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To be a citizen of the world, this new world of invention and discovery, it is as though there is something new being created every minute of every day. We have so much knowledge at the tips of fingertips that people just 50 years ago couldn’t have ever imagined this being possible. We are within and without each of our own little worlds, gazing with wonder at the complexity of our relationships and interconnectedness. To be a citizen of the world around us is to be a part of its rapidly changes, with countries setting up global networks to connect us to our friends and loved ones.
Travel is as simple as ever, simply book a flight and you’re on your way. This does not just include destinations, but speed as well. In 1912, the fastest ocean liner would have taken seven days to travel from Southampton, England to New York. Today, a nonstop flight from England to New York would take all of six hours. Innovation creates a new world full of excitement and change, but this change is unquestionably tied to one major detail that allows us to thrive. Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” that we must look at the stranger as a part of us. He states that we should strive to be responsible for every other human being. This may seem like quite a reach, and perhaps a bit too optimistic of a goal. However, Appiah takes this seriously, and aims to impose realistic limits on a subject that may not have any. In this book, Appiah weaves together what is means to be a citizen of the world by using historical examples as a way to connect people to a global community. One of the most consequential aspects being staying connected through dialogue and ideas despite counter-cosmopolitan efforts.
Appiah is a man of many talents, it is quite evident that he is an experienced philosopher, as well as an eloquent writer. When you start to unravel a book such as “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” you begin to see how the writer engages with his material, and what he does to break it down. Appiah utilizes his vast knowledge of history and literature to undoubtedly create a beautiful web of intricately spun stories, and moral principles. These pieces of history also include his own upbringing. From his British mother to his Ghanian father, Appiah has had an intriguing upbringing full of contrasting cultures that really shaped his outlook on life. He shares details pertaining to both sides of his heritage and ties these truths to his moral ideals shared in the book. He brings up a past memory of the town he grew up in–Kumasi, the capital of Ghana’s Asante region–for the sole purpose of introducing this word “strangers”. These were people who were not necessarily from that region, people from all over the world. As a child, he did not think to ask why these people traveled so far to live and work in his hometown, but now he is glad because “conversations across boundaries can be fraught, all the more so as the world grows smaller and the stakes grow larger”. He restates numerous times that conversation is what brings everyone together in the end: they are inevitable. Even as Appiah continues on into different themes throughout the book, inevitably, conversation is always brought up. For example, in “The Primacy of Practice”, he makes the point that “practices and not principles are what enable us to live together in peace”. People may never reach an agreement on a certain issue or moral principle, however what allows us to coexist is the use of conversation to get used to one another, and each others ideas. Conversation is sometimes even used not only for literal talk but also as a metaphor for partaking in an experience and the judgements of others.
Appiah articulates his thoughts of a world citizenship by introducing Diogenes. Now of course as a known fact, Aristotle had previously identified as belonging to the world, instead of a particular region. Having said that, Diogenes is actually credited with the first ever recorded use of the word “cosmopolitan”. When “the question was put to him what country he was from, and he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world’, or rather kosmopolites in greek. This statement is of course an oxymoron. As being a citizen implies belonging to a particular country or having distinct relations to the state, instead of the world as a whole. The definition of a global citizen is largely still debated by scholars around the world. However, it is most commonly understood to be as “awareness, caring, and embracing cultural diversity while promoting social justice and sustainability, coupled with a sense of responsibility to act”. Now I doubt Diogenes was thinking of all this when he declared this controversial statement, but I digress. When one is aware and is embracing cultural diversity, they are inadvertently following one of two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism as categorized by Appiah. That ideal being; taking seriously the value of not just all humans, but that of particular lives. Such as acknowledging their beliefs and practices that give them gravity. The cosmopolitan understands that people are different. Appiah understood this, and he believed we should learn from our differences. The whole point of the book was not to force others to become cosmopolitans–this is the mission of counter-cosmopolitans–but instead adopt a pluralist view. Understanding global issues and trends is one of the first steps to acknowledging one’s own position within the greater global context. While becoming a global citizen may be challenging, even maybe impossible at some points, it is still up to the individual to make that decision and should never be forced.
In essence, the cosmopolitan understands the many different variations of life, it would be ignorant to assume that all can or will follow this path. Appiah expresses this as “cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them”. Humans are imperfect, our knowledge is imperfect. What is believed today may change in the face of new evidence. It is the belief of counter-cosmopolitans that there is only one way for humans to live, that the differences must be in the details. They want people to join their cause, but they plan to destroy our differences, to wound or kill us if we do not join them. The cosmopolitan wants to understand the things that make us different, the things that make us see the world differently. It is even thought that people may even learn something from the ones we disagree with. That people may choose their destinies, and what to make of their lives. In contrast, counter-cosmopolitans find that even conversation across differences is precisely what should be discouraged. That conversations with people of different beliefs would lead people of faith astray. They have no wonder or curiosity about the perspectives of the disbelievers, they are simply “embodiments of error”. Counter-cosmopolitans have no wish to understand the other side, it is their belief that everyone else is so astronomically wrong, that it is their sole mission to save everyone from themselves.
In conclusion, it is up to the people to decide what to do with their lives. Where to live, eat, sleep, breathe. You shouldn’t force a human being to do something against their will. Appiah writes a moral manifesto for a globe shared with seven billion other strangers. He looks upon a broad range of history, literature, and even philosophy to connect people in an encompassing way. He shares his own personal experiences and upbringing to divulge his thoughts and emotions, so that we may understand his message. This book was an effort to redefine our moral obligations to others based upon a very humane and realistic outlook on life. What is it that we owe to strangers just by virtue of our shared humanity? The hard hitting questions that are asked makes you wonder, and no matter where that wonder takes you, know that you are going in the right direction.
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