I - Community : from tradition and modernity
If we take some time to think of our social genealogy it is likely that we will either discover or at least imagine and correctly assume, as Zarina Patel points out in the epigraph above, a complex network of social histories from which we come. In addition, our complex lives of multiple choices and interests, ranging from occupation to friendships and amusements, and to participation in public policy-oriented activities, all bring us into bonds with others in yet more complex ways. Playing roles within each of these segments of our social lives brings us into union with others ; we become a comm-unity.
Patel’s appeal for recognition of a new and more complex sense of community is based on the premise that identities of persons are shaped by the social worlds in which they play various roles, and are susceptible to change as such social worlds mutate through time and space. This view is clearly a break from the one which regards identities of persons to be determined, biologically and socially, by some assumed homogeneous characteristics which they share with other members of the group to which they belong. In many cultures of the world people continue to regard identity in this older way. Because such view of identity plays a crucial role in the management of the social System, good knowledge of one’s kinship network is honored. The growing and increasingly reliable genetic methods, in addition to oral and written historical ones now made much easier to access by computerized databases and networks, have made the recovery and reconstruction of the past a matter of a few finger strokes. What is not yet widespread or obvious is the value of such knowledge. Valuation of knowledge, including knowledge of personal and shared histories, sometimes differs significantly between cultures, and also between individuals within and across cultural boundaries. When and where I grew up among the Luo of Kenya, genealogical knowledge was important both in itself and for social and moral reasons. Knowledge of the larger social System of which one was part, and of one’s exact location within it, was crucial for determining one’s own and others’ rights and duties as well as general customary comportment toward others. Individual and community were related in a constant mutual dependency : the specific behavior of individuals in various contexts gave the community its cultural boundaries and identity just as much as the normative standards of the community regulated the practices of individuals and groups within it. As one grows up and attains the age of adulthood in this cultural environment, this knowledge and the derivable behavioral expectations become more demanding. An adult Luo man or woman is always expected to behaviorally relate to others – by speech and deeds – within the limitations provided for (or expected of) the kinship relations between them. One knew or could know her or his relatives and calculate or adjust their behavior toward them accordingly. Also, because the socio-economic distributive system was based on such relations, knowledge thereof provided a critical source of socio-political hierarchy, justice and the practice of justice. Put simply, the fairly well-known boundaries of the autonomous cultural system, its sub-systems of kinship relations and permanence of neighborliness placed restrictions on possible adventurous thoughts and practices of members of the group. They provided the ultimate reference for social and moral control. Knowing and practicing culture within these bounded domains have for a long time signaled the close relation between consciousness and society, and it satisfies both theoretical and practical purposes. By constantly evaluating and adjusting one’s conduct in accordance with known or assumed expectations of other members within any relational circuit one shifts the focus of their conduct from self to the group where the maintenance of shared values takes precedence. Relatedly, however, people also paid keen attention to others’ comportment toward them, and are encouraged to file grievance if such was deemed unbecoming.
The Luo model of maintaining social order is only one among multiple schemes of other peoples and cultures. But it represents a typically traditional model where most actors either know or can easily determine the nature of kinship relations between them. Together, members of such a community commit to the beliefs and behavioral norms which they share ; relations with those recognized as strangers – that is mwa, those who inhabit different schemes – are carefully handled and negotiated in search of middle-ground norms. When these people talk of « community », they refer to this schematic unity of beliefs and behavior as well as to the people who inhabit the scheme ; they think of this community as a separate and independent entity which is permanent and enduring because it outlives its individual members. They feel they belong to it and are obliged by its laws which they have the duty and responsibility to protect and pass on to later generations while also recognizing variations within the scheme.
However, for many Luo people in the traditional setting, like for people from many other societies, time has exacted its toll on the traditional values. The demands of modern economy have made it possible for people to migrate to places far away from those locations once considered natural « home » and from the ways once considered to be larger than life, thus making people once regardable as « strangers » to be our closest neighbors, friends, and associates. As a result, not just our senses of neighborhood have changed, our interests also have shifted or expanded. The shifting horizons of social and cultural maps have revolutionized the traditional senses of community into those in which neither the homogeneity of practice nor embodied genealogies are necessary constituting requirements. Also, it has become more evident that sharing embodied genealogies does not always include or imply the sharing of cultural or moral beliefs and practices like it was once assumed to be in the traditional society. Social mobility has revealed the categorial separation between socio-somatic and psycho-intellectual genealogies. In this essay we wish to outline some of the characteristics of such changes in the idea and constitution of community. Also, I want to argue that while these new senses and constitutions of community have been liberating in certain senses, especially from the traditional ones like that of the Luo, or like the ones Patel alludes to, their political uses do not always guarantee liberty for all.
The above-mentioned changes in the idea and constitution of community, occurring speedily since World War II, do not necessarily blur our ideas of and feelings about our social histories, but they certainly have awakened the world to an awareness of new questions regarding previous assumptions about the « fixed » nature of community. In both the academy and public arena, the shift from thinking of community as a permanent entity to one constantly brought into being through varieties of expression has transformed not only how we think of academic disciplines and their claims, but also, and even more importantly, how we regard the various socio-cultural systems of the world and their values and attitudes. Post-World War II immigrations significantly modified the faces, colors, languages, as well as beliefs and practices of old communities and enabled the formation of new social and cultural constituencies within and across nations and cultures. As a result, even in older liberal democracies, both the indigenous and the immigrant have found new comradeship and alliance. Where shared values were originally vague, they received robust redefinition to forge new forms of unity, thus, in the process and in some cases, significantly redrawing original cultural maps to connect groups of people who share beliefs and practical preferences. Sometimes religion is the leading rallying factor, sometimes it is shared ethical principles about persons, animals, or the environment. Across national boundaries, such groups usually refer to themselves as communities, because they share common global political and ethical interests defined on new terms and with varying goals and degrees of power and ability to influence public policy and action. Members of groups like the Greenbelt Movement for environmental protection, animal rights protection groups, the Human Rights Watch fit into this type of community. They differ from the traditional community and from others we shall mention later in that membership to them is the least linked to the ethical principle of sympathetic impartiality. Rather, commitment to their principles is based purely on their rational appeal. At the same time, the examples underscore the original idea of community as the source of moral knowledge and values. African philosophers recently have made a strong pitch for the communitarian basis of knowledge and morality. In particular I have in mind the work of the Ghanaian philosophers Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye. (See, for example, Wiredu, 1980 and 1996 ; Gyekeye, 1987/1997, and Wiredu and Gyekye, 1992.)
These examples show how the idea of community has changed alongside the political and economic mutations of the post-World War II period, without totally replacing its older configurations. Patel is therefore right in suggesting the multiple identities for East African peoples originated in South-East Asia, a view equally true for communities indigenous to Africa itself. That the acceleration of these changes is owed largely to the political economy of the post-WWII period is, of course, not surprising, at least for those who know the history of the Asiatic factor in Africa which is the basis of Patel’s analysis of identity and community in Asian diaspora.
