Can Human Beings Ever Give Up Identity?

Gender, creed, country, color, class, and culture. Why do they matter?

Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Kwame Anthony Appiah. Richard Trenner

People (like, for example, Aristotle) knock the notion of the philosopher king, but to them I say: Kwame Anthony Appiah. NYU philosophy professor, arbiter of sticky wickets as the Ethicist columnist for the New York Times Magazine, Appiah is the author of several lucid, blessedly reasonable books on his chosen field for general readers. As the Ethicist, Appiah dispenses sometimes stern, always compassionate rulings with a serenity so Solomonic that when someone wrote in recently to ask what to do when two different people claimed to be the owner of a stray cat, I expected him to suggest that the letter writer cut it in half. Advice columnists attract the most attention when they fulminate or exhort, so it’s comforting to know that at least one prominent perch is occupied by someone calm, knowledgeable, and judicious, weighing in on the moral complexities of everyday life.

With his new book, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, Appiah takes on one of the most bitterly contested topics of our time. Despite the misleadingly incendiary “lie” in the title, the book offers a sanctuary in a smoking battlefield. On this terrain, the word identity usually gets deployed by, say, right-wing provocateurs waging a disingenuous propaganda campaign against a journalist for old (and admittedly stupid) parodic tweets, or a public intellectual who can’t seem to tell the difference between campus zealots and the DNC. This is the realm of the inflammatory anecdote about “political correctness run amok,” the full-throttle Facebook rant, and, worst of all, the David Brooks op-ed. You might, for example, wholeheartedly support Black Lives Matter yet wince at the Nation’s recent decision to apologize for publishing a poem written by a white man from the perspective of a black homeless person. But in such an acutely polarized atmosphere, you may also see no way to negotiate a viable position between the two opinions.

As Appiah observed in 2006 (this isn’t the first time he’s tackled the subject), identity politics is a peculiar term, almost always used “to complain about someone else. One’s own political preoccupations are just, well, politics. Identity politics is what other people do.” Identity is inescapable. When someone insists that it’s time to abandon identity politics, they are actually arguing that another identity (Democrats, progressives, labor, the left, Americans) should take precedence over identities whose agendas they regard as less pressing (gender, race, sexual orientation). But as the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out when developing her theory of intersectionality, every individual resides at the nexus of multiple identities, each affecting and shaping the others. “The negative social responses to black lesbians,” Appiah explains, are not “simply a combination of the racist and homophobic responses that also affect black gay men and the sexist response experienced by middle-class white women.” Furthermore, each individual might choose to foreground a different facet of her complex identity at different times in her life.

This is a condition with which Appiah himself is intimately familiar. His father was descended from the military aristocracy of the Asante Empire in what is now the modern Republic of Ghana; his mother, a devout Anglican, grew up in a village in England with a grandfather who traced his ancestry back to a 13th-century Norman knight. He was raised in Ghana and attended a private boarding school in Britain, taking a degree in philosophy at Cambridge. Born in London, he’s a “Ghanaian with a British passport” who lives in the United States (where he is considered black) with his husband. He cuts an ambiguous figure and opens The Lies That Bind with a list of the nationalities that cab drivers all over the world have mistakenly attributed to him, from Brazilian to Belgian to Indian.

In his introduction, Appiah describes The Lies That Bind as “one philosopher’s answer to the double question: what are identities and why do they matter?” He focuses on five categories of identity: creed, country, color, class, and culture. Gender, what he calls “the oldest form of human identity,” is a kind of prototype for all the other divisions that follow. But the modern concept of identity, he insists, is fairly young, first forming in the 19th century and solidifying in the decades after World War II. How we view identity now is still influenced by the outdated and in many cases debunked ideas of the Victorian era. Those ideas “divide us and set us against one another,” he writes, but they can and must be reformed because “at their best, they make it possible for groups, large and small, to do things together.”

Each of Appiah’s chapters on the five types of identity challenges what he sees as common misperceptions. Religious identity, he argues, has relatively little to do with creed, and therefore scripture; for people who belong to a faith, its real substance consists of practice—how they enact their beliefs—and community—the group they enact them with. This may sound obvious, but as Appiah points out, people in Britain spend a lot of time arguing about “the place of women in Islam,” often using quotations from the Quran to back up their claims. But different Muslim communities practice Islam in different ways. Sometimes that practice includes interpreting the scripture to restrict women’s freedom and power, but in other cases, it does not. “Pakistan and Bangladesh,” he writes, “countries where Islam is the state religion, have had women prime ministers, and have a larger percentage of women in their legislatures than the United States does.”

Similarly, nationality is an often arbitrary construct, sometimes imposed from without on people who don’t share an ethnicity or language, but also, as in the case of Singapore, carefully engineered from the ground up. Singapore “defines itself, in part, through its ethnic heterogeneity,” Appiah writes, with the two largest groups being Chinese and Malay. Every decision the Singaporean ruling party made after the city-state achieved independence in the 1960s—like naming English the official language and Malay the national language—was designed to keep any one group from gaining too much of an advantage over the others. Singapore’s government may be “watchful and intrusive by the standards of a European liberal democracy,” but it has also “convinced most of its citizens that they were engaged together in a meaningful national project.” Its example delivers a body blow to the idea that nationality is rooted in some deep, mystical quality that cannot be changed without destroying the nation that embodies it. “Recognize that nations are invented,” Appiah writes, “and you’ll see they’re always being reinvented.”

