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Interview with Oliver Strijbis: Swiss Lessons on Identity and National Unity

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Political ideas are too abstract. They are not enough to make people emotional about identity. Swiss identity has a cultural element.”

Almost all countries face the question of whether multiple ethnic groups and different identities can co-exist peacefully under the same umbrella of a single government. Switzerland’s four ethnic groups—German, French, Italian, and Romansch—have done so for hundreds of years. Is there a Swiss success formula we should pay attention to? 

Dr. Oliver Strijbis, a Swiss-born professor at the University of Zurich in the Institute for Political Science, has been studying this topic for more than a decade.

At a café in Zurich where light filtered through grand windows, Dr. Strijbis and I sat down with cappuccinos in hand. Next to us, hairline cracks in a tawny leather couch exuded a sensible wealth, the kind that sits unnoticed, and intentionally so. Croissants filled red baskets at every table.

In your 2011 paper  “The Swiss, a political nation?,” you argued that Switzerland is not just a political union of four different ethnic groups.

Political ideas are too abstract. They are not enough to make people emotional about identity. Swiss identity has a cultural element. [The problem is that cultural divides such as those found within Canada] can threaten the unity of a country. In Switzerland, that does not exist. The French-speaking minority, the Italian-speaking minority, have almost the same levels of identification as the German-speaking majority.

Do you identify yourself as Swiss-German?

No. I think there are very few people that identify as Swiss-German. The interesting thing is that Swiss-Germans are the most proud of the four languages. This is the main thing of [Swiss] diversity. But, this is not a melting-pot for all-over-the-world diversity.

[Is there] a limited diversity of four ethnicities?

Yes. It is something everyone can agree with from the Right to the Left. The Left can like this because it is part of diversity—identification with Switzerland as a diverse country. For the Right, it is also a diversity they can agree with because it does not include immigration. Everyone can agree with direct democracy, our federalism, and the four languages. That [is] Swiss identity. When Swiss travel abroad, they often talk [proudly] about the four languages of Switzerland. If you ask people from India travelling abroad, about India, they will not tell you they have [780] languages and be proud of it. But, for the Swiss, this is very [important].

Could one argue that Switzerland is a multicultural country that rejects multiculturalism?

I think people would not call it “multiculturalism,” to show it is not for immigration. There is not a catchy word for this.

Is there wisdom that Switzerland could impart to other countries?

The specific mix of cultures can become a part of the national identity. You cannot say that multiculturalism is part of Spanish identity, but you can say there are three main languages: Basque, Catalan and Spanish—La España—plural. People could be proud of this plurality. It is less than diversity but more than unitarianism.

Is there a territorial component to ethnicity in Switzerland? Swiss-Germans having one territory, while Swiss-French have another?

No. The territorial boundaries of the Cantons do not follow the languages. In the east and west, you do have linguistically homogeneous Cantons. But, at the borders, the Cantons are all bilingual. They always have a large minority within the Canton. Valais has two-thirds French, and one-third German speakers. Fribourg is about the same: two-thirds French, one-third German.

In the former Czechoslovakia, there was the sense that one group [Slovaks] felt they were being usurped by the other [Czechs]. Would you say that in Switzerland there seems to be an understanding that everyone is fairly represented through Switzerland’s unique democratic institution of direct democracy, so there is no threat of one group trying to dominate the others?

Yes, it is true although complicated. For example, when the French-speaking part was more in favor of European integration than the German-speaking part, direct democracy was rather divisive. And, historically, direct democracy had the effect that all major political groups of the country would form little cartels because they were always threatened by direct democracy—because decisions could be overruled by the citizens. So we have a system where minorities are always included in government, and I think this is what actually makes the French-speaking Swiss not [feel] threatened. This is what we see all over the world. Where minorities are better integrated into decision-making, you have less threat of separatism. This is the Swiss story. It is not about giving autonomy to the language groups because, in fact, the boundaries of the Cantons cut across the language divisions. Also, religion was historically much more conflictive in Switzerland than language.

