For the Record, Jan. 27

For my Senior Seminar class, I am reading “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” by Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Cosmopolitanism, as Appiah defines it, consists of two interwoven threads.  The first is the idea that we all have an obligation and responsibility to one another–“obligations,” said Appiah, “that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship.”  Woven with this is the idea that we should place value in others’ lives, and therefore take interest in their significant practices and beliefs (their culture).  “People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences.”

Appiah’s concept of cosmopolitanism reflects well the way I understand our college’s core value of global citizenship.

Appiah used the poetry of Sir Richard Francis Burton, a Victorian British explorer, writer and orientalist (among many other things), to provide a tangible way to think about cosmopolitanism, or global citizenship.

Burton wrote:

“All Faith is false, all Faith is true:

Truth is the shattered mirror strown

In myriad bits; while each believes

His little bit the whole to own.”

While Burton’s own life only partially embodied that of a global citizen (he was a world traveler and understood a plethora of languages, but his writings reflect that he ignored opportunities to intervene to reduce human suffering), his concept of seeing truth and morality as pieces of a shattered mirror really resonates with me.  Each person in the world holds a piece of the shattered mirror, and each shard reflects part of a complex truth from its own particular angle.

If I’m looking at a mirror while sitting on the floor, and you are looking at the same mirror while standing ten feet behind me, we are going to see two different reflections.  Neither of them is false–they’re just different, depending on the perspective.  The same concept can be applied as we engage with those around us and encounter ideas that don’t jive with our own, or if we are lucky enough to have a cross-cultural experience and encounter lifestyles and mentalities that seem foreign to us.  Remember perspective.

Appiah put it well when he said, “You will find parts of the truth (along with much error) everywhere and the whole truth nowhere.  The deepest mistake is to think that your little shard of mirror can reflect the whole.”

Written by Alysha Landis

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