Kwame Anthony Appiah —
Sidling Up to Difference: Social Change and Moral Revolutions

How can unimaginable social change happen in a world of strangers? Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher who studies ethics and his parents' marriage helped inspire the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In a tense moment in American life, he has refreshing advice on simply living with difference.

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is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.

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Our thought experiment for the week: draw on your own memories of a simple human encounter — unlikely relationships with non-like-minded people — that you may not have pondered as formative and important.

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Participants engage in the Human Library project at the Toronto Public Library.

Photo by Voula Monoholias

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I have been "reflecting" since the closing of your March 24 broadcast. A number of thoughts pass thru my mind.

Foremost is having seen & experienced what Mr. Appiah suggests. Conversation first as a way to establish trust & understanding, then "agreement to disagree". I have been fortunate to travel with a few people, now friends, to spend time with and photographing hill tribes, migratory tribes, boat dwellers as well as small town dwellers in Burma (5 times), India (2 times), Laos (2 times), North Vietnam, Cambodia, central China, Uzbekistan, and Jordan(between intafadas.) We enter these remote villages cautiously, not in thought of our own safety, but hoping not to startle the residents. We engage in conversation out of pure interest & respect - acceptance having replaced judgement as soon as we leave US airspace. We find that interest returned. Conversations may sometimes lead to deeper issues - religion, politics. With one exception we have never tried to convince, or be convinced by the other party. We often marvel that, at the most basic unit of these societies, the tribe, that neither of us wants to do the other harm. And we wonder collectively what it is that dilutes these attitudes & feelings as individuals gain political and/or military power. (As to photography, we NEVER make a photograph without permission, nor do we photograph anything that might embarass or belittle the subject. We may wait hours before a camera is drawn,)
The exception I refer to above took place in Amman, Jordan as my wife & I approached an open market, a large man appeared from one of the stalls shaking his fist and yelling "Americans no good". Without hesitation we approached him and asked him why. Neither of us spoke the others language, but we were soon surrounded by others, among whom was someone who could translate. I asked him if I was "no good"? Was my wife "no good"?. No we were OK but Americans no good. "But", I said, many, many Americans are like us. Are they no good"? We eventually got to the heart of the matter, which was his dislike of American intervention is other nations. After further conversation, we agreed that a nations' leaders may be " no good", but that ordinary folks don't always agree with their leaders.
We eventually shared tea, shook hands, and parted. Next day our group of 8 people went back to that market. Out he came, ready to shake his fist. When he saw Elise & me, he exclaimed "Americans Good - leaders no good". My point is that we each learned something about the other, there were other issues we disagreed on, but neither of us wanted to destroy the other.
Again & again we have learned that "ordinary" people want to live their lives in peace & friendship, regardless of the stated but not defended differences.

THe other thought is a saying that I now live by. When I find myself trying to convince another person that my view is a correct one, I ask myself "Is this a hill I want to die on?" I've found very, very few of death worthy hills."
Mr.Appiah said in an elegant and understandable way how I try to live my life, and helped me to know and feel that I am on the right path.
Thank you very much.
Woody Widlund

That's a great story, Woody. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I think that "Americans Good! Leaders No Good!" should become a bumper sticker.

Many times people because of their world views profoundly disagree and not on simple matters like who is your favorite sports team, but more often on questions concerning our beliefs of what constitutes “harm” in the realm of right and wrong. If I see harm, but you see “right,”even after long conversations and getting to know one another, then what? I get the impression this show believes our humanity is the only common ground we should concern ourselves with and that all other factors are negotiable, but I wouldn’t agree with that.

If we are sincere about wanting to know how we can coexist without giving up our differences we have to discover what nature teaches about that. The answers are there but in our arrogance we think this is one area where we can find the solution to our problems without relying on nature.

I am heartened to hear that every-day, in-person conversation is the fabric of human interaction that allows us to live with our differences. I was struck by the mention of Town Squares as the place where every-day exchanges used to take place. It made me think of the rise of community gardens - in cities, suburbs and even rural towns like mine. Community gardens can be the new Town Square where we share with each other about the weather, what variety of green bean is best, stories of how our mothers and grandmothers grew the best tomatoes or put up the most peaches. And in this day and age where it is an all-around good thing to grow our food closer to home, you've just added another benefit! Another connection I made is to a periodic column in my local newspaper called, Our Neighbors, by Becky Karush. It is wonderfully written and after reading each piece I feel as if I have had a very personal exchange with someone in my community who although might have a very different political orientation from me, shares many of life's joys and sorrows. Here is the most recent one: Thank you, Krista, for another great show.

it was refreshing to listen to mr appish conversation. i am taking away hope that someday we can get pass the divide of different belief systems and accept each other for simply being human not for our political, religious, and sexual beliefs.

