Professor Stuart Rees believes an inclusive way forward for the global community lies in the notion of cosmopolitanism.
Enthusiasm about cosmopolitanism is the most appropriate response to Pauline Hanson’s recent speech forecasting that Australia was in danger of being overrun by Muslims.
It’s not only Senator Hanson who likes to polarize. Politicians and media commentators think it’s appropriate to foment fear, about terrorism, about asylum seekers, about the growing economic and military power of China and concerning the consequences of same sex marriage. There are alternative perspectives.
Understanding or Divisiveness ?
Values and vision inherent in cosmopolitanism can provide an antidote to divisiveness.
Being cosmopolitan presupposes a sense of identity and a shared morality through belonging to the world, not to a particular religion, race or political creed. The language of cosmopolitanism shows struggles for understanding to be more constructive than constantly asking who is our enemy, what side are you on ?
Cosmopolitanism refutes the authoritarianism of the classic political assertion, ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’
A sense of status and identity may derive from fear and by labelling citizens as worthy or unworthy, as lifters or leaners, as contributors or non-contributors to project Australia. Treasurer Scott Morrison summed up his economic wisdom by referring to the taxed and the not taxed. His predecessor Joe Hockey disparaged people who received welfare benefits. They were individuals, he said, who assumed they were entitled, but he ignored wealthy beneficiaries of governments’ subsidies and financial support.
Even the popular ABC television programme Q&A shows a penchant for divisiveness, as though this is a priority media role, the way to entertain. The five-person format that must have one on the left and one on the right, appears to contribute to a search for controversy rather than understanding. Chairperson Tony Jones’ adopted role as the controversial cross examiner needs divisiveness and can leave some panel members stranded like shags on a rock, unable to present their own views, perhaps wondering why they were invited to appear.
To be fair, and to return to cosmopolitanism, subjects such as the social determinants of health, as described by Boyer Lecturer Professor Michael Marmot, or the relevance of Shakespeare to the present day, have also been the focus of Q&A evenings. When that happened, audiences seemed engrossed and joyful, grateful for contributions to their understanding of inequalities in health, and of the timeless value of the bard.
Cosmopolitanism can be fun, health promoting, culture building and non-divisive, and it is far more constructive than the alternatives.
Above the Nation State
French philosopher Derrida describes cosmopolitanism as being above the nation state, beyond a preoccupation with borders, and at least raising questions about the merits of sovereignty.
In a world faced with climate change, with the world-wide spread of epidemics and with the massive movement of refugees, there’s a chance to envision relationships which embrace inclusiveness, which emphasize tolerance plus a determination to learn from and never repeat the abuses of a violent colonial past. In this respect, Indigenous Labor MP Linda Burney’s maiden speech in the House of Representatives gave us hopeful, healing, light-on-the-hill reminiscences which need to be embraced and repeated.
Centre pieces in cosmopolitanism include commitments to hospitality coupled to visions of generosity which cut through the mind set which speaks of the need for more weapons to defend borders, more resources to build walls. Even the electronic paraphernalia used to protect gated communities symbolizes a need for people to avoid meeting and exchanging views.
Hospitality can be witnessed in the responses of citizens in many countries to the arrival of newcomers. But these generous responses seldom correspond to the views of governments, which find it difficult to reflect on cosmopolitanism even as they congratulate themselves about the achievements of their country, their images of multiculturalism. Repetitious self-congratulation becomes camouflage for failure to move to a different agenda, a different vision.
Even the notion ‘foreigner’ should be used with caveats and care. Perhaps only Indigenous people could be entitled to ask who or what is a foreigner? Xenophobia usually reflects people’s difficulties in comprehending themselves let alone trying to understand others’ perspectives.
A Norwegian King
A powerful and elegant expression of cosmopolitanism has come from 79-year-old King Harald of Norway. At a recent party for 1,500 guests in the park of the Royal Palace in Oslo he spoke of the benefits of generosity, hospitality and inclusiveness. On gay rights issues he said, “Norwegians were girls who love girls, boys who love boys and boys and girls who love each other.” He also described the benefits of religious tolerance as in his insistence that “Norwegians believed in God, in Allah, in the universe and in nothing.”
In raising questions about sovereignty, and it might be said that a king should know, Harald said that home could not be confined within national borders.
In his praise for diversity and in his ability to put fear aside, Harald reminded the party goers in the park that Norwegians came not only “from north Norway, central Norway, southern Norway and all other regions but also from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Poland, from Sweden, Somalia and Syria.”
Costs and Benefits
Cosmopolitanism should not sound like a newly discovered panacea, not even as a familiar cultural aspirin which needs to be put back on political shelves. The idea has been around ever since Socrates said he was not a citizen of Athens or of Greece but of the world.
Cosmopolitan also means dropping stereotypes about believers and non-believers, gays, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Christians. Among such groups, across Europe and within Australia, there’s as much diversity as uniformity. There are many languages, age-old cultures, diverse tastes in music and poetry, food and fashion. Cosmopolitanism can be a common denominator.
This potential panacea comes with side effects and costs. The boundary building inherent in tribalism, in tightly controlled religions and political parties and in governments’ current fascination with laws which ban protest, will have to be given up, or at least loosened.
Cosmopolitanism presupposes give and take, a willingness to consider different points of view, to allow people to join and leave organizations, to make friendships and to marry outside religious and racial boundaries, in effect to experiment with difference, to cherish and not be frightened by it.
Such a vision presupposes that rules are better made with elastic and that if borders and boundaries must exist, they should be porous. No longer fear of the other. No longer a need for enemies in order to establish identity. No longer nationalism defined by listing what a country is not.
It is not cosmopolitan to promote the ideology that says our way is the best, we are the most generous, tolerant country in the world, or the most powerful. National identity can be crafted in a more inclusive manner.
Cosmopolitanism stays distant from time worn nationalism. It argues for a patriotism that harms no-one and could be infectious. You could catch it by thinking and acting in tune with the values expressed by Harald of Norway, and by striving to promote universal human rights.
If that happens, even within the life of the present parliament, Australia would be in danger of being overrun by cosmopolitanism.
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