Kwame Anthony Appiah
Sidling Up to Difference: Social Change and Moral Revolutions
How can unimaginable social change happen in a world of strangers? Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher who studies ethics and his parents’ marriage helped inspire the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In a tense moment in American life, he has refreshing advice on simply living with difference.
Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University. His books include Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.
August 15, 2013
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The 1953 marriage of the philosopher Anthony Appiah’s African father and British mother helped inspire the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. And stories of his multiracial, multinational family infuse his thinking now on subjects like human identity, ethics in a world of strangers, and how moral revolutions happen. As part of our Civil Conversations Project, I wanted to hear how he might weigh in on moral confusions and stalemates in the contemporary U.S. Now an American citizen, Anthony Appiah believes that we are called to nothing less than “managing the republic” together. And his prescriptions for this are down to earth. Our starting point with others, he says, doesn’t have to be dialogue. It can be conversation in the old-fashioned sense of simple association, seeking familiarity around mundane human qualities of who we are.
MR. KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Sometimes people think that, you know, the only way to deal with these big differences between religions or around moral questions is to kind of face up to the difference directly. But I think often, as it were, sidling up to it is better and sidling up to it can be done by not facing Islam, but facing, you know, Leyla and Ahmed and Mohammed with whom you don’t talk about religion most of the time. You talk about soccer or you talk about rock music or whatever it is you have in common as an interest.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
MS. TIPPETT: Kwame Anthony Appiah is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. I spoke with him in 2011.
He’s gained renown in and beyond philosophical circles for his readable books, including Cosmopolitanism and The Honor Code. That 2010 book looked at the ingredients of moral change in various societies across time — the end of foot binding in China, slave trading in the British Empire, and of dueling as an honorable way to resolve disputes. Every culture has examples like this — practices that were once part and parcel of respectability, but of which later generations ask, ‘How could we possibly have lived that way?’
Both of Anthony Appiah’s own parents came from leading families in their respective countries, but many experienced their union as morally unthinkable. He grew up between Great Britain and the country we now know as Ghana. His mother was the daughter of a former British chancellor of the exchequer, and her marriage to a black African was one of two interracial unions that rocked British society and became the stuff of international headlines.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, as a background to your work on how moral change happens, it’s fascinating that in some sense you and your family lived a profound shift in cultural perception and mores, something that was the subject of real condemnation that changed within a generation really.
MR. APPIAH: It did. And I think if you live within a change like that, it can often seem less puzzling to you than it does to all the people around you. So I know that when we went, as children, to visit my mother’s mother in England, my English grandmother, when we sort of stepped off the plane, the newspapers would always say, “So you’re leaving him, are you?”
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MR. APPIAH: And she would say, “No, I’ve just come to see my mother with her grandchildren.” I think there was a kind of assumption that it couldn’t possibly work or at least that it would be a better story if it didn’t work. So the fact that they lived together until my father died and then my mother stayed in Ghana until she died, I think that perhaps would have surprised some of the people who were against it at the start. But they never seemed to have had any doubt that it was the right thing to do.
I do think that a significant part of that had to do both with the fact that their own families were supportive on both sides and with the fact that they were both devout Christians. I think that the sense that they both had was that you couldn’t possibly as a Christian be opposed to interracial marriage and that therefore it couldn’t possibly be wrong was very strong…
MS. TIPPETT: That’s very interesting.
MR. APPIAH: …and very sustaining for them, I think. The sense that — you know, when people criticize something you do and if there’s enough of them, you can come to wonder whether they’re right. But I don’t think they ever had any doubt about the rightness of what they were doing.
MS. TIPPETT: And how did you gravitate towards philosophy when you were at Cambridge?
MR. APPIAH: Well, you know, you can tell the story in various ways. At the time, I — so I went to university to be a medical student and I had always thought I was going to be a doctor from very young, I think, because I loved my own doctor when I was a child. But I think I can fairly say that I absolutely hated it. I found it really, really boring, so I scraped through the first year almost being thrown out for being incompetent, and changed to philosophy, which I immediately loved.