I so agree with I can get this conversation into our high school/college....incorporate this knowledge into the local in show at local station etc...bring speaker to town...Alaska needs to also offer a counter the spew that is coming from SP...

Mr. Appiah's story about his next-door neighbor made me think of a couple of very nice, warm, friendly, generous people with whom I really disagree. One is politically very conservative, & the other is a fundamentalist Christian. I never understood how I could ever like someone like that, but now it makes sense to me.

Making space, physically and temporally, for the practice of conversation seems as critical as taking time for self-reflection or including a discipline of exercise in our weekly schedules.

Community programs can organize patterns and rituals for such a practice, yet I suspect it is the commitment to private practice that makes the deepest difference and becomes truly transformative.

that the sentence "i have a friend who is x" (ie: gay, muslim, mexican, texan, etc) that people use when attempting to defend a minority group, speaks to what mr. appiah is saying. once we make an emotional connection and "like" a person who we might not otherwise befriend due to prejudice, our feelings are involved and thus our views expanded, prejudices diluted.

that i will bring flowers to my new neighbours on occasion of the birth of their second baby even though they have been very private about it (maybe because they moved only a couple of weeks ago, maybe because of their culture, maybe because of personality traits, or whatever).

that the premise of sidling can be applied to child rearing at different levels:
within the nuclear family, as parents, so many times in the process of raising a child, we become blindly involved/ preoccupied with issues of obedience, academic performance, or our child's future. or we reject a child in both conscious and subconscious ways because their personality is opposite ours or reminds us of someone who made us suffer in our past. in this respect, sidling with children's innate charms and abilities that we enjoy of them and with them may improve the level of empathy we require to be fair to their needs in the here and now.
within a society, ie: school or neighbourhood, it is clear how commiserating on sleepless nights or talking about sports or food, may provide a space to understand and/ or address issues of parenting which may otherwise go misconstrued or vilified.

as always, thanks for inspiration.

...that the guest was impressive, philosophical and articulate. I tune in to get another man's or woman's grip on perspectives in America, and listen to wonderful earfuls of thought and opinions coming from people who have walked through touching life experiences, and have taken such poetic notes along the way. I never cease to feel reconnected and revitalized after hearing you, Krista,every Sunday morning as you dig into our spiritual and/or soulful condition, and I will add "The Honor Code" to my list of 'need-to-reads'.
Thank you again for a job well and provokingly done.

I love this show! Not just this one, but in general. Thank you.

Re this one, I think your guest (Kwame Anthony Appiah) gave voice and structure to a frustration I've felt for some time about recent political issues and debates, and the media coverage thereof. Speakers will not (or cannot) explain the reasoning behind their particular beliefs, making them seem more like religious tenets than philosophical viewpoints. Reporters/interviewers don't help, as their questions--those that end up on the air, at any rate--dig no deeper into the "why" of what is said. We get no sense that people have reached these conclusions through empirical or thoughtful means. It's as if they received a beliefs menu and checked off a few options--or went with the daily special. Perhaps if we knew some of the experiences and thoughts along the way that led that person to those conclusions, we all might be able to be more understanding, less strident.

No story to share, here, just a rather disjointed thought on a Sunday morning.

In their recent book, American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell used sociological data to make exactly the same point that Prof. Appiah did: Americans are religiously tolerant because their friends and relatives belong to so many different religions. Have you considered inviting Prof. Putnam to join your Civil Conversations Project?

When I was a child we moved many times (21 in 18 years) so my brother and I were always the new kids on the block. I don't know how old I was when I formulated my concept of how to "fit in." It was really quite simple and I continue to use it when meeting new people to this day. I decided that people were like quilts and that, in order, to get to know them all you had to do was find a square on your quilt (personality, interests, etc.) that matched or coordinated with a square on their quilt. When your guest spoke about finding routes to conversation with others it reminded me of that concept. It is so true that all you need for civil discourse is to find a common language. We, people, are so much more alike than we are different.

