(photo: © Beowulf Sheehan)
Of all the “Civil Conversation Project” voices we’ve interviewed, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s credentials are the most erudite and global. He is the president of the PEN American Center, a Princeton philosopher, and an American citizen raised and educated between the country we now know as Ghana and the United Kingdom. He has written sweeping, fascinating, and influential books, including Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. In his latest work, he analyzes the real-world ingredients of social change and “moral progress” in disparate times and places — the end of foot-binding in China, for example, or of the slave trade as a social and economic staple of the British Empire.
Anthony Appiah also has a rare kind of personal moral authority with which to analyze such things, and that makes him the kind of voice I love.
His intellectual passion is leavened by life experience. He is the product of a seismic cultural shift that seemed unimaginable but then transpired within a generation. Every culture has had these. In my lifetime, there is the fact that black people were still sitting in the backs of buses in American cities. And the interracial 1953 marriage of Anthony Appiah’s African father and British mother — the daughter of a former chancellor of the exchequer — was condemned as morally repugnant, the stuff of global headlines.
I pursue a bit of a thought experiment with him for the purposes of this conversation. What if we considered the breakdown of civility in American political, media, and cultural life as a moral crisis — a condition fed by our worst instincts and destructive of our highest ideals, which will rot us from the inside if we don’t address and correct it? How might Anthony Appiah’s knowledge about moral change inform our words and actions moving forward?
For all the gravity of that question and the scholarly intelligence Anthony Appiah brings to it, his response is a relief. Sometimes we need to address difference head-on, he says, but often the best way is to “sidle up to it” — to accept and live it without forcing agreement or even addressing it head on.
He echoes a point made forcefully by Frances Kissling on this program, speaking from the context of the abortion debate, that our rush to come to agreement can get in the way of really understanding each other. But Anthony Appiah brings this closer to the ground. He muses on how differences retain their vitality within extended networks of friendship and family — not going away, often, but also not presenting a stumbling block to relationship. Appiah is a gay man, and he relates in his personal history experiences of family who may not accept his sexuality as moral, but with whom he can stay in loving relationship.
What we need more than agreement, he says, are simple habits of association with different others, encounters that breed familiarity. There is real social and even moral value to be had, he suggests, when we connect with others even on the most mundane topics of who we are and how we spend our days — whether it be soccer or football, shared hobbies or parenting. In fact, Anthony Appiah says, this kind of human exchange — as much a matter of presence as of words — is the old-fashioned meaning of the word “conversation.”
The trick in our time, of course, is that the world is conspiring against human presence even as it gives us a million new ways to connect. We have to work particularly hard to seek out those who are different from us. Anthony Appiah’s analysis on this point is provocative and helpful, one other piece of the puzzle of what has gone awry in what we used to call “common life.”
Yet even here, his prescriptions are doable. He tells a story of one especially formative relationship from his early life that he calls a great piece of good fortune. As a left-leaning student activist, he formed a friendship with an arch-conservative neighbor. He agreed with this man on virtually nothing, yet they conversed in a spirit of neighborliness and friendliness. This experience of connection that held and contained difference, he says, has shaped his movement through the world ever since. These, surely, are the kinds of encounters we could all begin instantaneously to nudge into existence, to sidle up to, and to do so with our children. I for one will be looking, with relief, for such good old-fashioned conversation.