I include a long quote from this peice by Kwame Anthony Appiah in the New York Times Magazine simply because it is one of those pieces that says just about every damn thing that I would have wanted to say. It is simply excellent. Would that we could all be ‘contaminators’.
Our guide to what is going on here might as well be a former African slave named Publius Terentius Afer, whom we know as Terence. Terence, born in Carthage, was taken to Rome in the early second century B.C., and his plays – witty, elegant works that are, with Plautus’s earlier, less-cultivated works, essentially all we have of Roman comedy – were widely admired among the city’s literary elite. Terence’s own mode of writing – which involved freely incorporating any number of earlier Greek plays into a single Latin one – was known to Roman littérateurs as “contamination.”
It’s an evocative term. When people speak for an ideal of cultural purity, sustaining the authentic culture of the Asante or the American family farm, I find myself drawn to contamination as the name for a counterideal. Terence had a notably firm grasp on the range of human variety: “So many men, so many opinions” was a line of his. And it’s in his comedy “The Self-Tormentor” that you’ll find what may be the golden rule of cosmopolitanism – Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto; “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” The context is illuminating. A busybody farmer named Chremes is told by his neighbor to mind his own affairs; the homo sum credo is Chremes’s breezy rejoinder. It isn’t meant to be an ordinance from on high; it’s just the case for gossip. Then again, gossip – the fascination people have for the small doings of other people – has been a powerful force for conversation among cultures.
The ideal of contamination has few exponents more eloquent than Salman Rushdie, who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” No doubt there can be an easy and spurious utopianism of “mixture,” as there is of “purity” or “authenticity.” And yet the larger human truth is on the side of contamination – that endless process of imitation and revision.
A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That’s why cosmopolitans don’t insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don’t have all the answers. They’re humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can’t learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his “I am human” line, but it is equally suggestive: “If you’re right, I’ll do what you do. If you’re wrong, I’ll set you straight.”