Interview: In Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah, NYU professor of Philosophy and Law, discusses identity, politics, cosmopolitanism and the Global Network University.

Feb 19, 2017

GNU Graphic by Scout Scatterfield

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Professor of Philosophy and Law at NYU, and is one of the foremost thinkers and cosmopolitan theorists in the world today. At NYU Abu Dhabi, he virtually co-teaches Global Ethics, a philosophy course, alongside Professor Taneli Kukkonen. In this interview, I talk to Professor Appiah about identity, politics, cosmopolitanism and the Global Network University.

Let me begin by asking: what is identity? What goes into its making, and how do we understand it?

Identities, it seems to me, have three dimensions, all of which have to do with the significance of identity labelling — this seems to be at the heart of it. Of course, you can change the name of labels, but you need labelling, even if you can switch from time to time. For example, in the United States in the nineteenth century, people were called negroes, and then they were called colored people, and they were called African Americans, then Afro-Americans, then African Americans, and so on. Now along with the label, you need these three other things — first is, of course, how to apply the label. You need to decide who’s an African American.

What’s interesting is that in the case of a vast number of identities, an identity is recognizable even though people have different ideas about how you apply those labels. If I’m an F-to-M transsexual — if I had the surgery and now am physically present as a male — some people will say, well, that’s just a man; others will say, no, that’s a woman disguised as a man, and so on … And there will be contest about it. So we do have these labels — Christian, Muslim, man, woman — but not everybody agrees about how to apply them. That’s an interesting feature of identities — that they tend to be contested in that way. And there’s going to be contest about all the three dimensions.

The second thing is that for labels to have identities, you need them to mean something to the people who have it. Being a Christian has to mean something — you have to do something, or think something, or care about something because you’re a Christian. Being a man has to mean something — you have to do things in virtue of your maleness or your femaleness. Otherwise, your social identity is just a label. But there is contest about this. Should Muslim women wear black in public, or should they also wear multi-colored hijabs? Well, some people would moralize that; some would just say it’s a question of taste. In Oman, respectable women think it’s fine to wear pinks and yellows and greens, and in the Emirates a lot of respectable women don’t. So there’s the labelling, which can be contested; then there are what I call the norms of identification — those are the things you do because you have a certain identity — and again, those are contested.

Then there’s a third set of things — the label doesn’t just mean something to the people who bear it, it also means something to the people who don’t bear it. Catholics treat Protestants in a different way from other Christians. Once you have all these things — labels, which have significance both for the bearers and the non-bearers — then I think you have an identity up and running.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May said in 2016, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Many of us here at NYUAD truly believe we are citizens of the world. When we claim such citizenship, do we really run the risk of losing our other identities — national, social, cultural?

The idea that you could be a citizen of the world was invented in the West — and by that I don’t mean that it wasn’t invented anywhere else — and it occurred a very long time ago. It occurred at a time when no one could have possibly known what that meant, because Diogenes the Cynic, who was the first person who said he was a cosmopolitês — a citizen of the world — didn’t know who was in the world.

Then, to be a citizen was to be a fellow member of a polis. Aristotle thought that the ideal size for a polis was about 10,000 men plus their wives, children and slaves, and he thought that a political community should consist of people who in principle could know one another, actually know one another’s characters. If you think of citizenship in that way, then of course you can’t be a citizen of the world — because that would require you to know the characters of seven billion people. But Diogenes thought it was obvious that you could feel about people that they were your fellow citizens without knowing them. Here, I think, the modern world sides with Diogenes against Aristotle: we take it for granted that we live together in communities of strangers. The Nepalis don’t all know each other; it’s not an ambition of the Nepalis to know every other Nepali, because it’s a completely unreasonable project. So if we can have a national identification while still being strangers, then it can’t be an objection to cosmopolitan identity — that it’s a form of identity that connects strangers — because it isn’t very different to national identity.

The content of citizenship, which is by definition in the modern world connection among strangers, is a sense of obligation towards people because they are your fellow citizens — and global citizenship means you have a sense of obligation towards everybody in the world because they are your fellow citizens of the world. Now what those are — well, that’s up for discussion. My own view is that a minimal cosmopolitan ethic would be one that said I, individually, as a citizen of the world, share in the obligation of all other citizens of the world, to make sure that the world is a place where every human being can live a dignified existence — and that has economic, political, environmental consequences and so on.

I just want to say one other thing about thinking about cosmopolitanism — and this doesn’t follow from anything that I’ve said before — is the assumption that among our fellow citizens will be people who want to live different from the way we do. If they want to practice demanding religious tradition, that’s fine — that’s their right. I don’t want to do that, but I don’t want to impose it on anybody else, or even ask it of anybody else. I just want them to agree that they’ll share the world with the rest of us in a way that respects our basic human rights. That means that, far from being incompatible with a concern for your own community, cosmopolitanism of this sort respects nationalism of a non-xenophobic kind. It respects the fact that Nepalis care more about Nepal, and that some of them want to stay there and live there and do Nepali things. In other words, it’s not about homogenization; it’s not about making everyone the same. It’s, in a way, allowing everybody to be the different people that they are while requiring them to respect the rights of others.

