Cosmopolitanism: An ideology for 2021?

Cosmopolitanism is a political ideology stipulating that all human beings are members of a single global community. In the thought of cosmopolitanism there are many different views about what constitutes this community. This article will focus on the work of Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who suggests the possibility of a cosmopolitan community in which individuals from various physical, economic and social locations enter relationships of mutual respect despite holding different religious, political and cultural beliefs.

This school of cosmopolitan thought has two main aspects. The first is the universal nature of cosmopolitanism, where everybody is part of a single global community. This postulates that we have responsibility for everybody, and that the boundaries of states should not be the boundary of our moral concern. This creates a universal morality where everybody is entitled to be treated with respect and dignity. However, this concept is not unique to cosmopolitanism. What distinguishes cosmopolitanism is the second aspect, which combines this respect for universality with a recognition that there are forms of difference that should be allowed to exist within communities. People do not have to ascribe to the same values and life principles or be within the same social order for the world to exist harmoniously. Cosmopolitanism recognises that all people, who are entitled to equal respect and dignity, are going to be making different choices and living different lives. They will have different interests and faiths, and will choose to organise themselves and societies differently. In this way cosmopolitanism suggests that whilst we are all a single community, there are forms of difference that are a part of human existence in society. What is important is that these differences do not stop people from connecting with each other and existing in the same communities.

Cosmopolitanism differs from current approaches because of its focus on regular interaction between different groups and cultures in the same space. The UK takes a multiculturalist approach, in which different faiths are celebrated but also segregated, for example through single faith schools. A different approach taken in France is an integrationist approach that aims to minimise cultural differences. This approach requires everybody in France to uphold national cultural values, exemplified by the banning of full face coverings in 2011 and the requirement of secularism in its third sector. Conversely, cosmopolitanism argues that unless many of us subscribe to engaging with each other’s differences to promote living with a shared democratic responsibility, it will be difficult to overcome the issues of living together in a multi-religious and multiracial society. In this way cosmopolitanism is fundamentally different from multiculturalist and integrationist approaches, as it recognises conversation and interaction between different groups and cultures as being fundamental to overcoming differences. Regular interaction between people has a substantial impact because it makes prejudice and stereotypes difficult to uphold. Conversely, if people are siphoned off into separate subcommunities and fail to interact, as can happen in a multiculturalist approach, it becomes harder for individuals to counter prejudice. Similarly, cosmopolitanism gives the right of people to make their own lives, not just as societies but individuals. By maintaining regular interaction and dialogue between these different groups people can work together and share responsibility in building equal states. In this way, cosmopolitanism is fundamentally different from an integrationist approach, as it does not encourage a universal sharing of moral codes and ways of living. Instead, it states in order to build better societies our different ways of life and life choices need to be equally understood, acknowledged and treated as legitimate. Cosmopolitanism therefore promotes the idea of conversation, as well as regular intercultural and interfaith interactions as being essential to build societies that are free from prejudice and bias. These kinds of interactions are not fully facilitated through the multiculturalist and integrationist approaches to structuring society, and so cosmopolitanism represents a progressive alternative.

This is a powerful and useful perspective to consider when discussing current racial issues that exist in our societies, particularly relating to the Black Lives Matter movement. A recent Joint Commission report highlighted in the UK that there are clear racial injustices regarding human rights in healthcare, criminal justice, immigration, nationality and democracy. The report highlights shocking statistics, for example that the death rate for black women in childbirth in British state hospitals is five times higher than for white women. Similarly with regard to higher education, the Higher Education Statistics Authority found that black students are underrepresented in the top universities. In 2016, on average 8% of first-year undergraduates across the UK were black, however this average fell to less than 4% in Russell Group universities. This was even lower for Cambridge and Oxford, whose intakes in the same year were 1.5% and 1.2% respectively. This is by no means the full extent of racial injustice present within our current system, but a small illustration of the ways in which the state and state institutions currently perpetuate racial bias and injustice.

The extremely low intakes of black students in Oxford and Cambridge is an issue in many ways, not least because these two universities produce 90% of the country’s politicians. As a result, black voices are heavily marginalised within the core power of the state and its policy decisions, which to a limited extent explains the prejudice and racial injustice that black people face from the state today. This demonstrates the need to adopt better approaches to understanding different cultures in order to begin to eliminate these injustices. Cosmopolitanism offers a useful path forward in this sense because it proposes that interaction between all cultures is needed in order to transform society into a fairer environment, particularly related to state institutions that lead democratic governance. The lack of diversity in the voices of those currently running the country means that prejudices and biases cannot be properly addressed within state infrastructures. If the intercultural engagement proposed by cosmopolitanism is created, it can change the attitudes of individuals involved in both operating within or speaking to the state system. If this fundamental change is introduced it can help to restructure the state system which currency proliferates bias on racial and cultural identities.

As a political ideology cosmopolitanism clearly possesses a lot of merits in overcoming difference and establishing harmonious and multicultural communities. However, as the example of the UK has shown there is still much work to be done. Although this will undoubtedly be a lengthy process, a long and permanent change is needed from the injustices that permeate so strongly in our society. Cosmopolitanism should be considered, along with many other things, a useful tool in assisting this change into a fairer and equal society. On a conscious level cosmopolitanism is therefore extremely beneficial. The issue is how to build societies that support cosmopolitanism and its values of dialogue and interaction between different faiths and values. How difficult will it be in practice to ensure our societies and communities are organised in ways that sufficient conversation and interaction occurs between all the cultures, religions and values that exist within them? Only by achieving this will societies ensure there is a level of cosmopolitan understanding that reduces bias and allows for an equal appreciation and legitimacy of all values present within that society. This is a valuable question and one which is difficult to answer, but if we are to live in completely equal multiracial and multicultural societies it is a question that ultimately will need to be addressed.

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