What is significantly new is that the moral and social-political consequences of these changes have prompted new commensurate theories, in both the academy and the public arena, all aiming, it is assumed, at outlining the best of principles and values which can and should universally improve and protect the rights of all individuals and groups both within and across the borders of the various socio-cultural and political orders. However, these new and multiple theoretical orientations leave no doubt that much discord and controversy have erupted around the meanings, value and relevance of a variety of descriptive and normative concepts thereby generated for the creation of a new, peaceful and orderly world. Blessed is she who can develop the dual virtue of being linguistically and morally consistent and correct in her political discourse and practice in the new world culture. In the post-communist world, terms such as « sexism », « diversity », and « minority » « race », « gender », « age », « disability », and « culture » have all become the new search terms for probing and identifying « the enemies of the people ». They are the new indicators of the political stands (correctness or insensitiveness) of individuals, groups, or institutions. To show commitment to adapt to these « new times » as addressed by these terms and concepts, academic institutions as well as social-political movements across the globe scramble to incorporate various mixtures from this lexicon into the language of their curricula and behavioral ideals of their respective spaces. The message is often quite clear despite the definitional controversies around the concepts themselves : strive to show conceptual and structural acceptance and enhancement of pluralism. The application of the message to the everyday practical world is not always clearcut, hence the avalanche of lawsuits, countersuits, and other types of charges and accusations resulting from related ambiguities of precise classification.
Inside or alongside these neologisms and the accompanying debates lies a crucial transformation in the idea of community itself, a major shift from the custom-based traditional type we started with. The worldview represented by these new terms and concepts suggests that people can form cultural, political, economic, and moral communities as separate interest groups in which individuals can participate, simultaneously or in sequence with different other people in each case, without abandoning any. In other words, communities are no longer viewed as fixed entities, but rather as open-ended and amorphous groupings definable more by the organizing beliefs, principles and practices than by the bodies which inhabit them.
It lies beyond our scope and goals here to examine adequately the diverse and rival versions of political and moral implications of the changes we have mentioned above. We will however create room, in however limited fashion, to mention some views, often appearing to be in opposition, about the new political roles of community as discussed in the work of Michael L. Gross on the one hand and, on the other, the moral (and political) threat which claims to specific group-membership pose to the idea and practical cultivation of universal humanity as argued by Martha Nussbaum. Both positions underscore the significance of community to the idea and practice of democratic values and to the enriching reflections and enjoyments of the cultural diversity of the human phenomenon. As the sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander (1995 : 79) observes, « Social movements that ignore these [new] structures encourage the domination and violence that has characterized the degenerate line of twentieth-century life ». I argue, against both Gross and Nussbaum, that, one, although much power has shifted to groups – that is, to communities of various kinds – as the location of both the check on political power and the influence of public policy, this arrangement is bereft of the capacity to engender equality ; instead, it has several ingredients for social polarization, antagonism and conflict. In urban settings for example, neighborhoods demarcated on the basis of communities of sorts can also serve, advertently or otherwise, as a way of keeping apart such groups, whether they are defined on the basis of racial, ethnic, or socio-economic factors. In this sense, communities are those political pockets or constituencies which are constantly steeped in competition with each other for government distribution of power and influence, goods and services. In the so-called Third World, traditional communities transformed into these roles against each other and against the state or government system are always considered a threat to the formation, integrity, and stability of the nation-state. Two, against Nussbaum’s claim is that the most potent way to stem the oppression of disadvantaged groups and to increase equality and mutual respect among all humans is to establish education reforms which stress the universality of humanity rather than cultural or national patriotism, I argue that localized identity is not inherently bad, nor does it become bad only because overzealous people throughout history have used it to carry out atrocities against those they regard to be different from themselves. Instead, at least sometimes, like the history and project of colonization have shown, it is those who see their own values as solely deserving to be universally good rather than as historically and anthropologically particular, who have been the carriers of global oppression and imperialism. I add my support to the voices of those who have argued in response to this debate that it is not incompatible to be both a cosmopolitan and a patriot.
II - Communities, nations, and nation-states
It could be objected that I started with a highly controversial view of community when I characterized « the Luo » as one. An objection might be raised that mine was a colonially informed view of community, a fabrication of the colonial archive in which the old-type cultural anthropological texts played crucial albeit at times inadvertent part. To that anthropological view, African peoples peoples were deemed to be distinct from each other in physical, customary and moral terms. We hope to show later that African peoples themselves hardly ascribed to these essentializing characteristics as separating them from each other. Rather, at least to the Luo, communal identity is acquired, and can be shed or abandoned by choice of practice. The variations in the norms defining belief and practice of culture attest to the view that being Luo is itself not uniform. It is constantly negotiated, in legal and cultural forums.
Together, however, and in very general senses, various populations of the non-Western world, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, present yet another variant of the meaning of community and the way it is expressed through political power. With the growth of the disciplines of social and cultural anthropology, differences between communities were to be found in their organizational patterns driven by the dominant mode of production. Thus the difference between Western and non-Western communities, it was thought, were due to the respective differences in the economic dynamics that molded them. While Western communities were the function of the dynamics of advanced industrial economies, those of Africa, Latin America, and vast portions of Asia were held together by kinship Systems put in place by primitive nature-dependent economies. They were simple or primitive societies structured into fairly homogeneous communal groups or tribes. Chief among the factors that appeared to inform social anthropologists in their classification of say African societies into separate « communities » was common language. It was the single major invariant that connected what were sometimes widely dispersed and loosely politically organized social systems. Yet even social anthropologists are by no means consistent or agreed amongst themselves about their usage of the term « community » in this sense. Other factors became clear to them regarding the boundaries separating different communities. Not only did each one have its own language, they also had separate types of socio-political organization, and had separate and sovereign authorities irrespective of how these were defined and symbolized (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940).
But because social anthropology flourished in close relationship with and within the framework of the political economy of colonialism, it produced a structural political planning system that beats interesting analogies with the communal layout of the racially multi-polar urban American society. In the colonial system, the so-called tribal « communities » were thought of as self sustaining socio-political and cultural units with (semi-) autonomous local power Systems capable of working more effectively on their own due to the already existing (traditional) power hierarchies. The colonial system entrenched itself partly by claiming it would protect these communal interests and bonds by observing their semi-autonomy, and also by protecting the separate « community » systems from mutual threats within its sphere. The assumption was that societies and communities bear sharp contrasts. In the latter, people were viewed primarily as individuals, related to others only through a complex of laws which bind them into a society of independent agents. Economically, social relations in advanced capitalist economies were assumed predominantly to be driven by relations connecting participant individuals to groups based on the nature of their labor and levels of income. Together they formed a society (Gesellschaft). By contrast, communities (Gemeinschaft) were thought of to be held together by worldviews defined by metaphysical values and ritual which tie people into a common bond. They thought of themselves as needing and belonging to each other. The idea of the ritual self-regulation of communities was particularly important for colonial administration. For the British colonial System it quickly formed the basis of indirect rule which allowed to retain some of their traditional systems of social order and control. The difference was that under this new arrangement, the traditional authorities gave up their former powers in exchange for ceremonial space. The traditional leaders became the shock absorbers for the tensions that were soon to arise. Where there was no local system of centralized authority to absorb the rising local pressure against colonial administration, the colonial system created and imposed one. This latter way is how, for example, the Luo re-invented themselves under a single leader, Ker, a system they had lost for a period of over one century as they migrated southward from today’s Southern Sudan to today’s Kenya. Through this colonially enhanced reinvention, they became a community, either for the first time, or once again. Either way, their make-up became more complex. The newly formed political power base became an influencing factor around which different peoples, formerly Luo-speaking and non-Luo-speaking alike, forged their new identity.