The cover of The Lies That Bind.
W. W. Norton & Company

To do this, however, we’ll have to give up our very human tendency toward essentialism, the belief that every identity comes with innate qualities. At times in The Lies That Bind, Appiah seems to be either fighting a battle that’s already been won, as when he challenges the scholarly movement known as Afrocentrism, which he believes perpetuates 19th-century delusions about race, or debating with the sort of people—white nationalists, Brexiters—who are never going to listen to someone like him in the first place. Essentialism is much rarer among academics and left-of-center intellectuals now than it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the last time identity issues provoked a culturewide uproar. Back then, books like 1986’s Women’s Ways of Knowing suggested, for example, that women are “naturally” more cooperative and nurturing than men. The idea that many identities, particularly race, are social constructions rather than biological fact is now widely acknowledged—at least among those likely to pick up a book on identity by an NYU philosophy professor. More controversially, Appiah hasn’t got much use for the notion of cultural appropriation because “all cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture”; “the very idea of ownership is the wrong model,” he says, and disturbingly corporate. But neither does he really believe in “Western civilization” because it imposes an “implausible unity” on a vast hodgepodge of phenomena originating all over the world.

Perhaps the most challenging chapter in The Lies That Bind for Appiah’s educated, open-minded readership will be the one on class. While Appiah rejects the notion that some traits are innate to particular groups, he does believe that some traits are innate to all people. One of them, he says, is “the desire of families to pass on advantages to their children.” This is a force that hopelessly compromises the modern ideal of meritocracy, papering over a social order in which an individual’s wealth and status are still overwhelmingly determined by the the wealth and status of her parents. Feudal aristocrats believed they were superior to everyone else by virtue of their blood, but meritocrats can be equally smug, claiming to have earned advantages that are in large part the result of privileged access to education and social networks. Meritocracy itself, Appiah believes, is a false god, because it acts to “reduce people to a single measure of worth” and “only someone with a very limited vision could suppose that human worth reduces to a single measure.”

Throughout The Lies That Bind, Appiah offers up historical examples of people whose identities defied the reductive stereotypes of our time. One is Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer, a man who, in 1707, at the age of 5, was taken from his home on the African Gold Coast and placed under the patronage of the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, a Northern European principality, then given the education of an Enlightenment scholar as an “experiment.” (This was considered a rousing success by everyone involved, yet in 1747, for reasons unrecorded, Amo returned to the Gold Coast.) Another is the writer Italo Svevo, born Aron Ettore Schmitz in the city of Trieste, Italy, in 1861, a friend of James Joyce and a model for Leopold Bloom. Like Appiah himself, Svevo had a complex, shifting, multilingual identity. His parents were Jewish, but he converted to Catholicism when he married. His father was German, his mother Italian. He was born a subject of the Austrian emperor and died a subject of the king of Italy, a state created in the year of his birth.

It’s easy to see why Appiah would identify with such a figure, and it’s not insignificant that the identity Svevo cherished most deeply was not any of his national ones but his that of his home city, Trieste. An unspoken but implied counterpoint to all the identities considered in The Lies That Bind is “cosmopolite,” which is how many Triestines viewed themselves in Svevo’s day. In his 2006 book, Cosmopolitanism, Appiah proposed an ethos for inhabiting a “world of strangers.” Cosmopolitanism, as he defines it, holds universal values such as hospitality, generosity, courtesy, and fairness, while acknowledging that human beings come in near-infinite variety and may not always practice those values in exactly the same way. It calls neither for mere tolerance nor for spineless relativism. The cosmopolite respects and appreciates difference, while acknowledging that “no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilities to every other.” Like Svevo’s identity, and Appiah’s, it is fluid and adaptable, a bit, too, like Keats’ notion of negative capability, “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—if you substitute for “fact and reason” the words a fixed identity.

The Greek roots of the word cosmopolitan suggest a universe composed of a city, a way of life derived from the experience of urban living, where getting along requires living next to, working alongside, and sometimes joining families with people from other backgrounds and cultures. It’s an appealing ideal, and while I’m under the influence of Appiah’s suave vision of communal magnanimity, it seems doable, a city on the hill that will encompass the whole world, a city we might actually get the chance to build. It seems the only hope for a livable future on this planet. It must be so!

An hour or two after closing The Lies That Bind, however, doubt creeps in. Not everyone wants to glide among multiple identities in a chattering marketplace. Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer, for one, seemed unable or unwilling to live this dream, probably because the European courts and capitals through which he, with his dark skin, moved didn’t truly subscribe to it themselves. Yes, we can claim identity, but identity can also be imposed on us—or denied to us.

Did Amo remain cosmopolitan when he returned to the Nzema villages of his homeland? A Dutch ship’s doctor who met him in the 1750s reported that he had earned a reputation there for sagacity and soothsaying. We have a pretty good idea of what he carried back with him to Africa when he returned, and perhaps of what he fled, but we can’t know what he sought there. It might have been some deep feeling of home imparted by certain smells or foods, the color of the soil, the sounds birds and animals make in the night, the family he left behind. If he ever missed Europe and its glittering cosmopolitan cities, it wasn’t enough to call him back.

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah. W. W. Norton.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

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