The Comforts of Country

“I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin in her classic 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. “I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.”

The feeling/sense of belonging, being a part of a team/group, the sense of security that comes with being socially acceptable and thriving and something larger than oneself and seeing the opportunity to contribute to the society thus fulfilling the goal of self actualisation as put forth by Maslow. Negatively, it could be driven by a fear of being left out or isolated.


Patriotism could also feel "right" to people with strict moral upbringing, people with fear of different communities/foreign culture, someone who hasn't had the chance to meet people from diverse backgrounds.

Patriotism drives people to extremes of altruism and self-sacrifice on behalf of the homeland—as the cliché has it, war brings out the best and worst in human beings. Shared support for a country strengthens social bonds among its citizens and provides an incubator in which trust and compassion can grow among them.

Thus patriotism helps tie us together within national borders, but there’s a catch: It seems to diminish our ability to see the humanity in citizens of other nations. That’s why national holidays like the Fourth of July always present me—and many windmill-tilting idealists who’d like to foster peace and cross-group understanding—with a Gordian knot: We feel forced to choose between country and humanity.


Why does patriotism exist?
In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that morality arises from intuitions, not reasoning, and that our intuitions rest upon six foundations, which he defines as a series of binary opposites like Care/Harm; Fairness/Cheating; Loyalty/Betrayal; and Authority/Subversion.
The values of the political Left, he says, derive mainly from the foundations of Care and Fairness—while conservatives tend to more highly value Loyalty. This makes “patriotism” a special property of the Right.

To define the Loyalty foundation, Haidt describes a classic 1954 experiment by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, who pitted two groups of 12-year-old boys against each other in an effort to understand how collective identities are formed. The boys quickly forged tribal micro-cultures and “destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s bunks, called each other nasty names, made weapons….”


When morality rests upon the Loyalty foundation, says Haidt, right is anything that builds and defends the tribe; wrong is anything that undermines it. Thus violence against members of the other tribe is moral, and betrayal of one’s own tribe is the worst crime of all. That sounds terrible to people whose morality rests upon Care and Fairness—and the reason why, for example, conservatives vilify whistleblower Edward Snowden while many liberals hail him as a hero.

But Haidt argues the Loyalty foundation has deep evolutionary roots and cannot be wished away by those who prefer Care as a basis for morality. Humans have always had to band together to survive and thrive, and bonding with some seems to naturally involve excluding others.


This is true down to a neurochemical level. Oxytocin, for example, has been nicknamed the “love hormone” for its role in bonding people with each other.  But what’s less well known is that oxytocin plays a role in excluding others from that bond. One 2011 study found that Dutch students dosed with oxytocin were “more likely to favor Dutch people or things associated with the Dutch than when they had taken a placebo.” Furthermore, they were more likely to say “they would sacrifice the life of a non-Dutch person over a Dutch person in order to save five other people of unknown nationality.” We can just as well call oxytocin the “patriotism hormone”!

This is only one example of how our bodies are seemingly built for group cohesion and loyalty—which makes traits like patriotism an intractable part of human psychology.

Even liberals and radicals who imagine themselves to be above tribal squabbling can be easily observed exhibiting the same behaviors as the 12-year-old boys in Muzafer Sherif’s experiment. When I was an undergraduate student activist, I thought nothing of defacing the posters and banners of the campus “White Student Union.”