Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Why Can’t We Get Along?

In Event on September 19, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?
A Response to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Presentation

by Gregory Garvey, Professor of Game Design

It was an exceptional moment when President Barack Obama hosted the “beer summit” in the White House Rose Garden to broker a “peace” between Harvard Professor Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Police Department. Recall how Gates, when returning from a trip late at night, found himself locked out of his own home and forced his way in. A neighbor—thinking a break-in was in progress—called the police. Sargent Crowley arrived and wound up arresting Gates inside his own home on charges of disorderly conduct. President Obama, inserting himself into what quickly became a national controversy, said: “Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.”

Obama went on to describe this incident as part of “a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

The “beer summit”

One day after Princeton University’s Professor of Philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah delivered the 28th Annual Alfred P. Stiernotte lecture on Tuesday, September 4th, this incident came to mind. Appiah spoke about the central ideas from his book Cosmopolitanism which was awarded the Arthur Ross Book Award and his latest book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. Appiah announced at the onset that rather lecture to his audience as to the value of philosophy he would do philosophy right in front of us—i.e. build a reasoned argument that leads to a compelling conclusion. Near the end of his talk he put forward the Contact Hypothesis which he summarized as:

Regular contact in collaborative activities on terms of rough equality tends to make for better attitudes.

In doing so he proposed a kind of general theory of rapprochement where-in lies the possibility of reconciliation based on shared human experience. Shared experience opens the door to compromise—where we might have the audacity to hope for change that we just might yet believe in.

Appiah began his talk, entitled ‘The Value of Studying Philosophy’ by recounting the antics of the irascible Diogenes of Sinope (c. 400–c.325 BC), who set an example that few of us dare to emulate (and certainly not recommended for the faculty who frequent Sidestreet) by renouncing all his worldly possessions and taking up residence in a barrel.

Those readers who at this point may grow weary or cynical at the prospect of a slog through the history of western philosophy will be relieved that the invocation of this taciturn kuon (the Greek word for ‘dog’ used in ancient Greece for those who practiced an extreme form of asceticism from which is derived the modern day word ‘cynic’) was trotted out for the purpose of laying the foundation of Appiah’s argument.

Diogenes is best remembered for his pronouncement that he was a citizen of the world. Today such a declaration conjures up in some minds a United Nations conspiracy to form a one-world government. Appiah spoke to a more nuanced interpretation of such an assertion of global citizenship by outlining the following principles:

(1) We don’t need a single world government, but
(2) we must care for the fate of all human beings, inside and outside our own societies, and
(3) we have much to gain from conversation with one another across differences.

Diogenes’ declaration can be restated as the slogan for cosmopolitanism:

Universality plus difference

It does not mean subjugation to a world government but rather it is an admonition to care for one another; we are each fallible and we have something to learn from everyone else. Thus we accept and respect difference and are open to other’s ideas. We assign dignity to others and leave to them how to manage their own lives. Appiah summarized these principles as follows:

Why should we accept difference?
1. We are fallible.
2. People are entitled to live by ideals they believe in.

Yet we all know there are cultural practices that we in the west find abhorrent. Appiah discussed just two (from no doubt a much longer list) that would certainly meet with universal condemnation in the west. In his article “The Art of Social Change” and in his talk Appiah discusses the successful campaign to end the thousands year old practice in China of female foot-binding. He also discussed the ongoing attempts to bring to an end the practice of female circumcision in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.

Appiah told us how in 1889 Kang Youwei, prominent Chinese scholar, calligrapher, and political reformer during the waning years of Quing Dynasty wrote to the emperor: “All countries have international relations, and they compare their political institutions with one another, so that if one commits the slightest error, the others ridicule and look down upon it.” Kang, who was appalled by the human suffering caused by foot-binding and stopped the practice in his own family concluded: “There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as foot-binding.”

Appiah underscored that the shame that Kang felt for his nation was also a simultaneous appeal to a sense of national honor. Others reformers would harness that sense of shame among the Chinese intelligentsia and hitch it to arguments based on respect coupled to the creation of institutions that transformed society. In essentially a single generation foot-binding disappeared as a cultural practice in China. Appiah described the lessons learned from the movement against foot-binding:

First, begin with a dialogue of mutual respect, free of self-congratulation. Second, when you have a core of converts, organize a program of public commitment to new practices, which takes into account the traditions of the community. To end one practice, as the anti-foot-binding campaigners grasped, you need to start another.

On Tuesday night some members of Appiah’s audience who were required to be there may have found that these issues are both remote in time and place from their daily lives here at Quinnipiac. It would have been helpful to construct a ‘cognitive’ bridge to address contentious social issues that defy easy solutions here in the United States.

But by trundling out Diogenes and pointing to the notion of national honor Appiah was simply setting the stage for not merely telling us that there is value in the study of philosophy he showing us. He continued by building upon a theory of honor:

Honor is a right to respect.
Your honor is always dependent on a social identity.
Codes of honor determine how you should behave, as a function of your identity.
To be honorable is to be committed to doing what is worthy of respect according to the honor code.

