15 December, 2006Issue 6.1Asia & AustraliaEconomicsPolitics & SocietyReligionWorld Politics

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Cosmopolitanism or Clash of Civilisations?

Tim Soutphommasane

Amartya Sen
Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny
Allen Lane, 2006
215 pages
ISBN 0713999381

Kwame Anthony Appiah
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers
Allen Lane, 2006
196 pages
ISBN 0713999411

At a time when the concept of a ‘clash of civilisations’ conditions much of our debate, there seems little prospect of finding a formula for understanding across cultures. Yet few would deny the urgency of articulating some common ground for dealing with difference, of reconciling diversity and social cohesion. There are no simple answers on how this can be accomplished, but if there should be a place to start, we can do no better than Amartya Sen’s latest book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. A Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher at Harvard, Sen is best known for his work on development and social choice theory. But in this elegant yet provocative volume, he turns his attention to matters of identity and culture.

Sen brings some interesting experience to these matters. Growing up in Bengal, amidst Hindu-Muslim riots and the partition of India, Sen witnessed first-hand the consequences of sectarian identities pushed to the limit. He retells how, as an eleven-year-old boy, he was exposed to the stabbing murder of a local Muslim man by Hindu thugs—an early lesson in the explosive qualities of cultural conflict. Identity and Violence is in parts a personal account, but it is no autobiography. For Sen, the task is primarily one of theoretical clarification. ‘Conceptual disarray, and not just nasty intentions, significantly contribute to the turmoil and barbarity we see around us.’ The very idea of identity, Sen argues, has been distorted by the popular assumption of singular affiliation, the belief that any person belongs, for all practical purposes, to only one collectivity.

There are two main camps guilty of this ‘solitarist’ view of identity. On the one hand are theorists who divide the world into civilisational categories: the Islamic, the Western, the Hindu, the Buddhist, etc. On the other are communitarian thinkers who insist that one’s ethnic or cultural group provides the definitive source of an individual’s identity. It is hard to deny the currency of these solitarist approaches, but Sen exposes their reductionist errors. We should avoid thinking an identity exists without individuals exercising some choice over their affiliations. A person’s gender, class, or politics can be just as important to their identity as their ethnicity, culture or religion. Where we insist on singularity over the multiplicities of identity, it ‘not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable.’

Sen’s argument illuminates not only the civilisations thesis that currently fuels much Islamophobia in the West, but also multiculturalist understandings of integration. Indeed, he is critical of the multiculturalist view that a nation can be a ‘federation of communities.’ Of particular concern is an approach to cultural relations in which religious and other community leaders are treated as definitive spokesmen for minority populations. The trouble with this, as many are now acknowledging, is that it invites minorities to participate in society solely through their own communities, and not as citizens as well.

However, Sen is not interested in a wholesale repudiation of multiculturalism. What he does not want is a ‘plural monoculturalism’ in which cultures live in isolation from one another (a view gaining in currency here in Britain). Unlike the current Blair government, he disapproves of the policy of promoting new faith schools for Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh children—something which ‘encourages a fragmentary perception of the demands of living in a desegregated Britain.’ Much as John Stuart Mill railed against Victorian popular opinion stifling individual experiments in living, Sen rejects multiculturalism where it leads to giving blind priority to the dictates of traditional culture over all else. Sen’s preferred mode of multiculturalism is not a conservative multiculturalism aimed at preserving the integrity or authenticity of cultures—a cultural diversity for diversity’s sake—but a liberal multiculturalism that ‘focuses on the freedom of reasoning and decision-making, and celebrates cultural diversity to the extent that it is as freely chosen as possible by the persons involved.’

The substance of Sen’s own positive version of multiculturalism is one implied in the breadth of his analysis. A significant portion of his book is devoted to exploring the global interrelations in the origins and development of world civilisation. Figures like the Indian emperor Ashoka from the third century BC and the sixteenth century Mughal emperor Akbar, for example, are celebrated as exemplars of religious tolerance. Liberal human rights are not uniquely ‘Western’ values, but the products of a much richer cultural heritage.

Ultimately, then, the multiculturalism Sen would like is not far off from a cosmopolitanism that celebrates the hybrid character of cultures and identities, and the solidarity of global voices. It is an appealing vision, but one wonders whether it might just reach too far—at least for now. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that Sen places too much store in the prospect of intercultural dialogue guided by a global perspective, and by an acceptance of multiplicities. Dialogue and understanding probably need to start more locally, and be anchored in something more concrete. As Edmund Burke famously wrote, ‘to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.’ We would be wildly optimistic—and na√Øve—to believe there are no limits to how far cosmopolitanism can motivate our ethical commitments.

This is a point taken up by Kwame Anthony Appiah in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Appiah’s commission is a demanding one: responding on behalf of a cosmopolitan creed to Burkean—and one might say communitarian—critiques of a globalist view of morality. ‘The challenge,’ as he argues, ‘is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia in local troops and equip then with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.’ Whereas Sen’s main preoccupation is to tackle the reductionism of our moral psychology regarding identity—to bust our ‘illusion of destiny’—Appiah’s aim is to construct an understanding of what precisely cosmopolitanism must involve. What Sen takes away with theoretical clarification of concepts, Appiah seeks to replace with philosophical reflection on the requirements of a conversation across cultures.