As a political scientist, what are your thoughts on the United States at the moment?

For a moderate like Biden, it is  going to be difficult to create enthusiasm. He would have to win with only anti-Trump preferences. Just being against the other candidate, it is difficult to energize your followers.

Your 2017 paperAssimilation or social mobility? explaining ethnic boundary crossing between the Ecuadorian 2001 and 2010 census” examined the malleability of a person’s ethnicity. Do you think this is an under-appreciated phenomenon: that a person’s identity is malleable?

I’m in the middle. In theory, it is possible. But, in practice, it is in-between. Mostly it happens over generations. So when you switch identities, you have more “mixed” categories; in Ecuador, [this is] from indigenous to mestizo. But it is not that they change five times in their life! What I find interesting is that in Ecuador, there are territorially concentrated ethnic groups. They move a lot. [So the question is] do they change identities within their country when they move? I found they switch between mixed categories. But they don’t switch between “hard” categories—not from white to black, indigenous to white, or indigenous to black. [Instead,] there are large “mixed” categories. It probably explains why it doesn’t happen in the U.S., but it does happen much more in Brazil where you have the category of “brown.” This is a big difference between countries.

What are your thoughts on the way they define identity?

I find it very interesting: this issue of whether Antonio Banderas is a person of color or not. In the U.S., they didn’t want to make the mistake of categorizing him in a politically incorrect way. Some said he was a person of color, while in some Spanish-speaking countries, people said that it is racist to say he is “not white.” There was a complete misunderstanding across cultures because of different typologies of ethnic categorization.

It is interesting, no? The schemes for ethnic categorization are still national, while categorization of famous people is a global phenomenon. It does not match. Globally, famous people are being categorized into different ethnic groups in different countries. With globalization of media, there is a mismatch.

For us in Switzerland, using the term race is completely unheard of. It is one of the biggest political taboos. You cannot use the term race. If you talk about race, you are [considered] fascist. Yet, we are confronted ever more with this division in the U.S. about racial identities. And it creates a complete cognitive dissonance for us.

Eric Kaufmann, in his book Whiteshift, argues that global migration is redefining the perception of what constitutes “white.”

There is a growing literature of what is perceived as “white.” Puerto Ricans, for example, have been categorized as being whiter and whiter over time. The white category gets broader. I think it is a universal phenomenon.

In your new book with Pieter deWilde, Ruud Koopmans, Wolfgang Merkel and Michael Zürn, The Struggle Over Borders: Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism, you tackle the larger issue of globalization.

It is about the divide between people that are positive about globalization and those that are negative about globalization [and] the conflict between these two camps.

[After the analysis was completed,] I thought it interesting [that] there is not a big divide between elites, this being less than I expected. The masses are more divided.

How do you explain that?

The populist arguments among the Right and far-left are anti-elite arguments. Trump uses the term globalist in a negative way, saying elites are globalists. Elites are positive about globalization, [but] they are not representing the masses so well. This allows [populists] to win elections. It seems this anti-elite argument has some basis.

Over croissants we began to veer off, and I started explaining that my next interview would be with a woman whose father belonged to the Serbian Secret Police prior to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. War and ethnic cleansing were something her family was perhaps both perpetrator to and victim of, to which Strijbis added some final thoughts.

Those born into families on the wrong side are interesting. You have to defend yourself for what your parents did. It is easier to be a child of someone who suffered. Then, you are always on the right side. It must be much harder to be a child of the ones on the wrong side.

This seems applicable to an entire nation such as Germany, doesn’t it?

Of course. In Germany, as soon as you are somehow critical of the allies, you are very quickly on the fascist side, so people are not willing to talk about this. But I saw a new book about these German women who at the end of the war were abused by Russian and American soldiers. Maybe [a more complete] bit of history is being written.

Mark Hecht is a Canadian-British writer and academic. As a geography instructor, he received an award for Excellence in Teaching from Mount Royal University. He now writes for various publications.

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