The colonial objectives for creating semi-autonomous communities in the above manner was quite clear. Some of them survived well into the last decade. For example, in the last decade of apartheid, the minority white regime in South Africa attempted, but failed, to institute a system of federated racial and tribal states by urging local African leaders to accept a « homeland » system which would give them a measure of limited political autonomy over their tribal territories. The goal was mainly to lure the powerful Zulu leaders to take the offer as an opportunity, for them and their faithful followers, apparently to continue to practice their traditional monarchical system with minimal interference. The real reason and opportunity, however, was to create multiple competing forces whose rivalry would help to deflect pressure from the apartheid system mainly by setting the Inkatha freedom party into a head-on collision with Nelson Mandela’s anc.
The prospect of preserving the traditional monarchy in which he would continue to play a visible role of chief and prince easily lured Mongusuthu Buthelezi into wildly and blindly supporting the apartheid regime against the radical liberation movements spearheaded by the anc of Nelson Mandela. Elsewhere, in Kenya in 1904 and 1911, Maasai Laibons (ritual and political leaders) were conned into thumbing their consent on treaties with the representatives of the British government ; these supposed agreements were quickly and immediately used to expunge indigenous communities not only from the vicinity of Nairobi but from the entire highland plateau area which soon became the « White Highlands ». The original indigenous owners of these lands were transformed into either squatter-laborers or criminal trespassers in the only lands they had known as their homes for centuries. By these political fiats in the form of treaties, people were herded into groups and other forms of alliances in unprecedented ways. Administrative boundaries were drawn to keep each group together and to separate it from others. By these political acts the British colonial system created, for its convenience and interests, new communities with the support of their social anthropologists whose work purportedly confirmed each group to be linguistically and culturally autonomous and homogeneous.
In analogous ways, fragmentation of society into communities has become a key strategy in urban social planning and control. The United States in particular finds it an effective tool in the management and sustenance of the de facto racial divide. As groups defined in terms ranging from ethnicity to race and to social class, neighborhood communities have become a trendy notion of urban, regional, and global policing and delivery systems. The official justification is that such groupings provide ways to « [maximize] participation and political efficacy, particularly at the local level…[allowing] individuals and local organizations to develop a clear idea of their interests as well as the means necessary to realize them. [But], as needs are developed locally, [wider and] global criteria for distribution collapse » (Gross, 1997 : 239). In reality, by giving neighborhoods some measure of autonomy – often only fictitious – through their participation in the keeping of law and order at the local level in exchange for social amenities and services, neighborhood communities can be more effectively contained and better supervised ; their confrontational capacity is considered minimized and therefore less threatening to the overarching power system. Above all, their desire and capacity to infiltrate other parts of the society are thus blunted and reduced to ineffective minimums. The result, then, are mosaic urban maps composed of racialized and ethnicized blocks making up the urban setting. The dominant economic and social characteristics of these neighborhoods are clearly highlighted in the judicial records of the urban governments. They range from drugs to alcoholism, to murder, to rapes, and to theft. Those of us who speak from the colonial context know for sure the flaws of this British-type divide-and-rule or indirect-rule style of control and domination. It is flawed because it is based on the mono-optical view, developed first by social anthropologists for the liberal colonial capitalists, but today also strongly present in the American urban settings, that communities are systems in which the reproduction of power structures is the primary concern. It assumes that when communities make demands they do so for a place in an accepted scheme rather than for the revision of the scheme itself. But because the distribution of power is often an autonomous issue in politics, it has been easy for entrenched and dominant power systems like the colonial and apartheid systems in Africa, and the white power system in America, to sell off the idea of political autonomy to groups targeted for marginalization as a way of keeping them off limits from those goods with which political power is crucially associated. In its desires, not so much to give autonomy to native South African ethnic groups as to protect the privileges of the minority white population, the apartheid system struggled for decades to institute the home-land system for indigenous South Africans in order both to separate the communities from each other and to keep all of them out of the minority white enclaves. According to Manning Marable, a similar situation is rapidly emerging in the United States with regard to the changing meanings and political uses of the concepts of race and ethnicity.
The idea of community as a homogeneous social unit of sorts has been an important aspect of American urbanization since the thirties. The racism and impoverishment that pushed blacks out of the rural South entrapped them into ghettos in the industrial cities of the North. Segregation and inability to afford better housing forced black populations into squalidness where they lived together in run-down sections of the cities like people hurdled together by nature. Jews have had similar racially discriminatory treatment in the United States, especially between 1880 and late 1960s. But while Jewish people have benefited greatly from the anti-discrimination laws of the sixties and seventies, African-descended Americans and other so-called « people of color » have continued to be subjected to subtle yet prevalent racially discriminatory practices. Ironically, while struggle to success amid adversity has kept Jewish Americans connected around the nation through strong community commitment, continued struggles of African-Americans against persistent discrimination bind only some of them into a commitment to a sense of community ; others try to tear away in attempt to escape the inferior stereotyping which accompanies anti-black and anti-colored racism. Oftentimes, African-Americans are visibly at a loss regarding where to throw their efforts, or what to emphasize in order to garner a solid sense of direction in the ranks. The result is the sense of vulnerability and constant position-changing that characterizes African-American politics. According to Marable (2000), « The Irish [also] experiences severe discrimination upon their arrival. But within several generations, they had become ‘white’. They had assimilated the values of privilege and the language and behavior of white domination that permitted them to claim status within the hierarchy ». This assimilation, he notes, has not happened to « racialized » immigrants from Latin America and Asia.
Either America has refused or it has utterly failed to move from mere desegregation to integration where African-Americans are concerned. Racial discrimination still defines the attitudes and practices with which policies for the provision of such public amenities and services like education, housing, and employment are implemented. The resultant demarcations of the American social world almost unstoppably engenders the impression that racial communities are natural entities, into which people are born and embedded. Where the colonial governments naturalized « tribal communities », the West naturalizes racial ones.
