• Ivan A. Kirchgaesser

Shifting the frame from Global Citizenship to exploring the Bigger Picture

Updated: Mar 13, 2019

Having had several conversations exploring the notion of Global Citizenship (GC) inside and outside my university, some doubts about this frame have been emerging. Whilst GC has some currency in the world of academia, NGOs, policy, and funding, I’ve found that as a dialogue topic, it often seems more problematic than useful. Rather than getting people to consider themselves and their life as part of something larger – as I expected – it conjured up a range of problematic and exclusive perspectives. I no longer believe that, as stated in the beginning of this project, “if Global Citizenship is to be a meaningful idea, it is essential that every person can find a way of relating to it.” In order to have the kind of meaningful, horizon-broadening conversations I like to initiate, a wider, more imaginative, and less contaminated frame, such as “exploring the bigger picture”, seems to be more appropriate.

(Global) Citizenship as an exclusive concept

During my conversations, I discovered several problems with the term Global Citizenship. A lecturer from my university, who has been engaging with the discourse for a long time, pointed out to me that connotations of a Western idea of cosmopolitanism render the idea of GC one-sided and exclusive. Instead of enhancing a sense of diversity and appreciation of otherness, it can suggest a levelling down of differences. Also, it has the potential to conjure up issues around globalisation, which, instead of enhancing people’s sense of agency, can make them feel like power is taken away from them. Global, then, becomes a frightening, unrelatable scale. Furthermore, as Juliet Henderson noted, it can get co-opted into neoliberal agendas of production of the self and creating workers fit for the international market.

When talking to people who hadn’t really considered GC before, I came across a whole other range of issues. First of all, as a term it is quite inaccessible. If you have never heard of it before, it is difficult to think of yourself in those terms. This problem isn’t resolved by shifting the focus to, for example, planetary citizenship, world citizenship, active citizenship, or ecological citizenship – which I’ve all tried out. As Anne Ploin said, the language of citizenship is not everybody’s language. Furthermore, when talking to people in Germany and the Netherlands, I noticed that I had difficulties to meaningfully translate any of these concepts. And whilst the term ‘global citizenship’ and the other variations listed above are clearly an attempt to re-appropriate and widen the idea of citizenship - which is normally used in a national context - one can’t deny its problematic connotations. ‘Citizenship’ implies a certain status, and a difference between those who do, those who don’t, and those who only partly deserve it. Think of the refugee crisis and the question who should be allowed to fully settle into a new country, the discrimination against second-class citizens as was the case in Apartheid South Africa, and of the exclusion of certain groups who were not even recognised to be fully human – including slaves and indigenous peoples such as the Aboriginals of Australia, who, until 1967 were classified as flora and fauna.

Other superficial and, again, exclusive associations conjured up included traveling and being able to speak different languages as criteria for being a global citizen. Again, this creates a division between those who would be able to become global citizens and those who wouldn’t. For example, you would need the financial means to get around, the right passport to be allowed into other countries, the right education to prepare you for international encounters, and the ability to learn and speak other languages. Whilst I can see where these connotations come from, I can’t imagine advocating such an exclusive notion of global citizenship.

The anthropocentric problem

This brings me to a further problem. Whilst for some people, including myself, the notion of GC implies the development of a planetary perspective, for many it remains at the level of considering how humans can better relate to other humans. In other words, the GC debate can become quite anthropocentric. To me, what is meaningful about the idea of GC, is that it implies that I live my life in an awareness of a bigger picture. This picture includes the realisation that I live on a planet, the earth, which is a home that I share with humans and other life forms. This earth has finite resources, which are at present not only getting exploited, but also distributed unequally. I am aware that there is an interdependency and interrelatedness between all that is going on on the planet. Humans have a disproportional impact on these happenings, up to the point that it lies in our power to not only destroy other cultures and species, but entire ecosystems. The point of thinking of myself as a global citizen is to realise that I am not a separate little individual unit in the universe, but an actor in the larger unfolding of the world’s events. My actions impact on this world, and this world impacts onto me.

Conclusion: from global citizenship to exploring the bigger picture

During the conversations I’ve had so far, I noticed that whilst it can be interesting to look at the notion of global citizenship, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the kind of considerations that seem so important to engage with: how one’s own life and actions relate to what is happening in the world at large. Whilst for me, such connotations used to be implied in the notion of global citizenship, I’ve realised that for others they aren’t. Starting off a conversation around this theme, then, can unwittingly alienate people and conjure up a separation between those who qualify and those who don’t. In my university, it has been useful to refer to the terms global and active citizenship, since in this context, they have a certain currency. However, outside the realm of academia, it seems to make more sense to initiate conversations around the question how people can see themselves and their life as part of a bigger picture.

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