I'm a Unity minister and tomorrow, the fifth Sunday of Lent, I'm speaking about Overcoming. I will review the experience of overcoming in which we participate - consciously or not. I will recap the many personal things we overcome by praying, meditation, denying, affirming, setting intentions, etc. Those incluse things like fear, shyness, procrastination, insecurity, jealousy, overeating, addiction, anxiety, indecisiveness, etc. Then, because I listed to this podcast on my walk the last two days, I'm going to add something new. The quote I'm using dates to the turn of that last century and was written by Charles Fillmore, "The work that I have to do as a overcomer for the world is to help establish a new race consciousness, a new heaven and a new earth." I'm inviting people to join me in the intention to overcome ideas that perpetuate dualism. Thanks to you, I will use some of the examples that Kwame provided and, thanks to you, I will take them "to the streets." Thank you. I appreciate you. I behold the Christ as you.

I'm a Unity minister and tomorrow, the fifth Sunday of Lent, I'm speaking about Overcoming. I will review the experience of overcoming in which we participate - consciously or not. I will recap the many personal things we overcome by praying, meditation, denying, affirming, setting intentions, etc. Those incluse things like fear, shyness, procrastination, insecurity, jealousy, overeating, addiction, anxiety, indecisiveness, etc. Then, because I listed to this podcast on my walk the last two days, I'm going to add something new. The quote I'm using dates to the turn of that last century and was written by Charles Fillmore, "The work that I have to do as a overcomer for the world is to help establish a new race consciousness, a new heaven and a new earth." I'm inviting people to join me in the intention to overcome ideas that perpetuate dualism. Thanks to you, I will use some of the examples that Kwame provided and, thanks to you, I will take them "to the streets." Thank you. I appreciate you. I behold the Christ as you.

I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation with Professor Appiah. I was struck, indeed dismayed, by your characterization of one major axis of difference in the U.S. as the "Tea Party" folks vs. the "liberal elites." This shows how much, wittingly or unwittingly, the Tea Party language permeates your presentation. Who are the liberal elites? Are they the ones who believe in scientific thinking to understand climate change? The ones who are trying to improve public eduction? The teachers who are laid off because of Tea Party-minded state and local budget cutting?

On Being is such a well put together podcast in so many ways. Besides the obvious things like great content and wonderful voices to listen to, there are moments like those between 20:47 - 21:17 in this episode that just about brilliant. What a great song and editing.

People think town meetings in Vermont are quaint and antiquated, but they address exactly what Mr. Appiah is suggesting. People want to be heard. People come with something they want to say, that they want people in town to hear, and once they've had the chance to do that, they are much more willing to listen to others and go with the majority opinion and vote. It's hard to make town meeting good. Hard to choose a time when people can attend, to bring up subjects that really need to be discussed, to keep one local faction from overriding another. But the possibility to share with others in your community is there and very valuable. And such opportunities are shrinking in current American life.

In the beginning was the deed, indeed. We learn and pass on culture through practices (cooking, celebrating birthdays, crying in public or not). Working together, doing together helps us see unfamiliar others as human first, different from ourselves second. This is, I think, the operation that Rebecca Solnit wrote about in her book about the civilizing effect of disasters, how trouble can work to bring unlikely people into harmony. Magnet schools are a practice that puts this idea into action. I teach at an urban school that draws half its students from the city, and half from 25-30 different ring towns. Children from a wide variety of economic, ethnic, religious, and educational back grounds work together in classes, in band, in chorus, in the school play, on the track team. Because we draw students from such a wide area, children need not change schools when they move. Serendipitously, social media helps these students who live in different neighborhoods to strengthen and sustain their friendships. But first, it's the doing together that builds the human connections.

In my life the way to encourage civil experiences like the kind illustrated in this segment is to be civil daily; not with an agenda of hoping one day to convince or sway an intended target.

There are folks in my community whom I see & recognize as local residents. I do not know them. I seek to hold their eye for a second: " I see you". If you hold my eye for a second you see: "I accept you". No words are spoken here; it would likely be considered inappropriate to say these things.
I say hello if the circumstances allow. It becomes safe in our community when we see each other. Our community becomes unsafe when we do not recognize each other.

Thank you for your work. cam

I couldn't listen to the whole show, so maybe I missed this. It seems the guest, and the tone of the show, suggests that if we can engage in dialogue then we can accept common principles to lead us forward towards accepting difference and disagreement. But this is, by definition (admitted by the guest), a liberal position. This is then a selfish request for dialogue with those "conservatives" that, rightly or wrongly, desire only control. There should be no confusion: modern conservatism is about authoritarian control (possibly often for malicious ends). To suggest that they would "dialogue" is to betray blindness to this fact. They will have no dialogue that they will not control.

