voices are silenced, the discord will only become internalized). Rather, we should embrace the language of conversation, debate, and argument. It is the language of discord which is the language of a healthy democracy.