The cosmopolitan canopy

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Jon Van Til

The novelist and sociologist Richard Sennett documents the wastage involved in building a “purified identity” on the basis of characteristics as inconsequential as skin color, family of origin, or other accidents of birth. A competitive and productive society, as social theorist Talcott Parsons noted, is based on what is accomplished and achieved, and not on what is ascribed and incidental. As the content of the Unionist identity fades with the distancing of the English from Northern Ireland, the triviality apparent in basing identity, at least in part, on relatively minor religious differences is bound to emerge more vividly with the passing of time and generations.

Social psychologist Louis Zurcher found in his work that the modern identity often takes the form of the “mutable self”, capable of adjusting to differing social situations. Many middle-class professionals in Northern Ireland have developed skills in mutability that permit them to place their ethno-national-religious identity into the background at work, in the neighborhood, in mixed marriages, and in other broader walks of life.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz identifies a curse of the consumer society that may also apply to Northern Irish identities: the problem of excessive options. Schwartz urges us to avoid the frustrations and confusions of too many choices by learning to “satisfice rather than maximize”, by making decisions “irreversible”, by curtailing “social comparisons”, and by learning “to love constraints”. Schwartz discusses a cartoon showing a fishbowl, with an adult fish lecturing her child: “’You can be anything you want to be—no limits’.” Schwartz (2004: 235-236) asks:

Is the parent really myopic? Living in the constrained, protective world of the fishbowl enables this young fish to experiment, to explore, to create, to write its life story without worrying about starving or being eaten. Without the fishbowl, there truly would be no limits. But the fish would have to spend all its time just struggling to stay alive. Choice within constraints, freedom within limits, is what enables the little fish to imagine a host of marvelous possibilities.

Those in the North West may be faced with choices involving too many potential identities—national, religious, political, strategic, residential, and the like. And it may be the ambiguities involved in choosing a national identity give rise to the most serious of these confusions.

Since questions of national identity are not likely to be easily or quickly resolved in Northern Ireland, it may be warranted to be more tolerant of “tall fences”, 21st century bawns, and other means of seeking comfort through what would otherwise appear self-destructive segregation. At the same time, however, there are lessons of diversity that will have to be learned in the North West, lest the rising generation of the entire region fall hopelessly behind in the quest for personal and professional advantage in the universalist structures of the global economy and society.

Comfort notwithstanding, there’s a strong case to be made that the citizen of the North West needs to learn to swim in a bigger bowl, at least from time to time. The dilemma was dramatically cast by sociologist Louis Wirth, in his classic 1928 study of The Ghetto. Wirth described the choice faced by the “marginal man”, readied by education and training to leave the ghetto in which he was born, and take his place in a multi-cultural world:
The difficulty is that the Jew, as long as he remains in the ghetto, is of a separate caste, living in a world that is narrow, but warm with the flow of familiar life, full of sentiment, and with opportunity for self-expression within the limits of the group. But when he emerges from the ghetto he becomes human, which means he has contacts with the outer world, encounters friction and hostility, as well as familiarity and friendship…(1928: 267).

Sociologist Elijah Anderson writes of what he calls “cosmopolitan canopies”, “public spaces within cities (that) offer a respite from… wariness (of those who seem different), settings where a diversity of people can feel comfortable enough to relax their guard.”

Anderson describes everyday life within the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, where as visitors

stroll up and down the aisles, stopping at various shops and kiosks, they experience other people, and they generally seem to trust what (and whom) they see… When taking a seat at a lunch counter, people feel they have something of a license to speak with others, and others a license to speak to them. The author, an African American, was tapped on the shoulder by a total stranger, a “red-faced” Irishman, asking about the score of a basketball game – not something that would occur out on the street. What is so striking about sitting at a lunch counter in the Reading Terminal is that in this setting, a white man with white supremacist friends is able to have a frank conversation with a black stranger. In these settings people engage in folk ethnography and formulate or find evidence for their folk theories about others with whom they share the public space. Philadelphia holds numerous other examples of spaces under the canopy such as fitness centers, waiting rooms, multiplex theaters, indoor malls, and sporting venues.

Under the cosmopolitan canopy,

People can engage in practical and expressive folk ethnography as they “people watch.” They can eavesdrop and collect stories that they might relate to friends. They can interact with complete strangers, expressing themselves through face and eye work – smiles and frowns punctuated by a critical commentary of grunts and groans and outright talk. In time, their accumulating observations feed both prejudices and truths, affected by their own identities, about the others they encounter here” (Anderson, 2004, summarized in read on 28 July 2005).

In a society as oriented to talking and storytelling as Derry’s, the case for cosmopolitan canopies cannot be overestimated. Already present in such places as The Junction within the Holywell Trust, the creation of canopies by means of such planned projects as the pedestrian bridge and the redevelopment of the Ebrington Barracks, or by means of unplanned human connection elsewhere within the city (Anderson mentions Starbuck’s and McDonald’s as such venues in Philadelphia) would seem devoutly to be wished.

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