A Reflection on Cosmopolitanism
Updated: Apr 11
A thought-piece by Erin Zehr (GCS Alumnus), 2017
That's me in a sari, second from left.
In Cosmopolitanism, author Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes a simple equation to define the term cosmopolitanism. From his perspective, cosmopolitanism=universalism + difference. This equation, and the term 'cosmopolitanism' in general, helped me understand and conceptualize the experiences I had during my internship experience in India this past summer.
When you are doing work with other cultures and hearing other people talk about doing such work there are several phrases that keep coming up. For instance, “A smile is the same in every language” or “There is no race, only the human race”. While the loving sentiment behind these platitudes is admirable, they always left me really frustrated. I felt like these sentiments were extremely simplified and reductive and that they really took autonomy away from people with different experiences or challenges.
One particular example was during a presentation I attended on a refugee camp, given by an American individual who had gone to the camp to volunteer. The people in the camp has faced persecution and were living in substandard conditions especially in terms of available health care for children. Yet when an audience member asked the American volunteer to reflect on all of this he just said, “Well we all really are the same and we all smile in the same language”. I am a bit embarrassed to admit but I may have rolled my eyes a bit. I felt that this volunteer was refusing to acknowledge the unique challenges and culture of the people in the camp and instead had a simplistic kumbaya outlook.
Therefore, armed with this attitude I arrived in India to start my internship. I spent my time going into homes of people who lived in areas classified as slums and interviewing them about the perceptions of a program to improve health and education.
As I worked with the various individuals I was assigned to, I often ended up spending lots of my time drinking tea, trying to speak with what little knowledge of the language I had, and playing with the small children.
Initially I was a little perplexed that the organization I was interning with had such a casual approach. There was undeniably a mountain of work that needed to be done in these communities. And yet it was not unusual to spend 40 minutes with a family drinking tea and chatting. It was very enjoyable but I couldn’t help but think “Can’t we help more people if we work more efficiently?”
However, there is more to peoples’ quality of life than immunizations and literacy; relationships and enjoyment also have a real factor in the quality of life. Appiah speaks to this in his book when he writes, “Would you really want to live in a world in which the only thing anyone ever cared about was saving lives?” (Appiah 166).
I started to embrace the casual, relationship-centered approach and I started realizing why all of those platitudes I had heard felt more real. I knew that the lives and experiences of these individuals was extremely different than my life experience. And yet I caught myself thinking, “wow it is so easy to smile and connect to them”.