How, one might ask, have so-created communities affected the evolution of civil society, of nation-states as cohesive body politic ? Indeed, the creation of new states over the fragmented communities served the colonial state. What was not clear was how these communities would position themselves vis-a-vis the post-colonial state. The outcome betrays no theoretical uniformity. In some cases, like in Botswana, the new universalistic state appears to have succeeded in sidestepping the community approach. By sidestepping the chiefs, elders and other community leaders, the president has succeeded in defining the presidency as the sole « chieftainship » over the whole of Botswana. It might be argued that Botswana presents a unique picture with its small national population (of 1.2 million) divided into only two (Sotho and Tswana) communities. That these factors do not necessarily account for Botswana’s success becomes clear from the contrasting quagmires in Burundi and Rwanda which share similarities with Botswana. On the other hand, ethnic pluralism which has reigned havoc in Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya, for example, has not produced any comparable problems in, say, Tanzania. Even mono-ethnic states like Somalia have fared any better than plural ones. The better approach, then is to observe each case in terms of how each case of the colonial apparati influenced the outcome of their replacements by their respective strategies. Commenting on the Botswana case, John Holm and Patrick Molutsi (1992 : 85) point out that « [t]he problem with all these community-based approaches is that they have an impact only on policy implementation in individual communities, while top national leaders remain unaffected ». The Botswana case is further helped by its proximity to South Africa whose labor market left no other option for Botswana’s leaders than the universalistic approach to keep its labor force at home for nation-building. In several African cases, the colonial positioning, by design or by default, of specific communities to make greater national claims relative to others has clearly impeded the onset of democracy and good governance rooted in the rift and/or competition between state and society (see, for example, Rothchild and Chazan 1988).
III - Social and political activism : the role of modern communities
Let me return now to that type of community which emerges as the location of adequate and efficient agency for influencing changes and enactment of public policy in liberal society. This category of community is the result of a critical review of the Lockean theory of the mass society as a moral political body ; its theorizers argue that in view of recent social and political transformations, the Lockean model has become weak and therefore incapable of overseeing and safeguarding public policy. Its exponents argue that small organized social groups, formed as either rights-based communities or other forms of compact interest groups, have replaced Locke’s political society as the most effective bodies for negotiating or pressing for the enactment of laws in recognition of the rights of groups where they are denied or absent. As recently argued by Michael L. Gross (1997), this development is a shift away from the strong political morality – partly derived from Locke but accentuated by Mill and recently rearticulated by Rawls – which charges individuals with the moral duty to oversee public policy and take appropriate action when it violates certain moral limits. It contends that the democratic welfare depends for its survival on the rational actions of the individual such as autonomous judgment and concerted political action, whether these are manifested through her vote, the right to political participation, or the duty of civil disobedience. However, today, due to the ever growing complexity of interests as well as the cognitively complex feature of political cognition itself, even this vaunted individuality has needed the tempering of a « moral community », the pre-political social entity that forms the basis for civil society and perseveres on the dissolution of government. In other words, political action is collective. It is not taken at the instigation of isolated individuals but only on the basis of consensus and general agreement. This, Gross observes, suggests a weak model of political morality that severely constrains the moral demands of the strong model.
The reason this model represents the weak political morality is that in them, according to Gross, moral principles are not pursued so much for their hedonistic value as for their protective role ; as soon as they are codified and enshrined in positive law they are left to slide into the backdrop against which self-interest is played out. Political stability is not found in moral competence but in informed self-interest and institutional regulation. Weak political morality has become the phenomenon of the growing pluralist and often also conflictual world in which the perceived threat of Otherness has identified « protection » as the primary duty of government – to protect individuals and groups from the perceived harsh realities of political life such as corrupt leaders, unjust majorities, crime-proned and/or ill-tempered neighbors.
This is certainly another level of social evolution, an attractive model of liberal democratic values at work. But it doesn’t work equally for all interest groups. It is not guaranteed that people will give equal support, on the basis of reason and moral conviction alone, to the causes of all those social categories to which they themselves do not belong as they their own. The example I have in mind is the relations between racial or ethnic rights and the rights of say gay people. Will a gay black woman receive equal support of non-black gay people in race-related issues as she gives to gay-related ones ? There are no guaranteed answers to this kind of question, simply because people may respond differently to questions of what I will call « choosable identity » (like sexual orientation) than they would to « non-choosable » ones (like being black, white, or yellow). This would mean that although a yellow gay person may believe that denying black people certain rights only on the basis of race alone is morally just as wrong as denying a gay person certain rights given to others only because of their sexual orientation, they might not feel pulled strongly enough, on those moral grounds, to march on the streets, or to donate moneys toward a legal defense for a race issue as they do or would for gay issues in which their interests are directly addressed. A slightly more complicated case arose, exempli gratia, from what is now widely regarded as a race-driven reluctance or only quarter-hearted willingness by America to help resolve the Rwanda genocide which stands in sharp contrast to how it later mobilized massive resources to intervene in the Balkan genocide.
Another factor which may influence the degree of effectiveness of interest-group communities in influencing policy may well be their given or ability to muster financial backing, a matter which, sometimes, gets closely related to the race factor in many ways. The point is that in situations where separate communities do not share equal access to the same channels of self-representation and argumentation, or do not or are not likely to have the same effect on the institutions to be lobbied and controlled, the pluralist structure of the weak political morality can be an avenue to even greater social and civil inequities. The protective democracy of the weak political morality is more likely to benefit already privileged and politically and economically strong (influential) communities which wield recognized and not easily compromisable power bases than it is to have any meaning-fulness to less advantaged groups. Such a situation is more likely to preserve if not to enhance the status quo than it is to generate substantive social and political changes. Those who have cared to watch South Africa’s push to a post-apartheid state of social cohesion and integration will ponder why the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation was so seriously hampered in its endeavors. The government of South Africa has openly admitted that it cannot effectively carry out justice against those guilty of apartheid crimes in fear of the possible economic and political backlash from the reactions of the overly privileged white minority despite the criminal nature of their political path to such privilege.
In the context of international aggression, weak political morality makes provisions for political and moral justifications for rescuing and/or protecting disadvantaged nations and societies from invasions by their neighbors as happened in the aftermath of German invasion of her neighbors during World War II, or in recent Euro-American unified forces’ involvement in the Kuwaiti and the Balkan region conflicts. It also justifies involvement by powerful nations in peace negotiations or in the prevention of the escalation of potential conflict between bickering neighbors as is happening in the United States’ protection of South Korea, or in her brockering of peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
To claim that protective democracy is the way to the stabilization of the world order is to ignore its capacities to engender conflict. Gross would agree with this view because he remarks (1997 : 24) that protective democracy has sometimes been characterized as a system which « glorifies individualism and self-interest, seeks to control the insidious effects of partisan politics by encouraging more factions, abjures any moral transformation of political consciousness, and encourages competitive rather than cooperative political relationships motivated by a rather dim, if realistic, view of human nature… » This kind of competitive partisan politics shows up frequently almost everywhere in the world there are multiple social formations. In some cases it creates acrimonies between ethnic groups or clans, in others between racial groups.
In Gross’s view, for weak political morality to work, it must be guided by moral reasoning which will incorporate political activism with specific accounts of normative first principles, democratic character, and moral learning. He argues that as a general principle, mass society can no longer be relied upon, like Locke did, as the subject of collective action for checking the excesses and shortcomings of government. And he rightly recognizes that the rational model of collective action might work only if its incentives already assume the existence of a context which determines their efficacy. As he (Gross, 1997: 108) says, « Altruism, normative duty, and fairness are operative relative to a particular set of ‘significant others’ whose interests are weighed with one’s own, whose leaders and norms are authoritative, and among whom mutual feelings of fidelity and fairness run high ». In other words, for the rational model of collective action to work, there must be another form of « communal feeling » of common belonging among the participants of the group. Although small groups united solely by shared interests of moral nature, by intellectual convictions, are for Gross the ideal (perfect) communities, they emerge only at that ideal stage when individuals are able to « ignore calculations of expected utility ». I have tried to point out above that this ideal moral principle appears to serve those who already enjoy privilege or are more likely to get it rather than the less privileged and weaker segments of society.
