Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices, Vol 2, No 1 (2008)

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Global citizenship and the cultural politics of benevolence

David Jefferess


The contemporary notion of global citizenship, in its contested and multiple manifestations, has developed out of the idea of cosmopolitanism, which dates back to the Stoics, and more recent formulations of world citizenship and the ideal of world governance. In the past decade, the concept of global citizenship, as a concept which signifies the way in which one’s identity and ethical responsibility is not limited to their “local” community (i.e. family, nation), has increasingly become a conceptual mantra for international development and humanitarian agencies, and a primary mandate of the institution of the North American university. In this article I argue that theories of global ethics, such as that presented by Dower, echo in their rhetoric the imperial project of civilization, and, more importantly, the discourse of global citizenship, while it represents the idea of universal inclusivity, produces insiders and outsiders: not everyone is a global citizen. In contrast, cultural theorists and philosophers such as Butler (2004), Mohanty (2003), and Appiah (2005, 2006) have sought to interrogate the ethical framework for a global community or transnational solidarity. The work of these critics, however, is informed by specifically feminist and/or postcolonial approaches to understanding global relations of power. In this essay I critically examine the discourse of global citizenship specifically as theorized by Dower (2003) and Appiah (2006), and I draw upon the example of the university where I teach, the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan, for which fostering global citizenship has become a primary mandate of the academic plan. While I am sympathetic to the desire for a way of imagining community that transcends the legacy of European colonialism and hence transcends the material and symbolic borders of nation, race, religion, etc., I believe that the unselfconsciously celebratory appeals to global citizenship that currently circulate in OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) states are indebted to earlier European, and specifically Eurocentric, formulations of humanity, civilization, and peace. While global citizenship purports simply to identify an ethical philosophy and a politics of identity, the discourse produces the global citizen as a specifically positioned subject that is constituted by the ability to act, and specifically to “make a better world” for, rather than with, Others.

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Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices is a non-commercial initiative committed to the ethical dissemination of academic research and educational thinking. CLTP acknowledges the thoughtful dedication of authors, editors and reviewers to develop and promote this open journal initiative. The journal receives copy-editing sponsorship from the Faculty of Education at the University of Oulu, Finland. CLTP has previously received  copy editing support from the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at the University of Nottingham, UK.