Appiah, a professor at Princeton’s Centre for Human Values, is a frequent contributor to debates on culture and identity. His last book, The Ethics of Identity, made an ambitious attempt to reframe some of the existing philosophical language on authenticity and culture. There, Appiah offered a version of cosmopolitanism grounded in a Millian liberalism: where we engage with other cultures, it is not because we value a culture as such, but because we value the contribution one’s cultural membership can make to individuality and personal autonomy. In this respect, what Appiah calls ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ is not far off from the multiculturalism of choice and freedom preferred by Sen.

Cosmopolitanism continues the broad project of The Ethics of Identity, but, unlike the latter, it is not so much a treatise as a fusion of philosophical argument and cultural story-telling. There is much personal detail in the book, particularly Appiah’s own experiences in encountering cultures during his childhood in Kumasi, Ghana (Appiah’s mother is English, his father Ghanaian). This is part of Appiah’s design:

The problem of cross-cultural communication can seem immensely difficult in theory, when are trying to imagine making sense of a stranger in the abstract. But the great lesson of anthropology is that when the stranger is no longer imaginary, but real and present, sharing a human social life, you may like or dislike him, you may agree or disagree; but, if it is what you both want, you can make sense of each other in the end.

In other words, Appiah sees in his own personal experience a means of making cosmopolitanism more accessible to skeptical souls who believe it remains far too abstract to work. In one respect, this undertaking is one of rehabilitation. Cosmopolitanism suffers from an association with ‘globalisation’—a term Appiah dismisses as something ‘that once referred to a marketing strategy, and then came to designate a macroeconomic thesis, and now can seem to encompass everything, and nothing.’ It is hard not to agree when so much talk about the emergence of a global community refers simply to the idea that everyone around the world eats McDonald’s, drinks Coca-Cola, and watches the same Hollywood blockbusters.

According to Appiah, we would do cosmopolitanism greater justice as a creed by understanding it less in terms of kitschy globalisation and more in terms of a new language reconciling the universal and the particular. What cosmopolitanism means is we should marry our common humanity with our cultural differences. The key to this is to transform cultural dialogue into an open-ended conversation. The mistake we often make is to assume that dialogue needs to result in agreement, that the point of conversation is to persuade. As the imaginative act of engaging with the perspective of others, a conversation can be valuable in itself.

In conceding the inevitability of conflict and disagreement, Appiah points to the enduring pluralism that will prevail after any encounter with cultural difference. What tends not to be recognised within many discussions is that pluralism also governs our universal obligations. Indeed, where arguments are made in the name of universal justice or humanitarianism, the suggestion seems to be that morality should require us to do everything that we can to alleviate human suffering. After all, if we have a responsibility to help our fellow brothers and sisters across the world, shouldn’t we contribute most of our money and property to groups like Oxfam and UNICEF? Our compassion can express itself crudely, implying that responsibility demands we adopt an ethical life perhaps accessible only to monks, hermits and Platonic guardians.

While there are some philosophers who argue in favour of a utilitarian (if not ascetic) approach of this kind —Peter Singer, for instance—Appiah proposes that a cosmopolitan commitment need not take us down this path. We should not feel guilty about going to a concert or a football match when we could have used our money to alleviate diarrhea in the Third World. And we should not (to borrow the words of Rousseau) love humanity only to make it easy to dislike our neighbours; our obligations to the world should not come at the cost of the basic obligations we have to our families, our friends, and our nations. At the same time, these two types of obligations are not mutually exclusive. When Edmund Burke spoke of our duties to our little platoons, he also offered some universal considerations: ‘It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.’

In this sense, Appiah’s rooted cosmopolitanism—rooted, that is, in liberal values of autonomy, and in our own partial obligations—offers some realism to temper Sen’s more ambitious vision. It is a shame, however, that Appiah does not discuss at length what kinds of political, economic and social institutions are required to ‘root’ cosmopolitanism in practice. No matter how felicitous a cosmopolitan perspective may be, it will ultimately disappoint unless some more concrete proposals can be made in its favour.

Still, there is a principled case to be made for cosmopolitanism. The question is whether good reasons are enough to persuade people that an alternative to a ‘clash of civilisations’ is possible. As philosophers, Sen and Appiah naturally place their confidence in the supremacy of reason and, ultimately, the persuasiveness of a cosmopolitan ethos. Yet debates about identity and culture are more often than not conducted through polemics and not through cool analysis and deliberation. What the arguments in Identity and Violence and Cosmopolitanism show, however, is that it is possible to make a reasoned and judicious case in a humane and engaged voice. Sen and Appiah show us just why many consider them to be two of our leading public voices today.

Tim Soutphommasane is a DPhil student in political theory at Balliol College, Oxford, and editor-in-chief of The Oxonian Review of Books. His research deals with patriotism, nationality and culture.