This was such an inspiring show. I have many wonderful relationships with people whose political views are completely different from mine. I deeply value the common ground of being human. It has been my experience that the biggest problem in communication is that we don't know how to LISTEN. When another is speaking, we are usually listening to our own thoughts and rehearsing our responses rather than simply receiving the idea, perspective, and thought of the other. (Oddly enough, I believe that this comes from a driven need to be heard)! By suspending our own 'thought chatter' in order to hear anothers perspective, it does not mean that we are automatically changing our perspective or agreeing with them. It also does not mean that we will forget our brilliant views. In fact, if we were to take the time to be curious and interested in understanding another viewpoint and to make an effort to understand what the other is saying, our response might be even more brilliant!

Beautiful. I would like to hear an Interview with Parker Palmer around the Habits of the Heart outlined in "Healing The Heart Of Democracy" as part of the Civil Conversations Project. Thanks for doing this - I am using different books to have conversations around civil discourse and how things change.

I would like to hear more details about how Kwame Anthony Appiah, being liberal and gay, and his Pentecostal sister have maintained a relationship.

This was a wonderful broadcast, and an excellent counterpoint to the kind of divisive prose I am used to reading on many other news outlets.

As for the experience story prompted at the end of the program...

About five years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the International Summer School in Oslo, Norway (ISS). The school, known for its internationally diverse student body, was the kind of place that offered many unique opportunities to a young man from the heartland. Any given meal or social event could provide conversation with Nepalese, Ethiopian, Albanian or Brazilian students. Often times, I was struck by how unabashedly concerned and critical they were with American diplomacy at that time (I attended the school in the summer of 2007).

One of the richest experiences I had occurred in the campus laundry mat. I had begun the washer and sat down to study some of my Norwegian language coursework. A few minutes into the wash cycle, a young women of middle eastern descent entered the laundry room and began washing her clothes. I do not remember what generated our conversation, but I quickly learned that she was an Iraqi. I was quietly shocked when she was quick to ask what faith I identified with. I said I was Lutheran, and when she asked what that was, I explained its position as a protestant Christan tradition. Her next question was even more brash. Was I a Republican? I answered that I did not consider myself a Republican, and that I identified with the Democratic party on most occasions. She replied, "I thought all American Christians were Republican." Sensing her good humored manner and ease of conversation, I asked if she was in support of jihad. When she replied, "No!" I mentioned that many Christians in the United States did not support the war in Iraq, that a great split over the issue had occurred, even within the conversation within church communities.

We had a wonderful discussion about our experiences in the summer program and lighter words about present life, but the interaction with the Iraqi women in the ISS laundry room has always struck me as a great insight into the world of misinformation that seeks to confuse the great amount of rational people who operate in a moderate, but still impassioned position, regardless of their geographic location, political position, etc.

One reflection that Kwame Anthony Appiah's words have inspired is the distinction between the kind of conversation that falls easily in a place of higher education, versus the kind of conversation that is riskless in a more vernacular kind of interaction. The exchange that I shared with a women from Iraqi (at a time when my country was maintaining a highly unpopular military presence in hers) was a sum result of our participation in a school known for international studies. The ISS is also known as "The Little U.N." Both of us were primed for this kind of intense discussion, having practiced and normalized it in coursework and the campus' social setting that summer.

I think one of the criticisms that can actually be leveled with the elusive "liberal elite" is that sometimes educated individuals do not identify the tone of conversation that would be more effective in creating conversation. The kind of conversation that occurs in and around the halls of great institutions is privileged conversation. Much of the world does not have the time or learned capacity to command the language and knowledge of matriculated individuals. There should be no shame in higher education, and I don't think this privilege should be subjected to the kind of anti-intellectual movements that have recently made some gains in the United States, but professors and student bodies within higher education can always practice a more tactful, more patient kind of conversation path.

Fortunately, I do know many college professors who are avid sports fans, so the door is open for the kind of discussion that Mr. Appiah is good to promote. I, for one, will be making a greater effort to follow sports, so that at the very least I may find it easier to connect with my fellow Wisconsinites.

Thank you for the delightful broadcast. Down with the Steelers! Go Packers! ;)

I feel as if I am getting a Bachelors, Masters, and, to a certain degree, prep of a PhD in a variety of fields all at once by simply listening to On Being podcasts. So much more than I would learn in a classic sense yet lacking because I do not share my thoughts with others on a regular basis (all my doing, of course). That being said, was there an unedited interview with Mr. Appiah recorded ? I enjoy those interviews most of all (counter-intuitive is my middle name). It seems to be the only one missing in my collection. If none is available, I understand. But if an unedited interview is available, could it be emailed to me? I subscribe to the newsletter also. Thank you Krista and all of your crew for the work that you do on On Being. I am changed for the better. Be well :)