I loved the sort of challenge of sitting down with all kinds of questions, whether they were in ethics or metaphysics or epistemology and struggling to think them through by reading what other people had written about them and by focusing on them deep into the night myself. So I sort of came home to philosophy and I think, you know, if you ask why — why this is sort of connected with the religion thing, because the reason I started reading philosophy in the first place was because, as a young Evangelical teenager, I got interested both in theology and philosophy because, you know, if you are a serious young person…
MS. TIPPETT: That’s what it’s about.
MR. APPIAH: …that’s what it’s about.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I don’t know if you know that this program’s been around for seven years and we’ve just changed the name. This is just an aside, but it was originally called Speaking of Faith, and we’ve recently changed the name to On Being. It’s partly as a recognition that what we’re tracing when, you know, we say that we trace meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas, there is this core-animating question of what it means to be human and that in fact is there in the religious enterprise, although it’s not restricted to it.
MR. APPIAH: Right. No, I think that was at the heart of most of what I’ve done in philosophy in the last decade or more really has been a preoccupation with that central question and ethics, which is what is it for a human life to go well? What is it for one to have a life of significance? What is it to have the kind of life that you can look back on at the end and say that was a life worth living, a life well lived?
You know, my kind of Christmas cracker version of my philosophy, the thing that I would put on a piece of paper inside a Christmas cracker if I had to, is everything’s very complicated. Everything’s more complicated than you thought at first. And it turns out that when you’re trying to think about what it is to lead a life of significance, what it is for human life to go well, many, many things are relevant. And in that sense, it’s a very complicated project. And so you’re not going to run out of subjects.
MS. TIPPETT: And a surprise unexpected, yeah.
MR. APPIAH: Yes, I think that’s true. I think almost anything that someone says to you, it could be a kind of parlor game. Someone could say to you, “So here’s something that can’t have anything to do with the meaning of human life,” and your task is to explain why it does.
MS. TIPPETT: So with this perspective of yours, this interest of yours, and also the work you’ve done in recent years with the notions of cosmopolitanism and honor, I kind of want to ask a big wide open question here about there’s been a lot of divisiveness and rancor in American life. Certainly in our political life, it’s waxed and waned over the last ten years. Then in recent months, we have some new divisions. We have some new players, you know, which create new divides. We have the Tea Party on one side, right, and then liberal elites on the other. I mean, these aren’t new, but the categories have shifted a bit. I think it feels to many people — I’m not sure this is true, but it feels like the rancor has gotten worse.
MR. APPIAH: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: So I just wonder how have you, when you look at these kinds of hostilities and tensions in U.S. culture in terms of how we navigate difference or fail to, for example, what do you see in terms of the causes of gridlock, what’s gone wrong or also where do you see sources of different possibilities? Start to talk to me about that.
MR. APPIAH: Well, I think — I mean, the first thing I want to do is sort of confess that, you know, like everybody I think who cares about what happens in our society and follows what happens in societies, I get pretty cross myself sometimes. I get mad at people. I try very hard not to, you know, turn that anger into immediately abusing them or sending out an angry e-mail declaring them to the spawn of the devil — because it isn’t helpful.
MS. TIPPETT: Even if you think that might be true.
MR. APPIAH: Even if it makes you feel terrific for a moment. I think that, you know, I’m these are — I’m sure other people have suggested this to you, but, I mean, one of the things that’s changed is that more people can express themselves without any editing than ever before in human history.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. APPIAH: And not just with that — you know, one thing an editor does is actually mean that there’s a distance in time between the first thing you say and when it goes out.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You know, that’s a really simple, but very significant observation, I think.
MR. APPIAH: Well, and it is — it’s a large part of the problem. Everybody who talks about, you know, Internet etiquette and flaming and all that says basically the equivalent of what my — actually what my grandmother used to say to me when I was about to send off an angry letter. She’d say, “Why don’t you put that under your pillow overnight and see how you feel in the morning?” The trouble is, the send button doesn’t come with a 24-hour delay built into it.
