Encounter II & III: Kwame Anthony Appiah

Professor Appiah’s masterful Reith Lectures are amounting to a question, one the late Jacques Derrida put best: what is the meaning of “living together well”? Like his first lecture on religion, Appiah’s second and third lectures on the nation and race raise this question, but in a preliminary way, leaving the question itself untouched. In each lecture he argues these ideas are incoherent and he suggests we might find more open and less prejudicial ways of living together, without saying much about what that entails, beyond the vague notion that, as he puts it at one point, we can work it out.

The Q&A have been more revealing than the lectures. When asked to comment on Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent statement that, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, he explained that Herder, the early theorist of the nation, was a cosmopolitan too, since the language and culture of the nation must be open to be and to grow and live, it must live as a part of the world, not simply in the world, and not apart from it. In the third lecture, former Ghanaian President John Kufuor asked Appiah whether he, “foresees times when the prejudices being born out by various fixations might be torn down because more and more people are beginning to see that perhaps we are the same?” Appiah’s answer let the cat out of the bag. He explained that because humankind is not essentially divided by race, nationality, religion, or culture, since they are all invented and incoherent ideas, because they don’t pick out anything real or immutable in who we are, he wants to argue they should not carry any divisive political significance. He recognizes the persistence of these ideas, their enduring trace in society and culture, but wants to reimagine them in a cosmopolitan way.

For me, these insights into Appiah’s vision only tighten the question, clarify the puzzle. We can only imagine humankind as together once we have been imagined as apart. I am not all the way convinced a live and let live attitude is sufficient to overcome the persistent national, racial, and doctrinal narratives that separate and exclude. What it means to live together well, how to, needs a narrative of human togetherness, one to rival those that divide.

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