Appiah, Kwame. “The Case for Contamination.” The New York Times Magazine. 1 Jan. 2006.
Appiah’s piece highlights the “contamination” of often over-romanticized indigenous cultures by globalizing influences. Interestingly, Appiah is writing this piece in the shadow of UNESCOs recently approved convention on the protection and promotion of cultural diversity – a document that seeks to preserve native identities in the face of a supposedly homogenizing Western monoculture. Considering whether it’s important to protect “cultures” or individuals, Appiah decides that the individual must be the locus of moral concern.
Considering homogeneity, Appiah recognizes that pockets of monoculture are still in existence; however, their “distinctiveness” is diminished compared to 100 years ago. For the author this is a good things as many of the negative cultural mores – fear of medicine, disapproval of ‘outside’ clean drinking water technologies, refusal of female education – are being dispelled by outside forces. Further, because cultures are never static, the small enclaves of homogeneity – often consider authentic – are always in the process of appropriating culture to create new forms of difference. From this line of reasoning Appiah notes that the monoculture of Western capitalism might lurk across the globe; however, it’s hardly monoculturizing. In Appiah’s words, “If we want to preserve a wide range of human conditions because it allows free people the best chance to make their own lives, we can’t enforce diversity by trapping people within differences they long to escape.”
Considering “authenticity” and cultural preservation, Appiah recourses to a societies/cultures right to self-determination in the conduct of their dress, art, and way of life. Instead of telling “authentic” cultures how they should “be” in the world – often essentializing in the process – individuals should have the right to chose how they represent themselves. . . and what does it mean to be an “authentic” culture anyway? As Appiah says, “Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.” Expanding on the idea of cultural imperialism, Appiah notes that the theory that transnational capitalists based in the Western centers of power pump culture across the globe thereby homogenizing society is preposterous because it again assumes a lack of self-determination and individuated hermeneutics. . . yes the culture industries might be producing a single, similar message; however, how that message is taken up, interpreted, and reproduced is something much, much different.
Toward the end of the article Appiah considers a specific breed of counter-cosmopolitans that reject the values of liberal democracies in the West and the crass consumerist messages of Western society: the ummah or global Muslim brotherhood. These individuals are different from the “radical neofundemenalists” or what we know in the US as radical Muslim jihadists. Considering these and all cosmopolitans, Appiah recognizes that a core commitment of the global citizen is to pluralism and fallibilism or an acceptance of many values and ways of living that rely on knowledges that are imperfect, provisional, and subject to revision in the face of new evidence. Considering this, Appiah asks his readers to consider the implications and impositions of universal declarations of rights as these rely on changing the laws of every nation in the world.
Finishing up Appiah highlights the role of “perspectival shifts” not arguments in the subsumption of cultural contamination. In other words, it takes time for folks to “get used to” a change in things. . . such is the case with women’s rights, homosexuality, slavery, etc. This means that what’s important is for individuals in the world to be open and learn about other people, other places, other civilizations, other arguments, other errors, other achievements, etc. as this is what will be necessary to see where our similarities and differences overlap. . . and from that point we can learn about how to more successfully live together. Arguing for contamination, Appiah quotes Terance, “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”