When I was a child there were six or seven of us who used to play in the street and in each other’s gardens. We played tig, hide and seek, raced each other, squabbled and forgot it again in seconds. Further up the street was a family with two boys about my age. I used to wonder why they didn’t play with us. When they did venture in our direction, some of the parents of my group would come out and bring their children in. Only years later did I, who had the most non-sectarian upbringing possible, realise that this family was Catholic and we were all from ‘the other side’.
Our desire to belong brings with it an opposite – the drawing of boundaries against ‘the other’. Humans like to know where we belong and where ‘the other’ starts. We belong to families (‘our ones’ and ‘your ones’), clubs, societies, churches or gangs. We define ourselves by the invisible cordons of our circumstances.
This is why immigration without integration is heaving with danger. When pupils are taught what makes a nation, elements mentioned are: a common language, literature, history, religion, even shared legends and folk memories. Is it possible that, if there are too many variations of these elements within a nation, brittle fault lines appear, sensitive to unease, perceived interference and inequality?
A nation at ease with itself embraces ‘the other’ because it is assured in its own identity. Problems arise when a nation has lost that sense of identity, its own cohesiveness. When it is attacked, as we hear daily in the news, there is nothing solid to resist the incursion. The lines of strength have been turned to wool. The breakdown of the family is one such kick at the supporting structure. The upsurge in a secular fog of thinking is another. We will lose freedoms inexorably because freedom without morality and responsibility is unsustainable. Forgive a biblical reference because this is not a religious post, but if the law is not written on people’s hearts, it must be written down elsewhere – and we may not like that place.
I still remember those two little boys from our street. Two friends I could have made. In another country they might have been black, Chinese, Muslim. And in a confident society they would still have been friends I could have made.