Seminar: Dutch identity in a multicultural society

May 18th I attended a seminar at the University of Utrecht, about Dutch identity and whether the Dutchman exists. This question refers to the statement of Princess Máxima back in 2007 that the Dutch as such did not exist. This statements caused a lot of commotion and Princess Máxima´s words were probably misinterpreted and understood as if the Dutch craved an identity. What she actually wanted to say is that the Netherlands has a lot of cultures and there is not only one type of Dutchman, but many at the same time: Dutch, Antillean, Surinam, Maluku, Turkish, Moroccan and Frisian “just” being the main ones.

As said by Ed Jonkers, we all live in imaginative nations with their own imaginative identities and cultures. Our European borders may not be as artificial as they are in northern Africa or the United States of America, where straight lines were drawn through territories of tribes, but rather an organic pattern along rivers (the Rhine between France and Germany) and mountains (the Pyrenees between Spain and France). Within countries, language is one of the most important unifying factors, but nonetheless there are also countries with no single common language, such as Belgium.

A classic example, provided by professor Ed Jonkers, is the province of Limburg. Looking on the map, there are three Limburg provinces to be found: one in Belgium, one in the Netherlands and one in Germany. Ironically, none of these provinces coincide with what once used to be the Duchy of Limburg. The Duchy of Limburg’s origins lie around the city with the same name in the actual province of Liège. Other classic examples that show that borders do not necessarily define culture and therefore cause continuous debates about independency, are Catalonia as an autonomous region in Spain, Scotland as country within the United Kingdom and the provinces of Elsace-Lorraine in France. The latter was one of the main motives for the First World War between France and Germany.

The three main values of Dutch culture

Before we start describing Dutch culture, or any other culture for that matter, we need to understand the concepts of culture and identity. According to Arnold Enklaar, writer and intercultural coach, culture is the way we are whilst identity is the way we choose to be. In other words, culture is something involuntary that is unconsciously being formed during our childhood and highly, if not solely, influenced by the education in our environment. Identity, on the other hand, is something that can be chosen and changed. As such, a Dutchman who decides to move to Spain will be able to choose to get himself a Spanish identity, but he will never get rid of his Dutch cultural roots.

What’s more, many a times we are not even aware of our own culture. Culture, as explained by Enklaar, is based upon routine. In his point of view, the Dutch culture can be summarized in three main values: equality, consensus and self-determination. Equality stands for the Dutch unwritten social law not to stand out. “Don´t think you are better than me” is what one could say to another when he wants to stand out and a famous Dutch war-related expression says not to “stick your head out above the ground” (for then you can be shot at).

Consensus has formed the Netherlands, literally. The so-called “poldermodel” was a way of negotiating between farmers, citizens and nobles in order to gain land over water and therefore construct and maintain the typical Dutch windmills and dykes. Instead of following the hierarchy and doing what the nobles wanted, there was a system of agreeing on something that satisfied everyone. This consensus model can nowadays still be found in the negotiations about labour laws and conditions between CEOs, trade unions and administration services of the government. Whenever you go to a Dutch debate, you’ll see that in the end the two sides will always agree with each other to some extent, depending on the interests of each.

Self-determination might be the value where most Dutch are unaware of, since it has become one of the vast standards of Dutch culture. We want to take matters in our own hands and, as a consequence, we want to decide ourselves which electricity company, which water company and which health insurance we want to be supplied with. And not only do we want to choose those companies, we also want to decide ourselves what we do need. That´s why most Dutch services offer different packs, so every household can choose which one fits their needs best. It is in fact surprising that referendums are not a common thing in the Netherlands. Maybe the government wants to be self-determined too?

It will be hard to get rid of these cultural values when you move to another country, mainly because we are unaware of them. These cultural values can cause intercultural conflicts, especially in those cases where your identity is no longer Dutch but your culture still is (and always will be). We can therefore conclude that a Dutch identity does indeed exist, as well as Dutch culture. However, due to the multicultural character of the Netherlands, the pattern identity and culture follow differs depending on which subculture you’re part of.

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