Thoughts on a Cosmopolitan World

Can We Get it Together on Planet Earth?

Blue Marble (Planet Earth), by woodleywonderworks, with Creative Commons licenceThis Earth, our only home, is an enormous place. For more than 580 million square kilometres it ranges from the deepest pressured depths of mighty oceans to the tallest mountains, where oxygen is almost as scarce as footprints in the snow. In the few habitable parts we’ve scattered around 5,000 variously defined ethnic groups, which sounds like quite a few. But they’re shared between only 195 countries, separated by politics, yes, but also the inability to travel, the unwillingness to communicate. We presume that the Internet is drawing us closer, and that could well be the case for those who can afford to use it. But a more startling reality is that over half the 6.7 billion people on Earth will never leave their immediate surrounds. Most are far too poor, some too localised. And those who do move out often find a world hostile to difference.

So much for a single human race.

Speaking to members of migrant worker groups in Hong Kong today I learned more about the seemingly never-ending stream of cases that feature employer maltreatment, false accusations of theft and disturbing sexual abuse. It would be easy to dismiss these unfortunate circumstances as a direct result of an exploitative foreign labour system, and I’ve certainly argued in that entirely valid direction before. But underlying them all is something else besides – an inability to understand that a worker from a poorer country is not somehow deficient herself, that one locality is not inherently superior because it is richer.

One of the sad ironies of this situation is that Hong Kongers like to think that they live in a cosmopolitan city. In an earlier post I described the ethnic segregation here, particularly in relation to Indonesian and Filipino domestic helpers. Perhaps the perception is that cosmopolitan means ‘worldly’, or – to put a very fine point on it – materialist. If you have money, you have a place. But if you come from a poor country and earn low wages, you’ll be an outsider forever.

Or until you leave.

Cavalcade of Ethnic Food Stands, UW-Madison, by Sylvar, with Creative Commons licenceIt seems to me that very few places to which I’ve travelled in Australia, Southeast Asia and East Asia could escape that same conclusion. Cosmopolitanism is the sort of tag that people like to trot out when ‘multicultural’ seems too expansive and ‘apartheid’ carries the wrong sort of overtones. It often applies to infrequently eaten ‘ethnic’ cuisine, disparities in dress and other superficial cultural baggage – those accessories that allow people to proclaim a melting pot when we’re really just living parallel lives.

If we turn this situation around and look at what cosmopolitanism can mean in a positive sense, the story really isn’t much better. Leaving aside its original link to worldly cities rather than rural areas, a more liberal definition of ‘cosmopolitan’ would be an attitude of acceptance towards cultural variation, treating the whole world as your own country, your home. But that suggests approval rather than tolerance, and very few people know enough about the rest of the world to accept it without question. And there are some truly reprehensible cultural practices out there. Female circumcision is the first that springs to mind.

So it’s no real surprise that cosmopolitanism is shoved into new poses by people who don’t really want to consider the very real difficulties of cultural divergence.

Yet there is a way of re-working the situation. Think about your own country. You might not like all of it, and not all of it might be likable anyway. For me the great and enduring shame of Australia is aboriginal poverty, third world conditions in the highly romanticised outback. If I were to treat the world as my country, I would have to acknowledge other areas of shame, to be critical of the conditions under which they were formed, and to question the cultural practices that allow them to persist.

I’m not a citizen of the world, and never will be. To be a citizen you have to accept responsibility within a civic framework, you have to acknowledge the legitimacy of the status quo. I refuse to accept that aboriginal poverty in Australia is just one of those things, that the exploitation of migrant workers in Hong Kong is somehow necessary or at least excusable.

The world's a balloon..., by adriansalamandre, with Creative Commons licenceThe critical cosmopolitan has many questions to ask of the world, and many points of contention to raise. The entire purpose of accepting other countries as your own should be to ask how they could be better – not from a narrow local point of view, but from knowledge of common failings.

And then we can think about just how worldly we really are.

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