2017-06-05

Book Review: "Cosmopolitanism" by Kwame Anthony Appiah

I've recently been able to read Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah. When I first picked it up, I thought it might be an interesting take on the issues of multiculturalism and immigration that Western societies have had to deal with over the last 2 decades (considering that this book was published in 2006). It actually turned out to be a bit different than I expected, being instead a more abstract philosophical work that lays out the arguments for a certain sort of cosmopolitan worldview and manner of engaging with other people, with these arguments being based on somewhat more abstract discussions of the histories of nations, cultures, and peoples. In particular, the author discusses how cultures have diffused throughout space and time and how people are capable of engaging with different issues and other people from across the world in an intelligent and active manner, so the framing of issues like cultural imperialism/theft or charity for the poorest around the world may end up being counterproductive in the long-term; additionally, the aim of conversation and engagement with strangers should be to reach a mutual understanding and (ideally, though this depends somewhat on the topic at hand) respect for different culture-specific values, because persuasion of people to change such culture-specific values is typically [though not always] a fool's errand. I realize this brief summary doesn't really do the book justice, because it is a rather dense book (at least for a layperson like myself) with so many different issues discussed at varying lengths and levels of abstraction.

Overall, there are a lot of arguments that seem disconnected, especially the anecdotes of his family or his childhood in Ghana (though those were nice to read), and there seem to be a lot of philosophical subtleties that may well have gone over my head, but while each chapter is a nice self-contained explanation of an aspect of cosmopolitanism, the overarching message seems rather muddled (especially comparing the last chapter to everything before it). There are other issues that I have with the book that I'll detail after the jump, but more broadly, I was somewhat disappointed by the ease with which I could use the author's own terms and arguments against the book. That said, I do agree with one main theme, and that is of respectfully engaging with strangers by critically examining "thick" beliefs on their own terms and as they arise from other "thick" & "thin" beliefs (to be explained after the jump), in order to find common ground while also understanding and respecting where differences arise; this is similar to what I learned from the last student-led discussion I attended at the Day of Action on campus in March. I suppose people who are interested in this sort of thing would be drawn to this book anyway, but I wouldn't really recommend this otherwise. Follow the jump to see more of my thoughts on this book.

The author points out that there are different ("thin" versus "thick") levels of valuation of concepts, and while "thin" valuations are essentially universal, progressively "thicker" valuations are built on "thinner" layers and become progressively more culture-specific; this seems to be a recurring theme of sorts, though this terminology is sparingly used after the chapter where these terms are discussed in detail. However, the distinction of "thick" versus "thin" seems to me to be tautological to some degree: it is certainly true that "thick" valuations are built upon "thin" valuations, while "thin" valuations aren't built on much, but there isn't as much exploration of why this is the case; I would think this is because the "thin" valuations are the universal valuations that would allow pretty much any human society to coalesce and persist under any circumstances at any time, while the "thick" valuations are particular responses to changing geographic, temporal, and demographic circumstances.
Related to this, the author also argues that even people who share a moral vocabulary can disagree on where to draw the line when characterizing actions according to certain values (e.g. "bravery", "cruelty", "honor"), but doesn't go much further into this; I would argue that because "thick" values are said to be built on "thin" values, people ostensibly defend "thick" values due to their supposed emergence from "thin" values, where really, people defend "thick" values out of fear of losing the uniqueness of their cultural identities if the "thick" values were contestable on their own terms without appealing to the more basic "thin" values.

The author then uses the example of the royal ceremonies in his hometown in conjunction with discussion of current problems to show how people visiting his hometown from abroad might initially find things strange but would eventually figure out the similarities between cultures, and to further argue that while there certainly do seem to be universal human traits & behaviors (whether that refers to color recognition or the prevalence of autism), the connections and mutual understanding that people can form with those unfamiliar to them are always with particular people rather than with abstract identity groups. However, I found that his anecdote seems somewhat disconnected from his broader message, his example of color recognition and the hypothetical case of a person who can only recognize black or white if they have only been raised in an environment characterized by black or white seems to ring false (witness the XKCD comic about people being able to essentially invent language to describe differences that would seem trivial to other people, like 500 pictures of Joe Biden eating a sandwich), and (despite his claim) he never really refutes the idea of people only forming connections with other people initially through shared identity effecting shared values (and that seems to be supported by the quote that the author himself provides of not being able to understand a lion who could speak human language, as understanding of language depends on shared human characteristics).