I’m going to turn to something more topical: following the U.S. American elections, there has been a lot of talk about supporting Trump on campus. The question is this: how do we treat right-wingers? Should Trump supporters be welcome at NYUAD?

First, I’m not sure what you mean by welcoming someone — I mean, I don’t think you ought to kick them out or lock them out of their rooms. In politics, people have to take responsibility for their opinions. If you say things to other people that they think are apparently wrong, you should expect them to criticize you and to think you’re apparently wrong, just as it is the right of Trump supporters to think that the people who don’t support Trump are apparently wrong about something. And I hope that on a campus, you can have a reasonable discussion.

I think politics is a vigorous space for debate. You should meet these people with argument — I don’t think insults are terribly helpful. That’s one of the problems with Trump — he engages in political insult all the time in a way that is unusual in American politics. But you have to understand why someone voted Trump before you decide that they’re a bad person.

The question about the U.S. American election is greatly complicated by two facts: one, that we are in a Muslim country, and two, that much of our student body is composed of international students, many of whom are Muslims. How do we deal with what is happening in the United States now?

Like many of the things Donald Trump has done or proposes to do, the travel ban makes no sense on its own basis: that is to say, it does not help the United States get safer from the possibility of the arrival on our own shores of people who want to engage in acts of terror. And anyways, barring everybody from a country is a ludicrous way of trying to make us safer. It does not make us safer: the proposal to vet people more securely presupposes that, say, for example, Syrian refugees haven’t been vetted enormously already — and that’s false!

I am disgusted and appalled by this, and when I sit around my dinner table with my friends, we’re all disgusted and appalled. I’m pretty confident that even if he loses the case on this ban, he’ll try to do another one. And one of the reasons the Association of American Universities and a whole bunch of academic associations have protested is because [U.S.] American universities flourish, in large measure, because we are part of the global system — we have undergraduate and graduate students from all around the world, and that’s why we have the best universities in the world. Every student who can’t come in — and every colleague who can’t come back — diminishes the quality of our education. It’s not just wrong, it’s shooting ourselves in the foot.

You are currently teaching a class called Global Ethics alongside Professor Taneli Kukkonen, which involves video-conferencing between students in New York and Abu Dhabi. The cosmopolitan project has, furthermore, begged a global platform for discourse, and it seems that institutions like NYU are finally encouraging this. What are your thoughts on this?

One of the reasons I took the job with NYU is in order to do this sort of thing. And the way academics respond to questions like this is a little bit selfish, but the fact is I have learned a huge amount by thinking about how to talk about some of the global moral questions in a way that is un-parochial. I have a great admiration for the liberal traditions of the West — Locke, Mill, Rawls, Nozick — these are all philosophers I admire. But here’s two reasons why we should be interested in [the Confucianist or Legalist, Sanskritic, Islamic and other] philosophical traditions.

One is that they’re the framework of thinking for the best thinkers in other societies, and if we’re going to be global citizens, we better be able to make sense of each other. And on the whole, Indians and Chinese and people in East Asia and South Asia have done much more work to try and understand Western liberal traditions than vice-versa. The second reason — and the reason I began with the fact that I’ve learned a lot — is that when you attempt to learn about articulated, well-developed, long-standing traditions, it turns out that they have good ideas that you haven’t got. You learn things — you learn to think about things in interesting ways. This is the third year of [Global Ethics]. I did it on my own in the first year, here in New York. Last year, Professor [Taneli] Kukkonen and I did it together — that was very good for me, because Professor Kukkonen is one of the world’s leading experts on the Muslim tradition. The big gap in the course now is clearly the Sanskritic philosophical tradition. Professor [Jonardon] Ganeri at NYU Abu Dhabi happens to be one of the world’s experts on that, so my hope is to figure out somehow a way to [include him and the Sanskritic tradition] in the curriculum.

I think one of the forces that were had in constructing the Humanities curriculum at NYUAD was to make sure that unlike the Philosophy curriculum on a typical campus in the United States, ours would be more global — it would be rooted in more traditions and attentive to the philosophical traditions not just of the Western traditions. The interaction side of cosmopolitanism is hard, because you’re trying to get a detailed understanding of other traditions — because you think they’re worth knowing about. Fortunately, there are mediators — there are people like Professor Kukkonen and Professor Ganeri who are deeply learned both on the Anglophone side and on the Arab or Sanskritic side. We’ve committed ourselves to making NYUAD a place where these conversations across traditions will occur, and that’s great.

Chiran Raj Pandey is Opinion Editor. Email him at [email protected]

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