The Fine Line Between Patriotism and Jingoism


From time-to-time, news items remind me of a conversation from years ago. I was with a group of fellow university students discussing a recent outbreak of armed conflict somewhere in the world. Being curious students, we talked about why the conflict had started.

“Because the ___ are proud to be ___,” one person said (no need to prejudice the point by naming the conflict). Another person blurted out, “Why would they be proud to be ___?” I and others rebuked the person. Why wouldn’t they?

It turned out the naïve person sincerely believed that everyone in the world wished to be Americans rather than what they were. The idea that someone would fight to preserve a national or ethnic identity other than being American was unthinkable to this person.

Then and now, what I find unthinkable is that person’s attitude. There are two aspects to this. The first is that of course it is not only possible but laudable for people to be proud of where they are from. The second is that the idea that everyone else wants to be like you is silly arrogance. These two aspects lead me to think about the fine line yet significant differences between patriotism and jingoism.

Patriotism Good

Merriam-Webster defines “patriotism” as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” I liken this human emotion of patriotism to one’s love for and devotion to family. We naturally develop an attachment to where we came from. We also naturally gravitate toward the familiar.

This sense of patriotism is a good and noble sentiment. We should feel proud about our home and be willing to support and defend it. A society that is not supported by its members cannot survive. Patriotism is at its best when it is a communal spirit of neighbors helping neighbors.

Jingoism Evil

When pride turns to hubris and hostility, patriotism becomes jingoism. Merriam-Webster defines “jingoism” as “extreme chauvinism or nationalism marked especially by a belligerent foreign policy.” I liken this human emotion of jingoism to bigotry. Really, that’s what it is—bigotry toward others.

Unlike patriotism’s noble sentiment of building community, jingoism is an ugly sentiment of xenophobia. This is the case, despite the claims of the jingoists that they are patriots who are proud of their country.

Pride in What?

Authoritarians call for “patriotism,” and their political rhetoric centers on defense of the country. Again, loving and supporting one’s home country is a positive sentiment. Is that what authoritarians and other right-wing self-proclaimed patriots actually doing—simply loving and supporting their country? Is the distinction between patriotism and jingoism something substantial or a mere terminological difference? What is going on in patriotism and jingoism?

Here’s a way to think about it. Consciousness always takes an intention. If you are thinking of a tree, then the tree is the object of your conscious intention. Intention always occurs within a paradigm—a set of beliefs and assumptions about the world and one’s place in it. The core difference between a patriot and a jingoist is the different paradigms held by those two different people that lead them to different intentions.

A patriotic consciousness is directed toward attachment and mutual recognition. It comes from a paradigm of “we are in this together and need to help each other.” Patriotism seeks peace and the building of one’s own community.

A jingoistic consciousness is directed toward detachment and misrecognition of those who are Other. It comes from a paradigm of “we are better than them and we must defend us from them.” Jingoism may or may not actively seek conflict, but it is a paradigm that assumes that conflict is inevitable and even laudatory.

Both patriots and jingoists can legitimately claim to have attitudes of pride, but the intentions of their pride—in what they have pride—are different. Patriotism is pride in the tangible interpersonal connections among members of a community. Jingoism is pride in an idealized notion of what a country means, a mythic notion of its country as superior, a standard by which it can judge all other countries as inferior.

Honoring What Exactly?

Perhaps some readers will say that I am making a merely semantic distinction or one that is only a matter of degree. To defend this patriotism versus jingoism distinction as something substantial, I turn to the difference in what each sentiment honors in their country.

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. Its professed purpose is to honor those who died while serving their country. No doubt, there are many people who take that purpose to heart, honoring the individuals who were killed in war. I will dare to say that something else is at work beyond those instances of personal sincerity.

In my book, Rethinking Misrecognition and Struggles for Recognition, I wrote about the important differences between positive and false forms of recognition. Recognition is the attitude of valuing someone for possessing positive traits. For example, we value those who are kind and giving to others. Those we value, we recognize and honor. We are socialized into norms that direct what traits we should honor in others. But not all of those traits are fully benign—they are in actuality pathological, causing dis-ease.

Relevant to the topic of jingoism is this passage from my book:

What I argue separates false forms of recognition from positive ones is that the former attribute to individuals stereotypical traits and value judgments that are used to subsume individuals under a group definition. These attributed recognition norms hinder those individuals’ possibilities for self-realization and receiving recognition for their actual qualities and contributions. Because pathological recognition norms appear to be positive recognition but in practice perpetrate misrecognition, they are false, dis-ease-causing forms of recognition. Pathological recognition is not purely negative in that at the same time that it misrecognizes and harms people, it socially affirms them. This is the case even though the positive affirmations are deceptions that mislead individuals into accepting affirmations that limits them.

[Axel] Honneth gives the example of the idea of the heroic soldier, which grants to men who suffer social insignificance and a lack of prospects a type of recognition by becoming part of the military subculture.  This example is well worth exploring to illustrate one way that pathological recognition works. In the military subculture, individuals gain a measure of prestige and honor while at the same time being treated as nonautonomous servants of the state, if not used as canon fodder to achieve aims in which they have little or no involvement or from which they do not benefit. It is, at its core, a pathological recognition that lionizes war and honors “Our Glorious Dead” while downplaying the reality that they are, indeed, now dead.

We should not doubt that many served honorably, and whether they acted for king and country, for their families, or for their comrades in arms, they did their jobs properly and are worthy of our esteem. We also should not doubt that the esteem many individuals give to military veterans is sincere and with cause. Many of those who adopt the pathological recognition norms are not deliberately misrecognizing others but are following social norms, so they believe they are behaving properly. Individual soldiers accept the pathological recognition of military glory because for many who served, it provided them with a place to belong, a role to fulfill, and a sense of purpose, even if it denied them other options for self-relation and social affirmation. Maybe they had no better options, because of their social position and society’s contributive injustice, to achieve social status. (106-107)

The point being that there are two different social realities at work in the honoring of deceased military personnel. One is the recognition of individuals—the intention is to remember and honor those people. The other is the observance of a pathological recognition norm that exploits people in service of others’ interests—the intention ignores those who suffered and died and instead is directed at the “glory” of war.

War is a racket. It exploits and consumes people to make others richer and more powerful. Jingoism is the propaganda tool used to convince and coerce people into being servants of wars in which they receive little if any benefit. Instead, many end up wounded or dead. Flowers on their graves won’t help them.

That is not to suggest that there are never legitimate reasons to fight a war, as I have discussed elsewhere. The patriotic sentiment and communal spirit of neighbors helping neighbors leads people to value the lives and well-being of compatriots and defends those people from aggression.

Patriotism is a positive recognition norm. It values peace and mutual benefits. It builds communities and honors people.

Jingoism is a pathological recognition norm. It values aggression and dominance. It destroys communities and people.

They claimed to be patriots and used that claim to start wars, but the tyrants of history were jingoists. That’s how pathological recognition works. It pretends to honor positive values and people, but it is a lie. War is a lie.


Back to the original story of that conversation years ago. Of course, people can be proud of their country, proud of where they are from, and will defend their homes. But there is never a need to diminish someone else to feel good about yourself.

Again, patriotism is best when it is a communal spirit of neighbors helping neighbors. Because the conscious intention of patriotism is other people. That sometimes means being critical of the country’s leaders and speaking out against injustice. That’s another sharp distinction from jingoism, which demands that people not speak out against the authorities. Patriots only fight wars to defend the innocent. Jingoists start wars of aggression.

Which of America’s wars were patriotic and which were jingoistic? I leave that for you to decide. Regardless, honor those who served, but do not glory in war.

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