Navigating Between Bubbles
Last year, I visited six cities I’d never been to: Berlin, Vienna, Seville, Brussels, Aachen and Lyon. When I arrived in Brussels for the first time, I was carrying a big red bag filled to the brim with clothes. Two weeks earlier, I’d haphazardly decided to move to the European capital for an internship, and it had been quite easy to find housing online.
In a fascinating digital visualization, a Belgian company called Jetpack AI breaks down the demographic makeup of the city I now call home: 62% of its population was born in a different country, which makes it the most diverse city in the world after Dubai.
In my street, one finds an Arab grocery store, a Sikh nightshop and two Turkish bakeries. The European institutions attract professionals from all over the world—not just the European continent—and wherever politics happen, media, NGOs and corporates follow. Staggeringly, 184 nationalities are represented, which are a lot more than I can think of.
Apart from meeting people from many different countries, I’ve also run into some people who struggled naming where they were from: “I’m half Dutch, half Russian, but I grew up in Spain, amongst other places ... So, you tell me!”
During my work trips to Seville, Aachen and Lyon, I again bumped into people from all over. Many of them described themselves as Europeans, or world citizens, in addition to their respective nationalities. Some prioritized their European or cosmopolitan identities over others.
Although I do feel like a citizen in Europe, “Europe” isn’t the first thing that pops into my head when someone asks me where I’m from. Identifying with a collective of 28 nation-states feels foreign to me: I’m simply unable to grasp a single European identity to hold on to.
If anything, I identify with the idea of what Europe means to me. This highly subjective view includes Brussels, the magazine I work for, and the (mostly Europe-minded) people I’ve met during my trips abroad.
A Danish guy I met in Germany happened to know one of my colleagues from a previous Europe-related event. Of the approximately 750 million inhabitants of Europe, they just happened to randomly know each other?
Both of them are working in European media, have university degrees and are interested in developing new ways of storytelling. So no, no coincidence here.
Whatever European subgenre we subscribe to, or whatever predispositions we may have toward the European project, we will meet people who think and act like ourselves, which is why it often feels like the whole world is on the same page (except when we watch the news).
This means we run into as many European identities as there are filter bubbles. What then, becomes of terms like “Eurosceptic” or “nationalist”? Aren’t they subject to the same forces as “the European identity”?
If, in my environment, “nationalist” is a dirty word, I won’t find it attractive to label myself with it. Perhaps, this says more about me being a social creature than the definition of the word itself. Those who subscribe to the nationalist label don’t attach the same stigma to the label as I perhaps would:
“Although I think Orbán is missing the mark, I see no harm in being a proud Hungarian,” somebody recently told me. “Many people see nationalism and Europhilia as mutually exclusive, but I see those deemed ‘nationalist’ as merely envisioning a different Europe.”
The discrepancy between meaning (Europhilia means admiring Europe) and stigma (Europhilia constitutes hating one’s country, people and interests) is often used to discredit those with different opinions. How often are the terms “fascist” or “nazi” used as if they constituted an argument?
We link a feeling of injustice to words that carry similar subjective and emotional connotations—in the case of labeling someone or something as fascist, phenomena we regard as very, very wrong, inhuman or immoral.
This method is, more often than not, ahistorical and dangerous, as it treats one’s emotional intuition as if it were infallible, and therefore beyond criticism. Once trapped, an opponent’s attempt to challenge the allegation, “I am not a fascist, but I think…” merely proves their guilt.
Polarization isn’t something that befalls us, or something set in motion by the evil on the other side of the aisle. It is something that is shaped and nourished collectively by the wish to ignore or silence those opinions we truly dislike—the opposite of which is tolerance.
I love the pro-European bubble I’m in, and I have no intention of leaving it. But I can imagine that those in other bubbles feel the same way.