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Cosmopolitanism in a global world

I recently gave a talk at the GESS Dubai 2021 event about the importance of the ethos of cosmopolitanism. It has struck me for quite a time that the spirit of this approach to the foreign, the different and the other has rarely been so needed.

Dubai is a particularly fascinating and culturally rich environment and living here has made me think carefully about what we need to ensure that such a vibrant and multi-stranded multiculturalism thrives. Dubai heaves with huge ex-pat communities that arrive from all over the world. Consequently, the schools I work with are full of a fascinating mix of students coming from many parts of the globe, each bringing with them their own distinct and valuable national, linguistic and cultural resources. It’s wonderful.

It has become a cliché to hear talk of our global and interconnected world. The metaphors abound: A popular one some years ago was the idea of a ‘flat world’, the idea being that now that we are bound in trans-cultural global electronic communications, we can now find our home and business anywhere in the world. And this is one way in which globalization is often conceived and is an important feature of all our lives. It can be understood in a way that is in tune with the cosmopolitan ethos I so like, but it isn’t sufficient for a full-blown cosmopolitanism.

That we have these gigantic global corporations astride the globe, their brands familiar and ubiquitous, is a fact of life. It’s difficult to go anywhere without bumping into a McDonalds, a Hilton, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and so on. But cosmopolitanism isn’t about spreading yourself across the globe. It isn’t about taking your culture with you, planting it elsewhere and inviting others to participate.

Leaving the cultural baggage behind

The science fiction writer JG Ballard, writing of the American moon landing in the sixties, said that it disappointed him. It wasn’t that the engineering feat wasn’t an amazing achievement, done with less computer power than we carry around with us in the average mobile phone. No, his disappointment was with the vision of Armstrong and the other astronauts. He saw them as unchanged, as merely taking their cultural baggage with them – golf and so forth – rather than being open to seeing everything familiar and grounded in a life on earth – as being suddenly changed, challenged, even chastised.

There was a lack of humility, a profound unawareness that the moon wasn’t earth, that here was a place where nothing was the same and nothing they knew could be taken for granted. The sheer enormity of the contextual switch was missed, and Ballard saw this as a rather depressing example of parochialism.

Ballard was seeking a spirit of cosmopolitanism in the astronauts, and it was missing. Sure, we are all born in some particular place, and sure, we all live in particular places, but you live in the world. You have to be from somewhere and live somewhere. But cosmopolitanism is the voice that says that your limits and horizons are not at the border of where you happen to be, nor even from where you come from. National, local, familial, religious, linguistic, moral, cultural borders are not there to hem you in.

If the foreign, the different, the other are all people, places, ideas, and things that are across whichever salient border you wish to identify, and the cosmopolitan is eager to meet them, learn about them, exchange and mix ideas with. The cosmopolitan crosses borders. Rather than the standardizing ‘one size fits all’ approach of flat world globalism, cosmopolitanism embraces and welcomes difference and adopts a ‘live and let live’ attitude.

Welcoming the unfamiliar

As I said at the start, one of the great things about living in Dubai, and London where I previously lived, is that there is a richness of cultural exchange at all levels. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the cosmopolitan person doesn’t identify themselves with some particular culture. We all tend to have places and people with whom we feel ‘at home’, and that’s fine. But cosmopolitanism seeks to welcome and learn from things that are not at home and says that’s fine as well.

I’m in the business of education, and a central feature of educating people is to introduce them to new ideas, to literally expand their horizons. And such expansion results in not just a greater understanding of the world in which they live, but also helps them to reflect on their own ways and see that there are many ways of living, and that to think theirs is the only way or the best way is to be damagingly parochial. Home is fine, but shouldn’t define your limits.

So, for me, education is a cosmopolitan activity. It’s particularly relevant now as we are all aware of the global forces that inform everything we do. But interestingly, this is a value system – because it is evaluative, it says ‘welcoming the stranger and the different is good’. That was first articulated by an ancient Greek philosopher who at the time had very limited knowledge of the world.

Diogenes the Cynic lived about 2300 years ago and was unaware of the world beyond his own Greece. Yet even in this setting, he understood the need to have a free flow of ideas, of being open to other points of view, other voices, and opinions. It was this belief that meant that he would challenge all the received wisdoms of his day, including the polite ways to behave. He even showed no respect to the great and the powerful, once angrily telling Alexander the Great to get out of his light when they met.

Diogenes gives us an important lesson about cosmopolitanism, one that adds to the important insight that accepting the stranger is a good attitude to adopt in a world where everyone is potentially a stranger. He taught us that learning needs the freedom to exchange ideas without fear, and that powers and prejudices preventing such exchange is a constraint on learning and education itself.

Toleration is the minimum expectation of cosmopolitanism

It’s rather depressing to hear of countries where education is not for all, where girls, for example, or poor people, are not allowed to study. As someone working with schools with wonderful science resources, it’s depressing to hear of other places where what science finds out is not shared and understood by interests who restrict it just because they might lose money or power. It’s very depressing to read about the many conflicts going on in the world based on a lack of curiosity about the people they are fighting. Too many people digging into their own backyard and telling outsiders their way is wrong, without asking and listening, exchanging and learning is frankly not right.

Toleration is the minimum expectation of the cosmopolitan. Tolerance requires you to allow people to be, do and think as they will even if you have no respect or liking for them. But toleration is only a minimum in my eyes.

In my own school, we teach students to be tolerant, but we ask them to go further. By actively enquiring, by being curious, by listening in deeply to what others are, do and think, we want them to become engaged in a process of wisdom that transcends the powerful instinct to stay at home, build strong fences and close the door. It’s a wisdom that walks along the same road as loving your neighbour and looking for the best in your enemy. This is the spirit of cosmopolitanism that I think we all need to learn and is what we need to remind ourselves of especially when we face what we dislike, disapprove of or fear.

At the end of the Second World War, Albert Camus delivered a talk about the crisis of Europe. The crisis as he saw it was the threat to the spirit of cosmopolitanism that the Nazis had introduced. He believed this was their legacy and that it was the central threat to everyone. He warned that civilization now faced a world where even if there was justice, there was no mercy, and where often, we’d learned how easy it was to see people in a way where morality, decency and kindness didn’t apply.

Camus’s profound humanizing sermon is the reason why a modern cosmopolitan spirit is a non-negotiable grounding. Treating everyone – everyone – as part of our common humanity, as our neighbour, is what all the great cosmopolitans teach us and is a spirit we should always check is with us wherever we are and whatever we are doing.