Commentary on Recent Readings, Pt. 1

Friends,

I wanted to take time early this year to address a few books I’ve read recently (in the last year or so), something which a number of family members and friends have taken an interest in discussing with me. By the way it’s looking as I’m drafting this post, this endeavor will occupy a few posts. I want to give proper attention to my thoughts and the text I’ve read. Given the political climate of not just our own country (especially in the recent election season) but also in Europe, I thought it apropos to openly commentate on the concepts and ideas in these books as they illustrate and oftentimes explain events happening around us. This is intended for my own historical posterity to perhaps read/reference in the future, but it’s also intended to help anyone interested in understanding some of the theoretical and philosophical reasons why and how events of the recent past have unfolded the way they have.

Let us begin with a basic premise on which the rest of this post can build:

Everyday life and the “stuff” that composes it – the ideas we have, the decisions we make, the events we witness, the conclusions we draw, the emotions we feel – is indeed not black and white, not absolute or finite, but rather a complex mix of intricate nuances.

In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah elaborates on the notion that we all live by beliefs and desires – the former reflecting how the world is, the latter illustrating how we’d like the world to be. These two psychological states drive what people do, and it is in that action of doing that we find a litany of differences that stoke the fires of intoleration and prejudice. On the same token, it must be said, we also are drawn to one another through the myriad of commonalities and like-minded notions that strengthen the bonds of an understanding community.

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Issues of Our Time): Appiah,  Kwame Anthony: 8601405100320: Amazon.com: Books
The cover image of Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism

If you’re unsure of what cosmopolitanism means, let me try to explain it to you. Reaching back as far as Antiquity and as recently as the 21st-century, one can see “cosmopolitanism” develop and take on various attributes that define its nature. The idea that we humans share this one globe facilitates the assumption that it is in our own best interest to preserve not only the globe but ourselves as a race. Appiah quotes the German scholar Christoph Martin Wieland to characterize cosmopolitanism in this way:

“Cosmopolitans…regard all the people of the earth as so many branches of a single family, and the universe as a state, of which they, with innumerable other rational beings, are citizens, promoting together under the general laws of nature the perfection of the whole, while each in his own fashion is busy about his own well-being.”

He further points out that the French philosophe Voltaire spoke of “the obligation to understand those with whom we share the planet, linking that need explicitly with our global economic interdependence.” What this boils down to, then, is whether or not an individual chooses to subscribe to the idea that not only do we have a degree of obligation toward others, but that we also take some degree of interest in the values of those others. This concept intrinsically means that we exhibit a genuine respect for our legitimate differences, that we acknowledge the values of others both universally and locally.

When it comes to our beliefs and the values that underlie them, we must start from where we are in understanding and interpreting the world (this is ‘the local’). Appiah states that “what it’s reasonable for you to think, faced with a particular experience, depends on what ideas you already have…and on what ideas you’ve been introduced to.” The concept of reason is age-old, but its proper application hasn’t always been seen throughout history. “The advance of reason in the industrialized world is not the product of greater individual powers of reasoning. It is the result of the fact that we have developed institutions that can allow ordinary human beings to develop, test, and refine their ideas.” It is through our own individual life experience – as well as through the societal experience of collective memory and accepted conventions – that such development, testing, and refining occurs. Depending on an individual’s experiences, the beliefs of others may seem unreasonable, irrational, or even false at face value. And in a world of social media and broad generalizations (i.e., black and white conclusions based on thinly developed and understood ideas), that usually makes for a very fragile fabric holding society together.

To put all of this in perspective, I think a good way to illustrate this is to relate it to you through the concept of the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Off the cuff, we tend to think that just because we’d like something done to us (or conversely, to not have something done to us), that means we do (or don’t do) the same thing to another person. That is not always the right way to think about it. Appiah elaborates on various ideas (social customs and practices, cultural taboos, and the fact that not everyone is tapped into understanding these things on a local level), culminating in the notion that for the Golden Rule to work, we have to know not just why we’re doing what we’re doing to others but also how what we do will strike those others. This boils down to perception: how they perceive your action and how you think you perceive their values and beliefs. The struggle, then, is not necessarily to agree on those values, but to understand them. This is where disagreement and conflict enter the scene.

Appiah elaborates on three different degrees or types of disagreement: “we can fail to share a vocabulary of evaluation (on values), we can give the same vocabulary different interpretations, and we can give the same values different weights.” Value language helps shape common responses of thought, feeling, and action; by extension, communication in general helps strengthen the bridge between individuals, groups, and societies – because it leads to understanding, which (for its own sake, and not necessarily for the sake of believing) is key. “The points of entry to cross-cultural conversations are things that are shared by those who are in the conversation” (just as it’s done in a conversation between a group of close friends). The hard part is the often present unfamiliarity or even fear of the unknown when trying to strike up those conversations. However, the “possibility of discovering things we do not yet share is one of the payoffs of cosmopolitan curiosity: we can learn from one another, or we can simply be intrigued by alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”

If we engage in communication and the subsequent understanding of each other on the local level, and then carry that over across state lines, national borders, and ultimately throughout the world, a degree of universalism would characterize some of our values and beliefs that we share globally (while still maintaining our particular ones locally). This, of course, negates the idea of cultural purity in the context of a world order (Appiah goes into detail on the problems with a global state) – “cultural purity” is oxymoronic, and the diversity that stems from the plethora of local values and beliefs that comprise a society’s culture is nothing but helpful in allowing an individual to take stock of themselves and grow through an eclectic life experience. The vehicle of universal value systems is great when used positively and for good; the linchpin to this, though, is toleration. “Universalism without toleration easily turns to murder.” From the French wars of religion, the Thirty Years’ War, the Inquisition, the Nazis, al-Qaeda, and many other cases, history has provided us with a multitude of examples where attempts at universal value systems went wrong.

One common thread to all of these examples is the idea of singularity: for example, the Nazis used the phrase “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (one people, one nation, one leader). Monolithic singularity is the opposite of toleration, which “requires a concept of the intolerable”…and the intolerable in a cosmopolitan’s mind is the insistence by one group or people of their superiority over all others in more aspects than one. Appiah states that one distinctively cosmopolitan commitment is to pluralism, but he also includes the commitment to fallibilism (the notion of our knowledge being imperfect and subject to change in the face of new evidence). If an individual can indulge the perspectives of others and admit to being fallible, then they are headed in the right direction toward a better society where the ills we face today that stem from the in-group/out-group mentality would be vastly fewer in number.

So to bring us back to the premise established at the start of this post…

  1. Everyday life is indeed not black and white, not absolute or finite, but rather a complex mix of intricate nuances.
  2. Those nuances are made from all of our own values and beliefs based on our individual life experiences.
  3. Communicating with each other to understand and tolerate those values and beliefs will lend to the spread of positive universal values and beliefs, creating a better global society.

I truly think that if more people subscribed to the ideas of pluralism and fallibilism, and followed that action up with the action of reaching beyond their shell, their clique, their complacent mindsets, then we would see a great deal of progress in social relations as well as the discourse relating to the causality of problems that correspond to the politico-economic machinations we see transpire around us.

As I wrap up this first post in what I suppose we can call a short series, I will point to two ideas already included here that I will elaborate on further in the next post. The first is the in-group/out-group mentality, and the second is toleration. These two concepts are symbiotic toward each other, and they can act as a sort of framework through which we can understand the history that has delivered us into the world we know today.

Thank you, friends!

Mike/”Eli”

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