On being a citizen of the world

Philip Ross Bullock

One of the most discussed statements made by our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, in her speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 was: ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word citizenship means.’ There are many reasons to question such sentiments, especially in the light of Brexit. But for linguists in particular, May’s comments should give pause for thought, anxiety, and perhaps even a little hope.

I’m writing these reflections in Paris, where I’m spending the year as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. Part of the pleasure of being here stems from the chance to indulge my deep-seated Francophilia and to return to live in a country where I first discovered a love of speaking a foreign language when I was just 13. But the greatest pleasure comes in the form of having the freedom to devote myself fully to research and writing, and from sharing ideas with colleagues from across the world. For the Institute isn’t really a French institution at all, it’s a global one. My colleagues come from the US and Canada, Syria and Israel, Brazil and Argentina, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom. We converse in French and English, and any other languages we find in common. We’ve all studied abroad, are interested in other cultures and languages, and live our lives across borders.

We’re certainly very fortunate to have the opportunity to live and work in Paris, and I’m very aware of how lucky I was to have been able to study more than one language at both school and university. Looking back at the UK, I see a situation where ever fewer people have the chance to learn foreign languages, and where the powerful arguments for doing so are often drowned out by a shrill and insular nationalism. Moreover, cosmopolitan perspectives on citizenship are being discredited by many politicians, who set up an ‘us-versus-them’ attitude that may benefit their popularity in the short term, but which helps no one in the end.

France is a fascinating place to think about what it means to be a citizen, and especially a citizen of the world. Paris was the world’s first global city – a mecca for writers, artists and thinkers in the nineteenth century, and an intellectual centre for centuries well before that. It was the heart of the Republic of Letters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a hub for scholarship of all stripes in the age when Latin was the lingua franca of European thought. Latin and French may have been replaced by English as a global language, but France has not lost its intellectual curiosity, or its ability to produce powerful ideas about what it means to be a human individual in a changing world. Living here offers me the possibility of being in France, but it also offers me a gateway to new worlds, new encounters and new ways of thinking.

It’s not an easy place to be, it’s true. France’s deeply held secularism and Republican identity is under threat from a variety of quarters, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the sight of so many homeless refugees from the Middle East, even in the midst of such wealth and splendour. Their involuntary exile calls into question my own easy ability to step on the Eurostar and cross the Channel at the flash of the right sort of passport. But listening to France Culture every morning and reading the weekend papers, I’ve been stuck by the thoughtful debate that’s underway here about what it means to be a citizen in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multipolar world. It’s certainly very different from the pages of the British newspapers, or the pugnacious tone of the Today programme on Radio 4.

The Prime Minister’s words worry me, because they contradict my very deeply held beliefs about who I am, and what I try to teach my students. As a linguist, I want to open my students’ eyes to other worlds, other experiences, other ways of thinking. Languages are not ‘safe spaces’ where we can hear only what’s already familiar to us; they are the very embodiment of what’s most important in a liberal education. And being a cosmopolitan, being a ‘citizen of the world’ doesn’t mean giving up on all the other identities we hold dear and surrendering ourselves unquestioningly to the dream of being a perpetual nomad. Most of us are good at being many things, at juggling multiple and often contradictory identities, but we can only learn this by leaving home, by stepping outside of what’s familiar. These are things other languages can teach us, as can diverse literatures, and the empathy and imagination they entail are also essential if we are to show true hospitality to the strangers and guests who make their way into our lives from other lands and cultures.

But perhaps Theresa May was closer to the truth than she realised. To be a citizen of the world - quite literally a ‘cosmopolitan’ – is indeed to be citizen of ‘nowhere’. In Greek, nowhere is utopos, and a utopia is a place that doesn’t or cannot exist. But utopia is also a good place, an eutopos, a kind of ideal to which we should always strive, and an experiment in being better versions of our existing selves. Perhaps, through learning what it feels like to speak another language, to live another life, we can help to build that place, even if that’s only nowhere for the time being.