Thoughts on Global Citizenship and Privilege

Global citizenship is a difficult topic to unpack without stepping on a few toes. Any discussion of citizenship, even a hypothetical status such as this, needs to consider that the conference of the title necessarily sets the recipient apart from others. Being a citizen of Denmark, for instance, elevates your rights in the Danish state above those who are also resident in the nation but are not afforded the same status. In this way, citizenship can be read as a process of exclusion, preferential treatment, or privilege more generally.

Usually when we talk about global citizenship, especially in the context of organisations like Crossing Borders, we are advancing the idea that we are more than just individuals on islands and that instead we have connections across the world. The idea of global citizenship is meant to reinforce ideas of mutual responsibilities to people across all the Earth’s nations, and to stress the importance of being mindful of the globe as a dynamic and interrelating system rather than as a bundle of strictly delimited parts and portions.

However, as is the case with much cosmopolitan thinking, global citizenship is necessarily couched in the extent to which we are privileged enough to enjoy and engage with the topic. I was on the train recently and I started to reflect that over the last year I have spent a good deal of time flitting between various global cities: London, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, New York, and Boston. I am able to skip over borders with ease and without much real concern for the implications of being part of such a broad community. One of my good friends just took up work near Toronto. At the beginning of next month I will be in London to see a friend who has moved from Houston to Madrid, and then I will be on my way home to see my mother who moved all around the world in her childhood. We all share ideas of global citizenship, and we are able to have these ideas because we have been fortunate enough to have experiences which help us to structure and develop these feelings.

For many of us, we are able to think of ourselves as global citizens because from our position of good luck and great resources the idea of national borders is often little more than an inconvenience or an extended plane ride. In all of our talk of global citizenship we need to reflect on the fact that there are so many people who are left disconnected from these networks that we take for granted.

Most of the time citizenship is an accident, you appear in this world and as you start crying in the hospital a peculiar legal process confers on you a status that you will likely carry for life. Global citizenship, whilst a set of conscious practices and beliefs, can similarly, at the most basic level, be understood as a happy accident. For other people it is an aspiration which requires much more effort, and might even prove impossible. There are still so many people whose lives are harshly delimited by walls and barbed wire that no amount of positive-thinking and cosmopolitan attitude will overcome.

This is not meant to be a criticism of global citizenship, the idea of community and solidarity across the globe is beautiful and should be treasured. Instead, I only worry that sometimes we can get so caught up in all this talk of oneness that we forget the people who are so frequently left out through no fault of their own.

by Simon Fern

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