Appiah places this sentiment of honor that begins with the individual within the framework of the idea of the nation. He pointed to Ernest Renan’s 1882 essay “What is a Nation” to argue for that sense of pride that “we” citizens of a nation state feel for our collective history, which can be tapped to motivate us into action. “The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of efforts, sacrifices and acts of devotion. The cult of ancestors is the most legitimate of all: the ancestors made us what we are. An heroic past, great men, glory—I mean real glory—this is the social capital on which the national idea is based.” (Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, 2nd ed. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1882: 26).

Appiah acknowledges that this sentiment is problematic as it veers toward the religious (not to mention a focus on a history only of ‘great men’). The doctrine of American Exceptionalism exhibits such tendencies: an expression of unabashed national pride, honor, patriotism, a real and imagined glorious historical narrative of the march of freedom and democracy, a muscular foreign policy tinged by a hubris infused with a sense of a God-given ‘manifest destiny.’ But for many citizens of the United States this doctrine is similarly problematic: it has led to the excesses of unnecessary wars and military interventions; violations of fundamental human rights notably in the use of indefinite detention; torture; extraterritorial targeted killings through drone warfare; and the support of dictators.

To illustrate how we citizens might come to terms with this betrayal of American ideals Appiah relies on a passage from J. M. Coetzee’s A Diary of a Bad Year. In this work of fiction the protagonist (a stand in for the author?) writes an essay a response to an article in the New Yorker reporting that the United States sanctions torture: “If we grant the truth of what the New Yorker claims, then the issue for individual Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of this shame to which I am subjected, do I behave? How do I save my honor?”

Appiah seeks to reclaim the citizen’s sense of national honor as a moral duty and thereby rescues our desire to express pride and patriotism from the exclusive claim of neoconservative ideologues. As citizens we have a duty to demand that our nation adhere to its professed ideals. Or as Tavis Smiley put it in his talk several years ago at Quinnipiac: “To make America as good as its promise.” Furthermore citizens can hold their representatives to account by the exercise of their democratic rights. Thus Appiah adds these points to his argument:

Voting matters because it disciplines those who govern. But it only works if
1. there’s information about what they do and
2. voters take notice of it.

A free press and an educated, informed, and engaged citizenry is necessary. For Appiah active participation is conceived as moral duty. Thus he adds the following requirement:

The successful working of the republic is the outcome of many citizen acts.
Those who do not participate in any of these ways are free riders on the contributions of those who do.
Free riding of this sort is, generally speaking, a wrong.

Honor is thereby bestowed on the deserving citizen:

1. The rewards of honor can be reserved for those who do more than what is morally required; and
2. it we can impose the penalties of dishonor on those who have not done anything morally wrong, provided they have fallen below the standard we set for good citizenship.

Appiah concludes his argument by making an appeal for an optimistic view of human nature. The Franklin Effect suggests that not only does one good turn deserve another but will likely induce more. It works like an autocatalytic chemical reaction where the product of the reaction is in turn the catalyst that continues the reaction. Ben Franklin states the principle in this way: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” (Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Ben Franklin. New York: Bantam, 1982: 125). Franklin’s optimism emboldens Appiah to formulate the Contact Hypothesis mentioned above:

Regular contact in collaborative activities on terms of rough equality tends to make for better attitudes.

The beer summit follows this prescription with somewhat predictable results. Sargent Crowley described his relationship with Professor Gates as “two gentlemen who agreed to disagree.” Gates in turn released a statement that he was “hopeful that we can all move on, and that this experience will prove an occasion for education, not recrimination.”

In another interview Gates jokingly made an exceptional offer to Crowley “I offered to get his kids into Harvard if he doesn’t arrest me anymore!” The President on his part said, “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart.”

But what if the individual you are trying to engage with doggedly holds to his beliefs, attitudes and actions? When Alexander the Great asked Diogenes if he wanted anything, the most famous of cynics demanded of the conqueror of the known world to get out of his light. When Neville Chamberlain shared a meal with Hitler did it lead to a tendency to make for better attitudes? What of the compromise (or was it appeasement?) that might have averted the horror of World War II?


Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler

Bosnian Muslims and Serbs lived side by side, intermarried, and likely drank beer together. Why didn’t this shared experience and history stop the massacre at Srebrenica? Appiah speaks of the Franklin effect. Perhaps there is a countervailing one that I would call the Milosevic effect (substitute Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler). To paraphrase Franklin “He that has once done you a wrong will be more ready to do you another, especially if he thinks he can get away with it.”

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  1. Accurately and perceptively written, Greg!

    Remarkably, Daniel Gibson, who spoke at Quinnipiac on the 20th, approached a conclusion similar to Appiah’s when he suggested that Congress would stand a better chance of functioning if reps and senators spent more time in Washington and in social proximity.

    The case for optimism does sometimes hang, it seems to me, on the possibility of hanging out. The real hope, I think, is for dialogue — that creative, uncontrolled space that opens when people converse freely, even about (especially about?) small matters. Part of the hope is that the tact and sense of the other (the “common sense”) that such conversation requires is antithetical to tyranny and a basis for real cooperation.

    Antitheses are not antidotes, however, and the possibilities of peace will never yield to a method. Drinking with tyrants is just as likely to make things worse, and so having beer or bread together is an act of faith in the good will of the other.

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