last week, in the middle of an all-day management board full of metrics, deficits, claw backs and targets I popped out to talk to 59 fiercely bright teenagers from 59 different countries on a Global Citizenship programme.
As the bright faces from many places surged into the room, I was coming to terms with the fact that the projector was bust and my well crafted presentation on geopolitics and culture was in tatters. Ho hum. So I went for Plan B which was speak from the heart. I opened with the founding articles of UNESCO’s constitution from 1945:
“Since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. Ignorance of each others ways and lives has been a common cause throughout the history of mankind of suspicion and mistrust [which] have all to often broken into war… And that the wide diffusion of culture and the education of humanity… are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern.”
As said to them, I am a firm believer in ‘founding moments’. It takes great people, but also special circumstances to commit to a different and better way.
I fielded questions about my organisation’s work in education and culture in India, Burma, Aghanistan, Kyrgistan, China and Iran. I talked about what other countries want from the UK and are prepared to work with us on, which varies widely according to the regime, religious beliefs and customs of different countries.
The last question though was a tricky one. “What values do you espouse when you work in other countries and how do you guard against cultural imperialism?” A year ago I’d have struggled with that.
I used to be torn between recognising that if you carry too much ideological baggage or confront cultural differences you get ignored or thrown out, but by the same token you have to stand for something otherwise you feel compromised and weak. I felt that Human Rights were probably where you draw the line, but beyond that I wasn’t sure.
Then I heard Antony Appiah on a Philosophy Bites podcast talking about Cosmopolitanism and it gave me the missing piece in my jigsaw. To paraphrase Wikipedia:
Appiah says Cosmopolitanism is “universality plus difference”, accepting that all of us are fundamentally the same, but we are also all different. He says universality takes precedence over difference and therefore that different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.” Therefore cultural differences are to be respected in so far as they are not harmful to people and do not conflict with our universal concern for every human’s life and well-being.
When I heard that podcast, some key things slotted into place for me.
So as I said to the 59 young future Global Citizens, I now believe our people should travel light when it comes to values and be interested and curious about difference – even difference we don’t find attractive or acceptable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be stitched into the lining of our jackets, not printed on our tee shirts.
If one of our people finds themselves in a situation where they feel their human rights, or those of another, are being compromised they should feel able to leave. They should be confident the organisation would support them in that. But we are here to engage with difference not shy away from it, we should feel able to say what we each believe and how things are where we come from, but we are not there to singlehandedly confront and change the beliefs of others to be more like ours.
My daughter and I regularly read “We are all born free”, Amnesty International’s super children’s version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She chooses it these days not me.
The 30 Articles, simply put, unarguable, complete and evocatively illustrated. A six year old can largely understand them. And a 42 year old can feel pride in humanity’s occasional capacity to transcend its divisions and write and commit itself to something of lasting value.
I think Cosmopolitanism, with the protection of Human Rights as a floor, is the right answer to a world of cultural difference.