Gross’s communitarian view is purely methodological. While it emphasizes the psycho-social and ethical importance of belonging to communities for specific ends, the interests and beliefs which are conceived of and valued as common ends by members of the group are actually private although congruent with those of other people. Based on the central role of congruency rather than commonality of interests of members, this view of society affirms that the betterment of society is guaranteed by the conflictual and competitive relations between its constituent parts. It does not aim at achieving a common humanity.
Gross’s theory, like Locke’s, is evolutionistic. It claims that weak political morality is the function of an increase in social complexity – such as the rise of once unknown or tabooed claims of moral and legal rights for individuals and groups – and of a higher epistemological sophistication in political cognition. This complexity of the nature and knowledge of society has rendered the Lockean mass political body ineffective as an agent of political moral control. Locke’s single political community now has been replaced by a multiplicity of political communities defined by varieties of moral claims and beliefs which are only shared by relatively small groups. Also, in the place of mass protests available to Locke’s political community as the effective means for bringing change, the effectiveness of small interest-group communities depends first on the logical and epistemological strength of moral and legal arguments and only later reverts to active protests.
IV - Ethnic, national, or global community ?
The reality of ethnic communities enables many African people to experience their world and to identify themselves in multiple ways. « They think of themselves as one people in some settings and as a different people in others » (Karp, 1995 : 221). One may identify himself as a member of one ethnic community or only a section of it when the nature of political discourse so demands, and firmly as a Kenyan at another time under a different setting of discourse. As Appiah tells us in a moving story about his father’s death and funeral (Appiah, 1992 : 181-92), in Africa communities appear to continue to claim high stakes in the control of individuals’ experiences of their identity. But it has been suggested by supporters of moral globalization that nationalism and ethnocentrism are hindrances to the development of universal human moral values.
While socio-cultural pluralism in raises interesting political questions about nation-building, the impact of inter-ethnic rivalries on the stability of the state raises pertinent moral issues regarding how members of different groups treat each other in settings of divided loyalty. Nepotism, tribalism, and other forms of discriminatory behavior are bad and wrong any time or anywhere they are practiced. They are founded on the commitment, on occasions of distributing goods or apportioning claims, to either favor those who share kinship ties with us against those unrelated to us, regardless of whether or not they are justly qualified or deserving. Nepotism, tribalism, racism, and such other type of behavior are the antitheses of distributive justice. Akin to them are those feelings which we develop and frequently exhibit to express our committed love for our group, whether this is family, clan, ethnic group, or nation. In the present world of international corporations and common political bodies requiring service from citizens of member-states, even patriotism can lead to the kind of injustices we have identified with nepotism and tribalism.
Besides distributive considerations, love of one’s group can lead to morally questionable expressions, like show of rejection and hostility toward those of other groups for no reason other than that they are from groups different from one’s own. Indeed history is replete with accounts of wars and other forms of atrocities carried out against people of other identities. On this account, it has been argued, all expressions of love of own identity over others have at least the potential of leading to immoral behavior toward others and should therefore be replaced with a more cosmopolitan view of equality among all humans. Let us call this view the pan-humanist moral theory and quickly endorse its chief moral objective : the cultivation of a world in which all humans can enjoy equal rights and respect regardless of their racial, national, ethnic, religious, gender, or any other form of affiliation.
Pan-humanist or universalist moral theorists argue that any form of emphasis on one or more social identities over others, such as ethnocentrism or patriotism, hinders the development of true moral and cognitive values because they make only the members of one’s identity group their moral equals, to the perilous exclusion of those who stand outside it. According to this view, cultural pluralism is a notion that can lead to moral and cognitive relativism which, it argues, is often invoked in defense of atrocities of groups against others.
While pluralism and relativism remain distinct, they both equally worry pan-humanists. Current debates (as appear, for example, in Nussbaum and Cohen, 1996, and in Cheah and Robbins, 1998) which define as mutually opposed the categories of ethnicity and nation, nation and the globe, are sort of reformulations of the same old problem of the opposition between the particular and the universal. The strength of these debates lies in their ability to situate moral discourse within the wider context of the sociality of humans which has been made even more complex by recent and on-going technological advancement and economic growth, especially in the West and Japan. These gains have made it possible to interrogate old moral and other society-related theories which now appear to have depended for their strength on the idea of social closures such as ethnically or nationally defined systems. Among such questions one can formulate the following : how do we define people culturally today in the face of widespread immigration, by individuals and groups, across geographical, social, religious, and other forms of cultural boundaries ? Should people continue to compartmentalize themselves when technology is making it possible to unify in once unimagined modes ? What have been, are, and will be the moral consequences of ideas, theories and ideologies which encourage compartmentalization of people through the theories of identity and difference ? But counter-questions come to mind quickly too : Does cultural self-identification entail the negation of cosmopolitanism ? Or, does it entail hostility toward Others ? Can we be both simultaneously ? These are difficult questions, and they do not suggest easy answers. But people who are mindful enough of the future of humanity must ask and confront them.
While keeping in mind the injustices and other evils against humanity resulting from calls by the dark world’s political leaders as a result of unwarranted ethnocentrism at the expense of greater social values, I worry also of other assumptions underlying the claim that feelings associated with identities based on community or nation-state, such as patriotism, or those based on religion, are incompatible with cosmopolitanism and a universal moral order. It is hard to imagine an argument that would successfully defend the claim that one cannot give allegiance to being, for instance, a Zande and a Sudanese at the same time, or that doing so inexorably limits his/her ability to develop truly human values that are universal. It is worrying because for such a claim to succeed it would have to also successfully argue that social identities, such as being Zande or Sudanese, are inalienable, and are ontologically and cognitively determining and mutually exclusive conditions which no one person can possess together at the same time.
Martha Nussbaum (1996) argues that nationalism, and by extension other bounding identities, limit our ability to develop true moral values. While commenting on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, The Home and the World, she writes :
I believe that Tagore sees deeply when he observes that, at bottom, nationalism and ethnocentric particularism are not alien to one another, but akin – that to give support to nationalist sentiments subverts, ultimately, even the values that hold a nation together, because it substitutes a colorful idol for the substantive universal values of justice and right. Once someone has said, I am an Indian first, a citizen of the world second, once he or she has made that morally questionable move of self-definition by a morally irrelevant characteristic, then what, indeed, will stop that person from saying, as Tagore’s characters so quickly learn to say, I am a Hindu first, and an Indian second, or I am an upper-caste landlord first, and a Hindu second ? Only the cosmopolitan stance of the landlord Nikhil – so boringly flat in the eyes of his young wife Bimala and his passionate nationalist friend Sandip – has the promise of transcending these divisions, because only this stance asks us to give our first allegiance to what is morally good – and that which, being good, I can recommend to all human beings.
