Finding commonality in a cosmopolitan world

In a globalised world, are we able to form a global community that can deal with the world’s problems?

A tourist is seen looking at the Facebook website at a backpacker hostel in Lima
Although the 'cosmopolitan' experiences many other cultures, does he or she actually try to identify with local perspectives, problems or consciousness? [Reuters]

Our world is becoming smaller. At least it feels like it. Distances seem to be overcome faster. National borders easier to cross, family and friends even though spread all over the world, seem to be just a click away. Media is globalising. There are global media networks, where people from all over the world are not only consuming news, but are also contributing by debating via diverse social networks. Companies are working on international levels, due to online communication it doesn’t matter whether employees work from their computers in Beijing, New York or Nairobi. They work together as if they were in one office. Education is also globalising. People from all corners of the planet are taking part in MOOCs or online courses. They join from various cultural backgrounds to study one specific issue.

Are we living in “one world”, in a single world community? Are all these developments making us more cosmopolitan? Or are we beyond cosmopolitanism already?

Cosmopolitanism requires from a person to free oneself from narrow national or cultural views and see themself as a citizen of the world. A cosmopolitan is usually seen as a person who is able to travel all around the world and live in different cultures. Often cosmopolitanism is a privilege of the elite. Only the well-off can send their children to study abroad and jet from New York to Paris to Tokyo. Cosmopolitanism is in danger of becoming merely the consuming of different cultures by the elite. It is a Westernised term. Its inherent perspective is “from the West to the rest”. This critique of being eurocentric even met Kwame A Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, who is arguing for a universal cosmopolitanism.

The cosmopolitan and intercultural dialogue

The cosmopolitan is experiencing many other cultures. But does he or she actually try to identify local perspectives, problems or experiences? Does the cosmopolitan contribute to an intercultural dialogue that finds not only differences but also commonalities?

Even though intercultural dialogue has become the buzzword of the post 9/11-era, at the same time, differences between cultures are overemphasized. Seeing Culture Everywhere, from Genocide to Consumer Habits is the title of a book by Joana Breidenbach and Pàl Nyíri, in which they describe the trend to culturalise or emphasise ethnicity as an effective political and economic tool. The so called dialogue merely shows the “otherness”.

Talk to Al Jazeera
Kwame Anthony Appiah: On ‘cosmopolitanism’

Diversification is also one of these buzzwords, at least in Germany, where the government and the economy realised just some years ago that we are a diverse society. And suddenly everybody wants to diversify government offices and employees of companies. They offer intercultural trainings to their employees; there are intercultural festivals and so on. Even with a globalised workforce that collaborates virtually, people are not trying to find a common ground, but they are taught how the “other” is doing business differently from their own cultural habits. So instead of saying “This is what we have in common”, intercultural trainers often emphasise “Be careful, they do it like that! You have to respect that, if you want to do business with them”. And the strategy is not different for NGOs. They also emphasise differences instead of commonalities.

Many people feel they are cosmopolitan because they act on a global scale. They chat with Beijing, just got off the phone with Tokyo, and have to quickly send an e-mail to New York. Well, a real cosmopolitanism enables a person to identify with all humanity, even if it is highly fragmented. Even if there are so many cultures, a cosmopolitan should be able to find a common pattern that overcomes the diversity and shows humanity as a unit.

A global humanism as described by the German anthropologist Christoph Antweiler in his book Mensch und Weltkultur (the English title is Inclusive Humanism. Anthropological Basics for a Realistic Cosmopolitanism) is searching for common denominators of all cultures without homogenising them. So, instead of overemphasising culture, he prefers to talk about issues and problems that all cultures face.

Antweiler is following Appiah in his equation: cosmopolitanism is “universality plus difference”. Both are saying that cultural differences should not and cannot be homogenised. But there are patterns that are inherent to many cultures. People from all cultures have certain terms to describe values, which can be used as a starting point for negotiations about shared values, either just between two cultures or more, maybe even universally.

There are global communities who are overcoming cultural differences and working on problems that will affect all of us. At the World Social Forum in Tunis, for example, participants from all over the world are thinking about how they can help to create initiatives that deal with global problems. This goal in mind, global citizens do not think about the cultural traits that might separate them – rather, they try to come up with solutions for a common problem.

Global citizens

Let me return to my question from the beginning, whether we are beyond cosmopolitanism. If cosmopolitanism is merely an elitist Westernised perspective, then it cannot solve problems for “the rest” and we should therefore overcome it. If it is not able to see through the lens of the “others”, how can it understand their problems? On the other side, a farmer from Africa or a fishermen from India could hardly be called a cosmopolitan, even though he might have internet access occasionally. And even if he was able to be part of a global virtual community which fights for the rights of farmers or fishermen, he would not be able to travel and experience other cultures, as the cosmopolitan does. Additionally, we have to consider the inequality of internet access.

Then, how can the farmer or fishermen contribute to a world community? I understand a global citizen as a person who sees the global scale of a local problem and who does something to counteract it. In order to form a global community we can perform small steps. There is no need to find universal characteristics that exist in all cultures worldwide. A global community can form around a basic value that all cultures share, such as freedom of expression. All citizens (maybe not all governments though) agree on the fact, that they need to be free to express their thoughts.

Around this single idea, global communities are evolving. They are not elitist or Westernised. They are carried by global citizens, who might not be able to jet from metropolis to metropolis, but who do have – at least occasionally – internet access. And they use it to express their thoughts. Thoughts about the issues they face in their local communities. So people from other communities in other places might be able to relate to those problems and find a common denominator.

In the end, I think it is not important what you call a person, whether it is cosmopolitan or global citizen. What matters more is the action they take. Are they merely exaggerating cultural differences or are they genuinely trying to find common ground? For us to be a world community we need much more common ground. We need to find those lines that break through borders of nation states, languages or religions. Those lines of shared values will unite humanity.

Katrin Zinoun studied Cultural Anthropology and African Studies. She works as a freelance journalist in Germany and contributes to Global Voices Online as the Lingua Editor Deutsch.

Follow her on Twitter: @dialogtexte