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Cosmopolitanism: How To Be a Citizen of the World

A philosopher issues a call for a pragmatic, humane stance toward difference in a world of strangers.

| Thu Feb. 23, 2006 3:00 AM EST

MJ: Sounds like a sort of relativism.

KAA: Well, there's a certain truth to the relativist view, which is that very often when people evaluate other people and other societies they haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about. You can't make a sensible evaluation of, say, the Turkish university regulation about the wearing of headscarves if you haven't the faintest idea of the historical context or the meaning of that practice. Blithely wading in and saying whatever you want to say about it without that knowledge is just silly, and it's wrong. If you're going to have a productive cross-cultural conversation, or, within a society, a cross-identity conversation, you've got to listen and understand what you're evaluating.

MJ: And not to seek to impose values on others.

KAA: Not at all. The world is full of people trying to make everybody else like themselves. Mormons, Catholics, Wahhabi Muslims. I happen to prefer them in this order: Catholicism, Mormonism, Wahhabism; but that's not important here. What's important is that they share a problem, which is that they're not open, in their standard forms, to the second element that cosmopolitanism depends upon, which is that it's okay for people to be different. Now, just to be clear, there are forms of Islam, for example, that are open to that form of cosmopolitanism. I'm not objecting to religion, because I don't think religion has to be universalist.

There are two strands to cosmpolitanism, and both are essential. The first is universalist: it says everybody matters. But they matter in their specificity, as who they are, not who you want them to be. The problem is that there are people going around who want to reshape the world, want to reshape everybody else, in their own image. That's dangerous. Some of them are more violent than others; some aren't violent at all. But none of them are cosmopolitan, and in that sense I'm against them.

MJ: But aren't there some things that we do want to universalize, right? Like basic human rights.

KAA: Yes, and the challenge is to identify those things. I would say the cosmopolitan view about that has to be that nobody can decide that by himself or herself; we have to engage in a global conversation in order to create instruments, like the human rights instruments of the United Nations, that are the product of a dialogue among nations and across civilizations. Now, we might disagree on what those things we want to universalize. I have no objection, for instance, to the Catholic claim to know what the universals are. They're entitled to their claim; what they're not entitled to do is impose these things without negotiation.

MJ: But, again, from the cosmopolitan point of view some things are not negotiable.

KAA:That's right, because cosmopolitanism starts from the core thought that everybody matters. Each person is entitled, in the context of his or her community, to seek a life of significance and dignity. Well, that sets a boundary on tolerance, because you can't tolerate those who actively prevent people from doing that. So cosmopolitans have to be hard-line about that; they can't be tolerant of people, say, who think that torture is just fine, or that it doesn't matter what a woman wants—if a male member of her family wants her to marry someone that's the way it's going to be.

You want to converse with anyone who's conversible. So the mere fact that somebody has an illiberal thought or idea isn't a reason for not talking to them. The liberal tradition is one in which even intolerant speech and thought is permitted until it crosses a boundary to intolerant or dangerous acts, or threatens to. At that point you have to take sides. And in many cases it's easy for me to know which side I'm on.

Now, of course there are going to be cases where we differ about whether a boundary is being crossed, but my view is that if you think the boundary is being crossed and you've made a serious effort to understand what the other person is doing then you're entitled to stop the conversation and start trying to get something done.

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