Monday, March 07, 2011

“a conversation across boundaries of identity”

[O]ver time and with exposure, people learn to live amicably with gay and lesbian people. Indeed, he says, because of the presence of openly gay people in the world, a ‘perspectival shift’ occurs, one that breaks down old prejudices and barriers.

That’s Philip Gambone’s paraphrase of Kwame Anthony Appiah. Gambone interviewed Appiah for his Travels in a Gay Nation: portraits of LGBTQ Americans.

While I agree with the idea (mostly), I am troubled to recall Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s accounts of neighbors butchering neighbors, even celebrating the execution of blood relatives, that occurred in Rwanda and in Bosnia. These monstrous acts took place despite the future victims living cheek-by-jowl with their future killers. I remember Goldhagen describing an ethnically Tutsi woman being murdered with her half-Hutu babies by the relatives of her Hutu husband. I remember elsewhere reading accounts of Bosnian Muslims being driven from their homes by Bosnian Serbs beside whom they’d lived their entire lives, some of whom they’d fed at their dinner table, had considered friends.

Appiah does advocate a little bit more than mere proximity, it seems. Gambone says in his book, Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers, “Appiah emphasizes what he calls ‘conversations across boundaries of identity’ – the imaginative engagement with the experience and ideas of others – as a way to help people get used to one another and thus develop more harmonious relationships and happier lives.”

In Rwanda and Bosnia, Goldhagen says, an intragroup conversation existed among the future killers that persisted over time and which derogated the ‘others’/their future victims, and regularly fixed on these ‘others’ the blame for Hutu or Serb misfortunes. Perhaps a “conversation across boundaries of identity” would have helped?

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