MS. TIPPETT: So we have all this raw emotion flying around.
MR. APPIAH: Also, we have raw emotion without one of the things that normally constrains its expression, which is the presence of the other person. It’s harder to use the kind of language that people routinely use on the Web to someone’s face, even a stranger, but especially someone you know. If they’re sort of physically present, we get feedback from their face. Once you move from email to email to Skype, you get back the human face. You get back the shocked look in the eyes of the other person.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with the philosopher of identity and moral difference, Anthony Appiah. When I spoke with him in 2011, the Green Bay Packers had just beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Superbowl. Anthony Appiah used the game to illustrate the difficulties that we often face — on issues large and small — when we talk across differences.
MR. APPIAH: There’s another set of things going on again — none of this is original to me, which is a kind of the consumer choice dimension of the new technologies which we’re inclined to celebrate does mean that it’s hard to have a public square. What you get is a million private squares. And if you’re going to run a republic together of 300 million people, you got to have somewhere where, you know, you’re having a kind of general conversation that can be attended to by everybody and where you can try to agree on what the basic parameters are of the things that you agree about. You know, is the planet’s average temperature going up or not?
And also the things that you disagree about. You know, is it or is it not OK to terminate pregnancies in the first trimester? But if you have only conversations among the people who think that it isn’t OK and then other conversations with people who think it is OK, you’re just going to get a permanent blockage. Now, again, I want to begin by confessing that I don’t spend an awful lot of my time trying to seek out people…
MS. TIPPETT: — who are different from you to have a conversation.
MR. APPIAH: …who are different from me on these topics. I don’t really want to hang out with people who are homophobic, for example. But one of the most powerful reasons why America is less homophobic than it was when I came to it nearly 30 years ago is because lots of gay people came out and started talking to people who weren’t very comfortable around gay people, and suddenly those people discovered that you could be comfortable around gay people. Then they got angry that other people were not being nice to them. So there is a difficulty, I think, which is how do we create places where people who disagree about these things, which are important disagreements? You have to come together in what I call — I use the metaphor of conversation. And the point about conversation is that it doesn’t have a point.
MS. TIPPETT: But you’re using the word “conversation” as something larger than words that pass between two people. I mean, define conversation, first of all.
MR. APPIAH: Exactly. Well, those sort of — you know, you’re sitting down with a friend in a bar and you’re chatting and it’s about the Super Bowl or it’ll be about Egypt. You’re not talking to your friend about the Super Bowl because it makes any difference to what happens. The Super Bowl is over. You’re not trying to — you know, you’re not changing anything. Nor — I came into this studio with a Steelers cap on, as it happens, which I confess before the nation. But I’m not going to have — if I talk to somebody who’s a fan of those other guys from Wisconsin, I’m not expecting them at the end of the conversation to say, “You’re right, you know, the Steelers are definitely the team I should follow. They’re definitely the better team.” Obviously, they discuss it, talk about it, not to come to some kind of agreement, not to change each other, just to be together, enjoy one another’s company.
If you have that background of relationship between individuals and communities that is in that sense conversational, then when you have to talk about the things that do divide you, you have a better platform. You can begin with the assumption that you like and respect each other even though you don’t agree about everything, and you can maybe build on that. And you can know that, at the end of the conversation, it’s quite likely that you’ll both think something pretty close to what you both thought at the start. But you might at least have a deeper appreciation for the other person’s, um, point of view, and that turns out to make it easier to accept the outcome, whether it’s the outcome you favor or the outcome the other person favors.
People who’ve been heard and whose position is understood — this is one of the great virtues of democracy when it’s working — tend to be more willing to accept an outcome that they wouldn’t have chosen because they feel they’ve had voice; they’ve participated in the process. One of the reasons why those who say that we might have done a better job with abortion if we’d settled it through the legislature rather than through the courts is, I think, because if we’d settled through legislatures, we’d have had to have kept, as it were, talking to one another. Whereas, if you declare something to be a constitutional right, that’s sort of a conversation stopper.