(Nussbaum, 1996 : 5)
Like most of those (universalists) who argue that any principle of social action is wrong and must be rejected if it bears the capacity to produce results contrary to the ideal aspirations of the dominant theory, Nussbaum too argues that in a world geared toward bridging at least most differences between peoples across political, social and cultural borders, all types of bounded identities should at best take a secondary place to the value of a universal boundless society.
While its objective is undeniably a good one, the universalist demand is, however, an expression of fears based on some historical facts rather than on an assessment of a logical relation between claims of identity and violence. From a historical viewpoint, it is unquestionably legitimate to raise awareness about the capacity of people, generally speaking, to move from a mere recognition of divers ethnicities to believing, to paraphrase Appiah (1990), that members of different ethnicities differ in respects that warrant their differential treatment. In Africa, such a move spells the onset of tribalism, one of her public moral problems. Given the amount of evil committed in remote and recent history by people in the names of the groups within which they claim identity, Nussbaum’s point hardly requires emphasis or elaboration. But it is wrong to infer from this that anyone who identifies herself as say Zande first and Sudanese second will thereby be a tribalist in this moral sense. She does well to place the blame on ideology, an important aspect of which is the packaging of education and its role in creating and instilling in the minds of young generations the false connotations of the sentiments about our identities as local and global citizens. Such education, it is our view, can create awareness of universal human values, one of which is the important cultural diversity among human groups.
Needless to say, educational systems provide us with the ideological lenses through which we view ourselves in relation to others. And if Nussbaum is right that « [t]hrough cosmopolitan education, we learn more about ourselves » (1996 : 11), then, ironically, colonial education, with its emphasis on the colonizer, produced the unintended product in the colonized by making him more humane and more universally-oriented. In other words, the colonized was able to cast his gaze away from himself without casting out his self-image. There is no doubt that Nussbaum’s concerns are both justified and timely ; they address wrong uses of identity – for cultic differences rather than for the riches of cultural diversity which the human phenomenon makes possible. But, it is not hard to see, that they are concerns with what she identifies to be wrong education policies, and not with identity as such. To put this in the idioms of her portrait of the Aristophanic tragedy, it is not true that all who learn about difference will be father-killers. There may always be bad pupils who erroneously make tragic inferences from ideas about difference. Also, while Socrates was not among them, there may always be bad teachers who might lead their pupils to be father-killers. But should we therefore proscribe the teaching profession altogether just because there is a persistent likelihood to have both bad pupils and bad teachers ? Nussbaum’s proposal is, of course, that we should reform education to stress universality rather than eliminate it altogether. In her view, reference to the classics will instruct us on the original importance of the universal as the true object of knowledge.
V - Communities : Can we transcend them ?
Recent debates on the nature of communities were popularized and made current by and continue to draw from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983). Since then, birds of all feathers have since learned to feed on Anderson’s grains. But before Benedict Anderson made current the idea of community as a product of post-WWII ideological campaigns aided by the media, there was Pierre Felix Bourdieu’s idea that the worlds we inhabit are networks of carefully negotiated schematic rules in which individual and society are mutually dependent and produce each other. There is no society without the practical and improvising skills of the individual, just as there is no self-sufficient individual whose practical skills are primarily in response to the regulations of society within given structures. Several other thinkers too, including Kuhn and Polanyi in the recent past, and Charles Wade Mills (1997 and 1998) among many others today, have addressed the role of communities, both professional and everyday ones, in the epistemic shaping of our world. They examine the social mechanisms by which the construction and validation of theory and norms are done. Mills is far more deterministic in ways that Bourdieu is not. It is Bourdieu whose work directly addresses the individual-society co-relation in the production of culture in general in manners relevant to the issues raised by Nussbaum. His general social theory in particular aims at transcending the opposition between individual and society which he sees to be mutually conditioning. His thesis is that the cultural worlds which we assume to be common for the actors within them are constituted by the effects of the actors’ own actions within society as an influencing and conditioning (also self-preserving) institution. On the one hand, people exhibit practical skills which are adjusted to the constraints of the (social) environment. On the other hand, society does not determine people’s actions : the same practical skills allow them to act with some measure of freedom and even to improvise in the process of dealing with an infinite number of situations, thus influencing and reshaping the practical appearance of society itself. Together, in reciprocity, they produce these cultural communities by a systemic action-response behavioral scheme. For Bourdieu, cultural knowledge, such as knowledge of ritual, is a kind of practical knowledge based on the same schemes of habitus as daily life in which the patterns of ritual and daily activities interpenetrate and interact to create the cultural significance of the Lebenswelt. In Bourdieu’s social world or habitus, ritual, language, actors, and agency, all play specific and open-ended roles in the creation of the worlds that structure the social world into units of specific modes of rationality, legitimation, power, and social action.
The key notion in Bourdieu’s practical logic, habitus, leads to his emphasis of cross-contextual links. As a set of generative schemes of perception, action, and appreciation that are learned and reinforced by actions and discourses produced according to the same schemes (Bourdieu, 1990 :14), habitus is applied equally in agricultural labor and calendrical rites, in daily interaction and in ceremonial action. This wide-ranging application of a small set of schemes gives practical logic its approximate cohesion, its « fuzzy » regularity. Social phenomena exist and can only be understood relationally, that is, as they occur in diachronic and synchronic relation to other sociological phenomena. Notions of good taste in clothes, for example, are a product of the social position of the person who holds the beliefs or, more exactly, who practices a certain way of dressing. He holds such beliefs in relation to other beliefs and practices that are consciously or unconsciously aspired to or rejected as strategies in a struggle for recognition and acceptance in a particular place and role in society ; these notions and practices can only be understood if all such relations are taken into account. One can relate this example to the current phenomenon of teenage fashion in the United States. Similar sub-cultural phenomena sweep through many societies all the time.
Bourdieu’s analyses of the socio-cultural world of the Kabyle of Morocco is often meticulously described with rich accounts of ritual, language, and agency through which the systemic structure of practice is produced. But due precisely to the emphasis on the synchronic structure and logic of the production of this social world, the habitus appears to lose focus on the process of the production. As a result, Kratz observes, « his relational understanding [of interpenetration of cultural contexts] tends to displace other associations that rely less extensively on interreferencing, positive meanings that do not rely on oppositions to other schemes or objects » (Kratz, 1994 : 31). Secondly, Bourdieu’s theory assumes a single linguistic marketplace and a single set of values that are recognized and shared by all concerned. It ignores the multidimensional world in which people inhabit diverse social relations contemporaneously, or frequently migrate between them. In other words, Bourdieu does not take into consideration the real and figurative multi-linguistic capacity of individuals to engage in discourses across diverse cultural fields. The Marxist framework which makes it possible for Bourdieu to lose focus on the process through which social worlds are open-endedly produced – because it shifts attention to power structure within limited contexts – also leads him to a deterministic view of cultural institutions as windows through which classifications and definitions of peoples and societies can be observed. He defines cultural institutions as units of power, the power to represent and to sustain the status quo : to reproduce structures of belief and experience through which cultural differences are understood. An overview of Bourdieu’s System would then produce an image of communities as collectible, exhibitable, and manageable social units – because they have fixed structures – juxtaposed but unconnected one to the other. For Bourdieu, then, communities are self-generating and tend to be mutually exclusive. A race-based variety of this view feeds the American conservative political discourse especially in southern States.
