Picture, please, a diagram of three tangents:
One represents freedom of speech.
One represents freedom of belief.
One represents diplomacy.
All three protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Their intersection — cosmopolitanism — represents the paradigm for healthy communication. Of late that junction has become explosive, corruptive and toxic yet it remains a principle very important to our society, one that is entirely worth exercising and protecting.
1. The Diplomacy Tangent
“I am a human being, and thus nothing human is alien to me.”
[Publius Terentius Afer]
Cosmopolitanism within one’s circle of family and friends is becoming increasingly uncommon due, in no small part, to our use of social media. Amongst the social media ramifications is the intensification of our propensity for spending our time with those who think like us and, ergo, less time with those who think differently. This effect is significant because it limits our exposure to diverse thoughts and ideas.
Cosmopolitanism is inclusiveness and acceptance. It is, in many ways, idealism; that all souls are members of one society, that all souls share the same morality. For the Individual, it is a lofty goal reached with a matrix of carefully considered choices. Which voices we choose to listen to is a crucial choice. Even the most antagonistic of voices is merely, at its core, seeking connection; needing to be heard, hoping for understanding, wanting to create a common experience. It is not always easy to listen, but when we do, the reward is always the same: Understanding that although the differences between our origins and our lives may be enormous, in our hearts, we are all the same. Cosmopolitanism is rare and it is precious.
2. The Belief Tangent
“Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.”
[Henry David Thoreau]
Everyone has a set of beliefs; firmly held opinions that something is good, true, or valuable. My beliefs run the gamut of politics (all three levels), religion, philosophy, society and the arts. In holding onto my convictions I am fervent but I do my level best to keep an open mind; one never knows when the seed of an emerging idea may ‘blow in’ and germinate. I always want to be open to that possibility.
It is important to respect all beliefs as intrinsically honourable even when, especially when, they are not our own. Here in Canada we very strongly believe in diversity, not homogeneity. Ever since 1971 with the introduction of Multiculturalism by our federal government, we have thrived and become a truly cosmopolitan society — based on knowing and valuing the beliefs of everyone — and therein human happiness evolves…
Throughout history, women have fought for the right to form and hold their own beliefs, not those ascribed to them by their husbands. Paraphrasing my ‘friend’ Aristotle, although the female has the deliberative element she lacks the authority to exercise it. Unfortunately society held onto that supposition for far too long; some cultures have yet to give it up — blatant contempt for the right and freedom of everyone to have their own convictions.
We have become a civilization very reluctant to share our beliefs. We’re afraid of rejection, of persecution, or of offending — we’ve created a culture where “each of us is right, in our own way” to the exclusion of honest self-expression. We have become silent at a time when confident voices raised in peaceful pursuit are badly needed. The violence we read about nearly every day in our newspapers makes us wonder if we will ever understand each other enough to build lasting trust between us, to create peace together. If we want to live in harmony, we must share our morality. If we want cosmopolitanism, we must not only hold strongly to our own principles, but celebrate the very different but equally ironclad thoughts of others, not become resentful or fearful of them.
3. The Speech Tangent
It is an unfortunate trend that open debate is on the decline, most likely due to fear — either that our words might hurt others or that our opinions might cause us to be ostracized from our friends. Not only have we become reluctant to speak, we have also censored the opinions we hear.
We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.
One of my heroes is the activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ms Ali is the daughter of Muslim Somali parents. Yet she is the face of the movement seeking to end the practice of female genital mutilation and is an outspoken advocate for Islamic reform. A little over two years ago, Ms Ali was invited to address students at Brandeis University and receive an honorary doctorate. However, bowing to pressure from the Arab community, her invitation was revoked. Speaking out against a barbaric practice, one that all non-Muslims denounce in the strongest of terms — the UN, strongly supported by the WHO and UNICEF, has established 6th February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation — was enough to have her disinvited from her planned appearance and honour.
“This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.”
Maryam Namazie is another well-known human rights activist. Ms Namazie is Iranian, a secularist, and spokesperson for the movement “One Law for All”. One Law is opposed to the legal practice of sharia law because it is “discriminatory and unjust, especially against women and children”. World-wide criticisms of sharia cite, but are not limited to, the following violations: Human rights, freedom of speech, LGBTQ² rights, gender equality, domestic violence and child marriage. Ms. Namazie was invited to speak to students at Warwick University. Like Brandeis University, at the behest of the Arab communities on and off campus, Ms Namazie was subsequently uninvited.
Two unrelated incidents with which I am quite familiar, both following the current social trends of communication.
Whenever I am nervous or reluctant to state my opinion I ask myself what is the worst thing that could happen? As a Canadian, and unlike the women in some countries, speaking out is unlikely to get me jailed. Or killed. At times I’ve been labelled a bitch, I have lost a couple of friends but I have also made new friends who support me and celebrate my opinions — even when they disagree.
And my world did not end.
Next time you hear religious intolerance, hear a racial slur, hear a homophobic or misogynistic insult, please push your envelope and speak out in the name of virtue and justice.
And your world won’t end.
Trust your convictions. Live your life intentionally. Be brave enough to do what you know to be right. In short — live your beliefs.
The Cosmopolitan Intersection
Choices. Every day we face three tangential choices; what to believe, what to speak about, how to respect others when we do choose to speak out — in short, where do we want our three tangents to intersect?
The righteous choice compels us to speak out on behalf of those who cannot. The righteous choice compels us to speak out against injustice and intolerance. The righteous choice compels us to be courteous toward every soul when we raise our voice. The righteous choice compels us to honour our beliefs and those that are contrary to our own.
For me, this is not about becoming the loudest voice on the landscape. Nor is it about social media popularity or trends. It is the wish, that in turbulent times like these when so many voices are raised in anger and hatred, my voice might be positive, kind, constructive and peaceful.
Each one of us has the power to make a difference. Staying silent — also a choice — may no longer be adequate, instead:
“Make of yourself, a light.”