MS. TIPPETT: And then you move on with what has been decided.
MR. APPIAH: Right. And if more of that mess, which is what a conversation is like — conversation is not about principles and coming to complicated agreements, it’s just about hearing all the mess. If more of that mess had been represented, we’d have a much messier legislative situation, but we might have more consensus about the rights that we had arrived at in that way.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, you’ve used language like conversation in its older meanings like habits of coexistence, association, living together, right?
MR. APPIAH: Yes. And I think that, you know, if you think about the background of endless conversation with your friends, that is, the sort of texture of your relationship with them, it’s against that background that you can have friends. You know, no group of friends agrees about everything and some of the things you disagree about are serious, right? I have friends who are under the mistaken conviction that it was a good thing that the Packers won the Super Bowl and I have to accept that and this is a serious disagreement.
But more importantly, I have friends who are Catholics and I have friends who are atheists who do Seders once a year and I have friends who are Methodist and I have friends who are Unitarians of the sort that are really not very believing and so on. Those are serious differences. And if we only came together to talk about theology, we wouldn’t have much of a relationship. If we only came together to try and settle the things we disagree about, we wouldn’t be getting along. It’s the background of sort of endless shared conversation, which you agree about this; you disagree about that; some of the things you disagree about are important; some of the things you agree about are important.
Then when you come to a moment of serious disagreement, you can handle the fact and you can, as it were, accept the outcome even if it’s not the one you chose — uh, you would have chosen if it had been up to you. So now that’s a picture of a kind of successful interpersonal relationship. How you turn that into a social practice, I’m not saying that’s easy. But one of the things I think that is required is a willingness to feel that it would be good to be in dialogue with fellow citizens of all sorts.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think — and I think — just going back to a few minutes ago, what you said I think the way you talked about how technology, which, you know, is not good or bad in itself; it’s a tool, but that in fact the forms we have for even just expressing what we believe in a way are taking that personal dimension away from it or creating, as you said, many, many squares rather than a public square.
MR. APPIAH: Yeah, and they are the kind of communicational equivalent of being permanently fortissimo. People are shouting at each other all the time. Conversation can be quiet and murmuring, and you can lower the temperature in a conversation as well as raising it.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, one thing I thought also as you were speaking is that there’s a way in which, again, the ways we express these opinions. It’s not just that we don’t necessarily see other human beings aren’t necessarily interacting with other human beings, but also that difference itself becomes more abstract, right, in the absence of those relationships.
MR. APPIAH: Yes. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you’ve written a lot about difference of an issue in the human condition.
MR. APPIAH: Yeah. I think that you’re absolutely right, that the key change is when you come from thinking of an issue as being about homosexuals and Muslims and come to think of it as being about, you know, Uncle John and Aunt Mary and Cousin Ahmed. It’s not Muslims; it’s particular people now and it sort of gives it a kind of concreteness. Sometimes people think that, you know, the only way to deal with these big differences between religions or around moral questions is to kind of face up to the difference directly. But I think often, as it were, sidling up to it is better and sidling up to it can be done by not facing Islam, but facing Leyla and Ahmed and Mohammed with whom you don’t talk about religions most of the time. You talk about soccer or you talk about, you know, rock music or whatever it is that you have in common as an interest.
And the thing that binds me across, say, religious boundaries to people on other sides of religious boundaries isn’t one thing, right? What binds me to Islam is my Sunni friends and my Shiite friends, my Ismaili friends, my cousins who happen to be Muslim, and strangers whom I’ve come to know and like who are Muslim. What I have in common with these very diverse group of Muslims that I know is different in each case. So that breaks up the sense of them as a kind of monolithic “them.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I think this is a point you make also coming out of your own life, your own childhood, and your parents, that identity — that all of our identities are composed of so many — have so many different aspects to them.
MR. APPIAH: Yes. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: We are what we are in our professional lives. We are parents; we are children; we are friends; we are lovers. You know, as I think about that, I realize that another thing that happens in a lot of these where we’ve defined our differences in our public life, we act as though people are truly defined by that position on that issue.