By comparison, Gross’ theory of weak political morality has one major advantage over Bourdieu’s habitus. The sense of moral communities that Gross works with need not be taken to refer only to geographically situated social units. Rather, they are characterized only by shared beliefs and actions in ways that bring personal identity into a stereotyped connection and solidarity with other moral reasoners « firmly anchored in tight social networks » (Gross, 1997 : 218). He writes :
While solidarity benefits and, in particular, personal identity incentives are enhanced by conventional moral development, close friendship networks, and social interdependence, none of these factors affects the strength of post-material incentives. Instead, these incentives, characterized by norms of citizenship and universal moral duty, are closely tied to post-conventional moral preferences and a firm rejection of pre-conventional norms. They address autonomy and motivate individuals to act regardless of the actions and opinions of others.
(Gross, 1997 : 218)
One of the things that the above statement implies is that one does not have to share all the beliefs of the other members of a moral community to become one of them in a specific regard. This characteristic sets Gross’s liberal community significantly aside from the traditional model. It uses community only as a strategic alliance for the achievement of deeply individual interests. Thus its morality is definitely not communitarian in the substantive sense. Its fortress lies not in the actuality but in the rationality of the (common) beliefs about a good life. As Will Kymlicka (1989 : 11) says,
Some people say that our essential interest is in living our life in accordance with the ends that we, as individuals or as a community, currently hold and share. But that seems a mistake : for our deliberations are not just predictions about how to maximize the achievement of current ends and projects. They are also judgements about the value of those ends and projects, and we recognize that our current and past judgements are fallible.
Because membership to such community depends on the deliberative (i.e. rational) tenability of its claims, Gross argues that responsiveness to selective incentives would be sufficient to constitute one type of such community. Also, this makes it possible for one individual to become a member of multiple communities characterized by a diverse array of interests which are co-ordinated through different relevant groups. A crucial difference lies, of course, in how different schools of liberalism define the origin and type of moral reason. But it is not within the scope of this essay to discuss how gross resembles or differs from Kymlicka on the issue. It is enough to note that Kymlicka shares the liberal position of John Rawls and, back in history, that of J. S. Mill. Like Rawls, Kymlicka believes that some communitarian ideas could be repressive, possibly because they might want to define our ends for us. Gross, on the other hand, plays down the significance of the « objectivist » status of the shared beliefs of a political morality. It is sufficient that an individual actor sympathizes with them sufficiently to warrant her/his action. While he shares with Kymlicka the liberal individualist commitment to the role of individual responsibility and self-direction, his interest in the work cited here is chiefly with the role of advocacy in influencing public policy rather than with the ontological issues of political morality. Thus for him, like for Kymlicka, if individuals see value in a particular group membership, they should have the right to pursue that membership. But they should preserve their fundamental freedom even while they maintain their membership therein and believe and act in agreement with other members thereof.
In real life, at least in the kind of setting presupposed by Gross, and which is in several ways similar to that inhabited by most of those who debate these issues in the academy, individuals cross boundaries to participate in as many actions of different activist interest groups as may be related to or urge their moral stands and demands for change. Gross’s historical observation is correct that such cases are many and may keep multiplying with the course of social evolution. Much of this may be dependent on the growth of knowledge and its impact on economies which then result in continuous reconfigurations of social roles, connections, and relations. The result is that an increasing number of people find themselves performing increasingly variant roles in the course of their active lives without renouncing any. For example, many of us inhabit, by day, communities defined by our professionally specific and institutionally connected and co-ordinated interests. And while giving their full dedication to these profession-based communities, they at the same time carry awareness of and responsibilities to other communities which they return to by evening without retiring from the former. And, as immigrants know well, the complexity does not stop there : it extends beyond household and neighborhood to cultural reconnections over long geographical distances through a variety of symbolic and ritualistic means such as language, dress, music, religion and other forms of both spontaneous and organized activities. I believe that these layers and transfers of personal alliances do not negate each other, at least not significantly enough to make it impossible for individuals and groups to participate in a number of them either simultaneously or alternately. I sit in my university office and rotate in my chair to admire the rich multiplicity of what the room brings in between the walls without overburdening them with the contradiction between the particular and the universal, the patriotic and the cosmopolitan. The ability to play a cd of my Luo music while working on a philosophy paper, one that even cites references to a work by some British philosopher I don’t care about except for his or her ideas that reach me in their abstracted and symbol-based medium of a book, makes no conditional demand upon me that to participate in one I must first abandon the other. I can be both Luo and a member of the academic community of the University of Louisville at the same time without a burden. I can be, and in fact I am, a patriot and cosmopolitan, a nationalist and ethno-centric at the same time, obsessed with the pride of being a Kenyan and, above all, a Luo. Where is the universal dress, and who shall be its universal tailor ? Where is its universal pattern ? Each of these identities occurs within and is sustained by a series of mental acts with which I transfer from one set of memorable symbols to another. It is a way in which I construct my multiple histories which share and compete for embodiment in the same self. Remember that oftentimes even the music I play may vary from being Luo to Congolese, and occasionally even to Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. Yes, I love my youth too, and I often celebrate it with listening to the Italian popular music of the early to mid-seventies. Usually my children cannot connect with these, but they appreciate the complexity of real life when they say : « Now dad has just traveled back his days that we will never really know. » Those behaviors, like the act of listening, the claim of involvement and enjoyment of the musical pieces, an occasional fall into a trance of dance in response to some Kwasa Kwasa beat, or the regular transfer of resources to take care of distantly located kin, are all ways in which I am drawn into and from one or the other of the multiple worlds of my everyday experience. Yet, whoever passes by my door and catches a glimpse of me in my office most probably situates me within one or several aspects of the institutional constructs at that time, with their idea of who I am closely related to a set of character dispositions, acts, roles, behaviors which to them are what makes sense as to who and what kind of person they imagine me to be, and why I am there at all in the first place. If I speak, an additional factor of this social imagination is quickly prompted by my accent which frequently solicits the question : « Where do you come from ? » The fact that I might be seated there immersed in a world where being Luo might be the primary experience going through my mental processes would be completely hidden to those who in advance did not know of this aspect of my identity. And experiencing being Luo is not consistently my primary experience at all times. But at will I may invoke it as my primary root. Each encounter requires a leap from one to other modes of self-experiencing. Assuming that actual mutually responsive behavior, acting and getting responses, like in dialogical speech, is crucial but not necessary for making part of Bourdieu’s habitus – because, for example, we still claim and get claimed as belonging to some group even when removed from the scrutiny and glare of others – then we can make part of any and many groups by means, not only of shirting our participatory behavior from one set of the conventional behavior patterns by which belonging to such a group is recognized, but also by believing that we continue to be disposed to comply with the conventions which we share with other people with whom we belong to other groups. Hence individual identities and experiences never derive entirely from single segments of society. An individual can in the space of a short time move back and forth between emphasizing one or other part of their identity that comes from membership of either a national, professional, ethnic, or social community. Those who travel far to relocate home or frequently change jobs as participants in the modem aggressive economies know first-hand the toils of re-adjustments at professional and social levels. Children’s pains of re-adjustments into schools and neighborhood age-groups are well known to parents and children who are company in these crossings and transitions.
