TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Identity and Difference: Stalled Nationalism in the Lebanese Republic

In the streets of Beirut, one notices a preponderance of Lebanese flags—hanging out of windows, on cars, in doorways, on buildings. A nationalist gesture, it paradoxically signifies the opposite. Both the “opposition” and government supporters are equally zealous flag wavers. Meant to signify the universal of nationalism, the flag in fact symbolizes fragmentation and impermeable particularity. In this sense, the flag truly represents Lebanon.

It is difficult to imagine what a “united” Lebanon would be. There is a deep and chronic lack of acknowledgement of genuine otherness. In order to unite, there first has to be acknowledgement and tolerance of genuine difference. Lack of respect for boundaries seems to be a nationwide difficulty, seen at both the individual and collective levels. One is indeed tempted to demand a theory—psychoanalytic, speculative, or otherwise—of social boundary malformation. From traffic patterns, to interpersonal relations, to sectarian violence, Lebanon is beset with problems that appear diagnosable in such terms. At the individual level, it does not seem to be particularly inspired by belligerence that people do not recognize lines in banks and airports, or do not honor norms of basic courtesy such as reflexively yielding partial passage on sidewalks and in doorways. These seem rather to be microsocial, sensuous indications of broader social attitudes that fail to recognize the genuine existence and autonomy of others. I believe that, at the highest cultural level—politics—these attitudes achieve their full expression and significance in and as sectarianism.

Freud tells us that it is the artifact of narcissism, of infantile entitlement, to act as though one’s boundaries extend indefinitely outward into a thinned out world. This idea suggests the evil twin of a benign, ideal multiculturalism; the ideal pictures many different kinds of people from many different backgrounds gathered and living peaceably together. But this picture presupposes real acknowledgement of the other. The Lebanese live among each other, but not with each other. Individuals in Lebanon belong to and are defined by sects, and each sect is its own normative bubble, each with its own particular internal logic that is unconsciously believed to have universal normative significance. This appears related to a strong sense of sectarian superiority and entitlement, each with an absolute sense of the validity of its own normative identity.

Clearly, at the political level, Lebanon is not the scene of a serene “identity within difference”. However, it is not the presence of mere difference among such sects that creates the catastrophic potential of a slide into full-blown civil war, nor is it an a priori belligerence or inclination to violence. Under less strife-ridden conditions than those that exist presently, Lebanese of different sects form lasting friendships, have productive business associations, and otherwise appear to get along. Then what is the psychology of difference that pertains here?

For there to be a real potential of “identity within difference”, there first has to be substantive acknowledgement that difference exists. One would think that, given the history of political chaos and violence here, along with the simple sensory fact of sectarian differences (just walk around the university), such acknowledgement would be a given. But I am beginning to infer that it is not only not given, it is absent. What is this psychology of difference? It is a psychology that maybe imagines that such difference exists, but somehow paradoxically doesn’t really believe it. The level of normative self-absorption within each sect creates an expansion and envelopment of the public sphere, so that while lip service may be paid to difference, no one actually cognizes or experiences it. Genuine otherness is regarded as totally insubstantial, even if present, something like the ambient humming noise in a computer room. So when the other suddenly emerges as something more than something unobtrusively liminal, dwelling at the edges of consciousness, the potential for conflict is immediately realized. That is arguably why opposition and conflict always comes “without warning”; it “erupts” (to use some of the favored media descriptions).

It would be deeply counterintuitive to suggest that the Lebanese do not recognize the real divisions that exist within their society. I am not suggesting that they do not, but rather that when they do, it is too late. The veneer of social normalcy (a phenomenon in Lebanon that deserves a book-length treatment) is a veneer that plasters over these real, divisive differences, and interprets them in inappropriately benign ways. When there is not open conflict, it is as if the nation exists in a wholesale state of denial, flattering itself on its cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. Real dialogue geared towards mutual understanding must begin with substantive acknowledgement of genuine difference, and it is perhaps only such substantive acknowledgement that can forestall violent conflict. Indeed, at the legal-political level of “power-sharing” there does seem to be this sort of substantive acknowledgement. However, an uneasy détente institutionalized in legal-political structures between intractable enemies, each with an absolute sense of normative entitlement, ought not to be conflated with the unity of purpose, sensibility, and vision that is the hallmark of successful democracies. Perhaps Lebanon is the living argument for the thesis that religion ought, at all costs, be separate from politics.

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