MR. APPIAH: Right. So one category that I would like to remove from the conversation of my liberal friends is Evangelical Christian because the range of views and feelings and experiences that is encompassed by those Americans who think of themselves as born again is incredible. Some of them are, you know, very actively pro gay marriage, some of these people who’ve been born again. Some of them are very active in struggles against capital punishment out of their religious convictions, so the idea that they’re a kind of monolithic block.
And even when you meet someone who, as it were, fits all the stereotypes that liberals often have of Evangelical Christians, you know, she’s also going to be someone who turns out to have an interest in a kind of music that you like or to be a devout consumer of the same, you know, trash fiction that you read or whatever it is. And once those links are built, if we could build a society where though these cross links across the identities that are currently dividing us, then, as I say, it will stop being about them and it will start being about, you know, John and Mary and Leyla and Ahmed, and that’s just psychologically very different.
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MS. TIPPETT: As always, you can listen to this conversation with Anthony Appiah again, download it, or send it to friends through our website, onbeing.org. There you can find out more about our Civil Conversations Project page — an ongoing project to subvert deep divides in American life. We’re in planning now for the next season. Send us your thoughts on guests and topics at onbeing.org. You’ll find all of our previous civil conversations shows and events at onbeing.org/CCP.
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MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, Anthony Appiah tells of a simple human encounter that changed his life, and what his work reveals about the force of feeling honored or, by contrast, humiliated as a stumbling block not merely to civility but to social progress.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with the Ghanaian-British-American philosopher Anthony Appiah. He’s gained renown for his work on subjects like human identity, ethics in a world of strangers, and how moral revolutions happen. We’ve been exploring his ideas on untangling moral confusions in the contemporary U.S.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that, you know America prides itself on a place of diversity and it surely is. Although I get a feeling that diversity can be many things; it can be racial; it can be ethnic; it can be social, but then when it comes to these moral issues, there’s a feeling that really we should all agree, right? But that kind of difference is intolerable and has to be overcome and, you know, to do justice to the sweep of your work, you really do describe human flourishing writ large as having difference at its core and not as something that is overcome, but something that is always there and part of vitality.
MR. APPIAH: Yes. Yes. So I think that part of the sort of small “l” in the old-fashioned sense of the word “liberal,” which has somewhat got lost in our recent conversations — but part of the liberal tradition is the thought that — and I like to say this is the part of the liberal tradition that Jesse Helms would have agreed with…
MS. TIPPETT: …I’m waiting. I can’t wait to hear what this is.
MR. APPIAH: Well, is that — is that part of what it is for your life to go well is for you to be living by standards that you believe in. The reason why Jesse Helms could agree with that is because this is essentially the great thought of the Protestant Reformation. Forcing people to do what you think is the right thing when they don’t is a kind of violation, and that means that the way you have to deal with people with whom you disagree about what’s right and wrong is to try and persuade them unless they pose a threat. I mean, a threat of harm to somebody when obviously you have to stop people who pose direct threats of harm, but that’s also part of the liberal tradition, the thought that the state is entitled to protect people from harm from other people, but it isn’t entitled to enforce a view about all these central being questions.
We don’t want a state that tells us what the right answer is to the question of what God is like. We want a state that has some, you know, respect for our conscience that thinks that it matters whether people are living by the standards they believe in. That means that agreement is fine, but it matters how you get it. So that thought — that thought that we — that what are we doing together? We’re managing the republic together; we’re fellow citizens of a great republic, which we’re trying to run together; we have to think of each other therefore as entitled to this great responsibility. We have to respect one another, and respecting one another means understanding that people can conscientiously come to a different view. I think, if our conversations were richer, we might actually have more consensus than we do about many questions.
MS. TIPPETT: You do?