We can infer two things from the above : first, that communities are dialogically rather than ontologically constituted. With the practical skills of Bourdieu, we weave and negotiate our ways in and out of several communities everyday. It is for survival, as a way of life. Second, that one can be part of multiple communities simultaneously – such as being both patriotic and cosmopolitan, or Luo and Kenyan, and others, all at one and the same time. Appiah puts it aptly thus :
The cosmopolitan patriot can entertain the possibility of a world in which everyone is a rooted cosmopolitan, attached to a home of his or her own, with its own cultural particularities, but taking pleasure from the presence of other, different, places that are home to other, different, people…
In a world of cosmopolitan patriots, people would accept the citizen’s responsibility to nurture the culture and politics of their homes. Many would, no doubt, spend their lives in the places that shaped them ; and that is one of the reasons local cultural practices would be sustained and transmitted. But many would move, and that would mean that cultural practices would travel also (as they have always traveled). The result would be a world in which each local form of human life was the result of long term and persistent processes of cultural hybridization : a world, in that respect, much like the world we live in now.
(Appiah, 1996 : 22-23)
Our own example – of sitting in an university office in the United States reading from a British philosopher and practicing being Luo all at the same time – testifies to the cosmopolitanism that Appiah’s father had so wisely spoken of. It typifies the ever and increasingly changing socio-cultural character of the kosmou in which we represent the migratory roots of the change. Those who remain in their respective home-country experience identity shifts of a briefer order. According to Karp,
We experience these identities not as all-encompassing entities but through specific social events : encounters and social settings where identities are made relevant by the people participating in them. Communities are often thought of as things and given thinglike names such as « the Irish », « the blacks », « the Jews », « the WASPs ». But they are actually experienced as encounters in which cultures, identities, and skills are acquired and used. These settings can involve communal groups as small and intimate as the nuclear family or as large and institutional as the convention of a professional society. People form their primary attachments and learn to be members of society in these settings, which can be referred to collectively as the institutions of civil society.
(Karp, 1992 : 3-4)
There are many examples that can further amplify the flexibility of the idea of communal belonging as based on Bourdieu’s action-response model ; and such examples also might amplify the idea that one person can identify with multiple action-response communities at the same time. In the domain of religion, several families are made up of members who belong to or are related to people who profess Islam, Christianity, and perhaps other modes of religious expression. Members of such households learn to relate to each other according to each person’s or group’s religious requirements in belief and conduct while breachlessly keeping their own. They learn to perform in the common place, but also when and how to retreat to their own respective domains of belief and behavior. Because they live in a shared space, they constantly engage in mutual critique without condemnation.
Although drawn from real life examples, this may be an over-idealization of religious conviviance. Indeed much of our history is inherited from the effects of religious intolerance – wars, persecutions and other forms of domination of those that either profess different things or none at all. And there could not be a better time to directly point at religious intolerance in the world than now with the resurgence of religious extremist and fundamentalist movements which span the globe from Timor to Nigeria, and from the Balkans Sudan. As Nussbaum (1998) points out, religion has been made a source of acts which from different theoretical or cultural value perspectives may seem to be great injustices committed against various groups of people, especially women and children. And it is indeed a wonderful idea to point out, not only that some things in other cultures are radically different from our own, but also that they might not be right from our own positions. Critical comparisons between cultures is at least partly how cultural evolutions start and occur in history. The point, however, is not to mete out quick condemnations in such cases as is frequently done in imperialistic rhetoric disguised as universal moral duty. These, we have seen, are often the best avenues for propping hardline conservative nationalist sentiments among those who are attacked. Nationalism is often born in response to real or perceived external threat of cultural, political or military invasion. The problem with Nussbaum’s otherwise worth considering prescriptions – and this may also apply to Gross’ idea of strong political morality – is that small groups of activists from distant lands often attempt to carry out revolutions in distant societies with little or no regard at all for the complex social and historical circumstances surrounding such problems.
The same agency with which people shift between different group identities provides the capacity with which they transform the cultures of those groups as much as the beliefs and practices already existing in them contain the individuals and groups who so move by forcing them to re-adjust. The reader can make their pick from, among others, Chinua Achebe (in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease) or the late renowned Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek (in Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol). They both set, side by side in dramatic opposition, conservatism and change. They foreshadow the debate rekindled by Martha Nussbaum’s (1996) well-noted essay and subsequent debate on « Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism ». Her reference, as we noted above, is an Indian variety of the postcolonial text.
Nussbaum’s essay raises as many questions as it answers others, both old and new. First, it evokes the old question, part of which we already made reference to above in regard to the claim that patriotic sentiments limit people’s ability to develop universally applicable moral values like justice and respect for humanity. Those who defend this view – and I do not separate myself from them by use of the distancing expression « those » – can cite the gross abuses to humanity such as the holocaust, the Somalias, the Rwandas, the Balkans, East Timor, and so on, as horrors that can emerge out of emphasis on the primacy of the particular when applied to fragmented socio-political orders. But I want to put emphasis on « can emerge » rather than « do emerge ». One of the questions that arise here is whether or not epistemological categories can and/or should be applied with wholeness to how we evaluate the moral worth or quality of social, political, and cultural processes with strict regard to their capacity to generate desirable moral goods. Another question is whether, based on historical evidence to the effect that emphasis on social fragmentations have caused calamities in the cases cited, it follows that patriotic sentiments are therefore bad, or whether the only way to prevent a repetition of such calamities is to recommend the eradication altogether of the bounded social groups which give rise to patriotic rather than cosmopolitan sentiments.
A response is not hard to get : celebrations of own culture need not lead to conflict with others merely on the basis of difference. While it is true that abuses of the reality of cultural differences have led to calamities, it is also true that abuse and violence against those unlike us is neither a necessary nor desirable part of the idea of difference. We must not lose track of the possibility that the kind of calamities we so readily cite have in some of these cases been caused by the desire for universality, by a drive to create a homogeneous and universal sense of belonging where those who are different have no place. At the same time, passive difference also can lead to calamity. Difference is not a value in and of itself. What if, for example, all different opinions on an issue were false ? There certainly cannot be any pleasure derivable from having a multiplicity of false opinions to a problem. This would be pluralism at its epistemological worst. We all have the need to protect ourselves from those who say « My country [or community], right or wrong » (Appiah, 1996 : 24).
In conclusion, there are two sayings in the Luo language : « piny luore (the universe is steeped in unending change) », and « wuoth eka ine (travel, and you shall witness its diversity) ». Local people know far too well that they live in a cosmos and confront it everyday. As the celebrated Martiniqan man of Letters Aimé Césaire said it once, « there are two sure ways to lose oneself : either by bounding oneself in the windowless particular, or by throwing oneself into the unidentifiable universal ». He surely realized and wisely hinted at the compatibility between the local and global, the patriotic and cosmopolitan.