Fifth page of six

Nations – and tribal memory

Like it or not, we are all identified with one or a few nations – and if you're stateless, you've had it. He's German, she's Thai, and the guy over there is Brazilian.

We belong to other identity-groupings as well: Sunni, Catholic or Shinto, indigenous or immigrant, privileged or poor, female or male, young or old, football-crazy or politically left-wing.

When it comes to the crunch, it's us or them.

This business of identification is an enormous issue in our day. With pressing global issues to sort out, we need to find our common ground, agree on the basics and collaborate – sufficiently, at least, to make significant progress.

Yet we bicker and fight like never before, in startlingly innovative ways. The need to agree and the capacity to agree seem to be pulling in different directions. We're desperately addicted to individuality and distinction – national and sub-group interest.

How nations feel about their place in the world community is influenced by their history. Nations are affected by the after-effects of definitive national events – even if they've long been forgotten or seem irrelevant.

National feelings are shaped by emotionally-rooted memories of foregoing collective experience – victories and defeats, peaks of culture, troughs of hardship, influxes, emigrations, famines, civil wars or social triumphs.

These feelings crop up through the teleprompting agency of poignant current events. Situations have a way of reactivating old memories, associations, anticipations and anxieties.

Theoretically, past happenings are gone and forgotten, yet they lurk there in collective memory. They burp, fart, vomit and even dirty our collective pants, when prompted by circumstance.

What is the point of this national self-preoccupation when climatic extremes, toxic disasters, famine, disease or economic chaos could wipe us out anyway? Why aren't we prioritising new means of working out planetary issues?

The answer hovers around our habitual tendency to disagree.

The Russian civil war, 1920

This is The Big Question. We're all faced with it.