MR. APPIAH: Yes, I do, but I don’t think we’re ever going to come to 100 percent consensus about the sorts of things that divide us now and I don’t think we need to. What we need to do is to figure out how to live together while disagreeing about these things.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MR. APPIAH: You know, if you had told me when I first came to this country in the early ’80s that a majority of people under the age of 25 in 2011 would think that — this includes conservative kids under the age of 25 — would think that it’s kind of self-evident that gay people who want to ought to be allowed to be married, I would have told you were out of your tree. I would have told you that you were crazy. And yet that’s what’s happened.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if there’s a tension, or if you could talk about the tension, between you as a philosopher and you as a human being who happens to be gay. So this issue of same-sex union, for example, is no abstraction to you. I mean, a little while ago, you talked about your extended circles of friendship. There are all kinds of differences and presumably in that large extended circle of friendship and family, which for you is global, there may be people who, on a level of principle, don’t approve of your sexual orientation or don’t believe that that’s…
MR. APPIAH: …you don’t have to go way out. I have an even Pentecostal sister. I can assure you that she doesn’t think that it’s OK. I mean, she loves me and she knows that God loves me, so she has to think about it against that background. But it doesn’t follow from that that she has to think it’s OK.
MS. TIPPETT: So how do your — one set of the rubber meets the road then in terms of how you think about this as a philosopher and the ideals you have for our public life. Then how is that informed even more and what have you learned through, then, those kinds of interactions?
MR. APPIAH: Well, I think that growing up as I did between, you know, post-Colonial Ghana and Britain, growing up in a family which on one side had people who slaughtered sheep in order to deal with witchcraft and, on the other side, contained antireligious atheists who would have been very astonished to find that they were related by marriage to people who believed in witchcraft, what you learn is that, you know, you make up your own mind about these things. I know where I stand on all these questions. But you live perfectly happy with people who have different views about them. You know, there’s a very beautiful moment in the English original season — I think it’s the second season of Skins, this controversial thing about that adolescence.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, my daughter’s been watching that. I haven’t watched it.
MR. APPIAH: Well, I hadn’t seen the American one and I gather some people think it isn’t as good. But in the English one, there’s a very moving moment when there’s a young gay, English kid — white English kid and a young Muslim English kid who’s of Pakistani origin and they’re best friends. The Pakistani kid who’s straight knows that his best friend is gay and he’s still his best friend. He’s having a birthday party, and the friend says to him, “I’m not coming in because you promised to tell your parents that I was gay and you haven’t done it and this is it. This is my ultimatum. I’m not coming in.” So he just stands outside.
Finally, the father comes out and says, “What are you doing outside?” He said, “I’m not coming in because — I’ve forgotten what his name is — but your son won’t tell you that I’m gay.” The man looks at him and says, “You know, Islam means a lot to me and when I go to mosque on Fridays, it’s one of the great moments in my week.” He said, “But I don’t understand everything. One thing I do understand is that you’re my son’s best friend, so please come in.” People do that all the time, right? He didn’t say it’s OK; he didn’t say Islam is wrong; he didn’t say Islam permits this. He said, “You’re my son’s best friend and you have to come to the party.” So I think in a way that’s about being — you know, a lot of politicians would say, “Well, that’s just a perfect example of arguing for unprincipled behavior.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Relativism, yeah.
MR. APPIAH: Relativism.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, everything’s OK.
MR. APPIAH: Everything’s OK. But he’s not a relativist. He’s saying, you know, my religion teaches that this is wrong and I’m going to have to deal with that somehow, but I’m not going to deal with it by being unkind to my son’s best friend. That kind of dealing with the complexity of life and the complexity of the world, given that we have these differences, is something that human beings at their best are very good at.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Sidling up to Difference,” with the Ghanaian-British-American philosopher Anthony Appiah. In his 2010 book, The Honor Code, he analyzed the human dynamics that brought about unprecedented moral and social change in various societies across time. He found, somewhat to his own surprise, that the notion of honor played a role every time. Arguments about the wrongness of slavery, for example, didn’t win the day alone. Slavery had to cease to be seen as an honorable pursuit. Human morality, as Anthony Appiah sees it, is always fundamentally linked with social identity: it always comes back to whether we are able to respect ourselves and the dignity of others, even those who differ greatly from us.