The author argues that because different people have different needs at different times, it does not serve society well to trap people into a certain culture from a possibly-imagined past, and that notions of cultural authenticity and cultural imperialism ignore both the historical trends of cultural diffusion across the world as well as the active way that people outside of North America and Europe do in fact (according to cited studies) choose local media/entertainment and respond to Western media intelligently (rather than being passive consumers). Following that, the author argues that much ancient, classical, and medieval cultural artworks and artifacts were not created for the benefit of a modern nation (which likely would not have existed at that time), that poorer countries which supposedly suffer from cultural imperialism, practically speaking, need a lot of outside money to undertake archeological digs and preservation of artifacts (thus suffering under laws that forbid the international transfer of such artifacts), and that most of these artifacts were often made for grander purposes and were made from copying and imitation; he then discusses how while certain instances of repatriation, specific to sites, localities, or religious groups can be justified (and so in turn can their nations negotiating on their behalf), it would be more ideal for museums throughout the world to display a wide variety of artifacts and works of art from around the world. He further goes into the pernicious effects of expanding this argument to perpetually protect poor indigenous cultures through intellectual property, artificially imposing barriers to the sort of cultural diffusion and creativity that led to the creation of those works of art in the first place.
This is where my biggest criticism of the book comes: I agree that it would be great if all countries could secure funds to display artifacts and artworks from across the world, and I certainly agree that perpetual intellectual property protection is a very poor and likely counterproductive way to ensure sustained survival of poor indigenous cultures, but I do think there is something to the arguments for returning many artifacts looted by colonial powers from their colonies. In particular, cultures across the world depend on some connection to their past to stay grounded and to sustain their peoples, and for a lot of people in those cultures, physical artifacts are very effective at doing that, so that even if cultures change through space and time especially with trade with and diffusion of other cultures, and even if it doesn't make too much sense to rigidly ascribe artifacts or artworks with a modern culture or nation that didn't exist at that time, it's better for people in a culture with "thick" values to repossess many (though perhaps not all) of the artifacts that contextually reflect those "thick" values, rather than letting them feel rootless while the artifacts sit in a different culture outside of the context of the "thick" values that shaped them. The author at a later point describes the easy religious and cultural pluralism of his hometown in Ghana and how there was never any need for explicit explanation of religious traditions to people of other religions (as all of these religions were enmeshed in the local culture, facilitating acceptance of plural faiths), but that in itself takes a long time to happen, and it isn't clear how making these things available on the Internet would be an adequate substitute for the long-term development of mutual tolerance and understanding of cultural differences especially if such artifacts are put wholesale in foreign lands outside of their context (given the emotional connections people make to such artifacts in the context of their history, real or imagined). Perhaps the solution to this is to ensure that major museums in both rich and poor countries reflect cultures across the world while predominantly reflecting local cultural traditions, and ensuring easy physical and digital access for those both inside and outside of those countries, maybe through national agreements facilitating cultural exchange programs and the like; artifacts from every nation should have explanatory plaques of their history and the surrounding history of peoples and cultures diffusing and changing in those areas (with special notes of colonial looting where applicable), because as an example, I would think that having palm leaves of the Vedas (as they were originally written, though the oral tradition is much older) would be of greater value for cultural observers in India where the religion is still practiced widely (though in a much different form) and pervades the national consciousness than in a place like Luxembourg where it could be seen out of context as just a few old leaves of writing.

Finally, the author argues against the strict utilitarian perspective of donating as much as possible to a narrowly quantified greater global good by instead propounding prolonged contemplation and discussion of longer-term self-sustaining structural solutions, and that the valuation of individual choices changes in the context of others making similar choices (e.g. a large group of people independently choosing to attend a moderately-priced opera performance making it justifiable for any one of those people to make that choice instead of donating that money to a charitable international NGO like OXFAM), but while the message at the end was clear enough, the argumentation went a bit over my head. Plus, this chapter seemed rather disconnected from most of what came before.
More than that, though, the author's own arguments from earlier in the book seem to contradict the point of this final chapter. The main example given to support serious contemplation of the "root causes" of societal suffering rather than dumping money into short-term solutions that do not address these long-term causes is of charities that provide relief to people suffering from famines, given that famines are almost always political failures rather than natural disasters, as discussed by Amartya Sen and others. However, even things like natural disasters can have politics intertwined when assessing how extensive the damage is versus how much it could have been. For example, if a cyclone devastates a dense city like Dhaka (in Bangladesh, which is not a particularly high-income country but is democratic), it could be argued that the government could in principle have done more to protect its citizens by investing in flood-resistant infrastructure, and that giving aid would disincentivize that necessary change. By that same token, though, climate change could also be argued as the "root cause", and even there, the perspectives are manifold: as two examples, it could be argued that nothing should be done until and unless it can be stopped by collective global action, or it could be argued as an inevitability, for which no aid should be given until and unless people relocate farther away from vulnerable coastlines. (I also wonder if any of these arguments could have been used against aid from other countries to the US after New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina, given that the rich and democratic status of the US is undercut in this instance by the shoddy work on the levees, the systemic issues of poverty and neglect correlated with race in New Orleans, and the inherent vulnerability of New Orleans to natural disasters given its location.) Essentially, the author's idea seems to lead to paralysis in decision-making, as it features the same multitude of rationales (here used against any action rather than for a particular action) present in the author's discussion of scientific theories or moral relativism/positivism, yet tthe author offers no satisfactory resolution to this particular issue and seems to not be very cosmopolitan in failing to account for the accidents of people's births & potential for being geographically and socioeconomically trapped by poverty.

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