MS. TIPPETT: One place this led me to go in my own thinking was — I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking to other people about fear as a factor in our public life.
MR. APPIAH: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: Fear as an animator of some of this rancor and the depth of division and caricatures, but, you know, you also to talk about honor, in some place, you talk about how the — you know, the opposite of feeling honored is feeling humiliated. You know, that also strikes me as a dynamic in this culture that is also there in some of this digging into the trenches.
MR. APPIAH: Oh, absolutely. I mean, just to underline the centrality — the moral centrality of humiliation, I think that, if you ask who’ve been tortured, what stays with them, it’s not actually the physical memory of pain so much as the sense of humiliation. It’s the sense of what you’re doing in torture is humiliating people and that’s why it’s so terrible because humiliation is a terrible thing to impose upon people. And if we — we live in a society where it’s hard to maintain self-respect if you don’t have a job. It’s hard to maintain self-respect if you can’t hold birthday parties for your children.
These are small things, I suppose, but they’re part of what goes together to make a life worth living. So humiliation, whether the intentional humiliation of people, which is, I have to say, that is part of what’s least attractive to me about the world of sort of the nasty side of cable, these people set out to humiliate other people. What a ghastly thing to be doing. But unfortunately, we couldn’t remove the humiliation in the world simply by getting rid of the intentional humiliation because people lose the basis of self-respect when they lose their job and they can’t get another one and they feel that the skills they have and their willingness to work is sort of being ignored in the social reality they live in.
We face this, of course, at the moment as a society, but imagine what it’s like to be a young Egyptian, an educated young Egyptian, where we think 10 percent unemployment is terrible. We’re talking about a population of young people who have ambitions for themselves, who want to make families, live lives, participate in the life of their community, who half of them can’t get jobs.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, at all, ever.
MR. APPIAH: At all.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, you have looked at examples in history in different places of profound change that happened: foot binding in China, practices that had been a norm that ended; dueling; slavery in the British Empire. I think another thing that you point out that’s very interesting is that — let me see. This is what you wrote: “To end one practice as the anti-foot-binding campaigners in China grasped, you need to start another.” So if we — I don’t know. Let’s say, if you’d written a fifth chapter in that book or, for example, if we looked at the decline of American political discourse as a moral problem, you know, what practices might you propose or how would you think about the starting of new practices? I don’t know.
MR. APPIAH: Well, I do think that some years ago, people had the idea of starting sort of neighborhood conversations all around the country in which people came together who were not all of the same political persuasion, and that didn’t take off, but it’s a good idea. And I think that, if I were in more regular conversation with — I’m relatively liberal — so with more conservative people, then I think I would be better placed to understand what I should say to my congressman who is a Democrat about when he should and when he shouldn’t, as it were, fight the other side, when he should work together and when he should just continue to hold his own.
So we need to practice it ourselves, but I think also we need to kind of model it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. APPIAH: This — there was this discussion you remember around the State of the Union about whether the people of different parties should sit intermingled. Now I think that discussion was conducted as if the issue were about symbolism and, of course, it is certainly is about symbolism. But if they were sitting together more often and talking more often when the cameras were off, maybe they…
MS. TIPPETT: — just about nothing, right? About the doctor and how their children were doing, mm-hmm.
MR. APPIAH: Yeah, and socializing more, eating together. That would create the thing that some people criticize, which is a kind of a beltway culture, but you need a beltway culture if you’re to run a bipartisan society, a society that has two large political parties that are roughly equal in scale. But you need a sense that, look, we have different views, but our job is to work together to make the country work. I shouldn’t require my rather liberal congressman to perform a kind of pantomime of hostility to Republicans with whom he and I disagree. I should require him rather to stick for our principles and to negotiate around them and to see what can be done with the business of the republic.
One reason why people do what, you know, Sarah Palin is now doing and, if I were a Republican, I would give you my favorite example of a Democrat who does this, one reason they’re doing that is because it works, because people support it. We have to learn that, in supporting that, we’re not even helping the cause that they’re articulating. But we’ll only learn that if we ourselves live lives in which we interact with people that we disagree with and nevertheless get along with them fine.
One of the great lessons of my childhood of which I’m extremely grateful for was that, when my grandmother got older, she moved from the bigger house that she lived in into the cottage next door, and she sold the big house to a man who was a member of the British Parliament and was very right-wing, but extremely nice and very nice to me. You know, I had a subscription to the Soviet News and the Peking Review. I was a young lefty, but he was incredibly nice to me. He was not only nice, but he was willing to talk to me about politics and he was willing to let an 18-year-old — whatever I was — young man talk to him about politics and say things that he obviously thought were, you know, and he told me what he thought. He was frank. I mean, he didn’t pretend to believe things that he didn’t believe.
I learned a lot. I had to admit that I liked this guy even though I thought he was wrong about everything, and that was luck. It was luck that I had that experience when I was young. But I think that we could try and arrange our world so that more of us had that sort of experience more of the time and especially we could try and arrange Washington so that people could behave in the way that I’m told senators used to behave.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I know. We all hear this now. You know, here’s something you wrote that I also found great and kind of inspiring to think about to shift one’s imagination. You said, “Often enough, as Faust said, in the beginning is the deed; practices and not principles are what enable us to live together in peace; conversations across boundaries of identity whether national, religious or something else begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you read a novel or watch a movie or attend to a work of art that speaks from someplace other than your own.” That’s a more exciting image than forming earnest discussion groups in neighborhoods somehow.
MR. APPIAH: Yes. It is, and I think that literal conversation is one thing, but I feel more in touch with, say, the situation in Iraq than I otherwise would because I’ve seen a few Iraqi movies. Not movies about politics or about war — though I have seen some of those — but just movies about life. As I say, I wish I spent more of my time around people that disagreed with me more about politics, but I do at least try to read and understand and to watch people making arguments that I know I’m not going to like or agree with.
You know, years ago when I was living in Boston — I’m going to forget her name. The woman who reshaped American cooking — Julia Childs. I forget when this was, but say this was about 10 or 15 years ago. She was older at that point and her husband had died. She was worried about the state of sort of race discussions in society. So what did she do, being Julia Childs, she summoned a group of people to come and have dinner and talk about it at her house in Cambridge. So there was kind of a mixed-race group around the table. You know, most of us can’t do that. You can’t just summon people.
MS. TIPPETT: But we might be able to do our version of that.
MR. APPIAH: But we could do more of that. Look, one of the great privileges of a free society is that you don’t have to spend all your time thinking about the government. So you can easily have a life in which you do almost nothing except vote to participate in the life of the republic. I understand why that is, but if we were to spend more of our time on the life of the republic not directly, you know, by focusing on having more and more political conversations in town halls and some, but by getting together with people in our communities and talking about these things in a way that brought us to a deeper understanding of each other, that would be well worth it, I think.
And the republic would work better because you would be thinking about Joe and Mary and not about conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats and you would know that you knew some awfully nice people who were, for some bizarre reason, not convinced that you are completely correct about every political question.
MS. TIPPETT: Kwame Anthony Appiah is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.
Our thought experiment this week is to draw on your own memories of a simple human encounter — unlikely relationships with non-like-minded people — that you may not have pondered before as formative and important. Anthony Appiah’s story about his neighbor also got us wondering about how we might encourage or inspire these kinds of encounters in our own lives, or for our children. Send us your thoughts at OnBeing.org.
And, on another note entirely, we have just returned from a life-changing production trip that took us to Jerusalem as well as Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Hebron. We experienced a nearly overwhelming — but also emboldening — complexity at the human level of Israeli-Palestinian and Middle Eastern realities. We’ll be turning all this into a series of programs in the weeks and months to come. But we’re already posting pictures and links on our home page and blog — as well as pieces by students at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. They traveled part of the way with us. All that at OnBeing.org.
On Being on air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Dave McGuire, and Stefni Bell.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.