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In The Lies That Bind, Kwame Anthony Appiah Takes on Identity Politics

Opponents of a white nationalist-led rally hold a Black Lives Matter flag in downtown Washington, D.C., August 12, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
At their best, differences of creed, country, class, color, and culture help people recognize their common humanity.

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, by Kwame Anthony Appiah (Liveright, 256 pp., $27.95)

It seems like everyone and his mother is talking about identity politics.

The story goes: The traditional left–right economic divide has been usurped by an identitarian divide, where the demand for recognition has replaced the demand for redistribution. One’s stance on this divide depends on one’s view of social identity — whether one takes identity markers such as sex, class, and gender to be thin and fluid or thick and determined.

Those who play identity politics take the latter view of social identity, or at least their actions reflect such an attitude. Individuals are members of x or y group, and political success is equivalent to the achievement of collective rights for that group. One is either “Eastern” or “Western,” “black” or “white,” “man” or “woman,” “Muslim” or “Christian.” Improvements in individual experience come by way of improvements in shared experience. The politics of recognition is an arena for competing group interests.

British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah accepts that these identity markers bind us together, but he argues they can divide us, too. In The Lies That Bind, he dismantles five touchstones of modern identity: creed, country, class, color, and culture. According to Appiah, each source of social identity rests on fiction, a story of commonality that has its basis in contradiction. Each group is far messier than our terminology would suggest; whereas identity politics essentializes these identity markers, none are indicative of an underlying reality.

With regard to creed, for example, we falsely assume that religion is a matter of fixed scripture, when in reality, scripture is only one facet of religious practice. Ironically, the incorrect view is shared by fundamentalists: Extremity of faith equates to extremity of scriptural belief. While scripture certainly has a role in people’s religious practice, “traditions do not speak with a single voice.” Interpretation is a practice, and interpretation constitutes religion; to be religious is to participate in a living, changing community.

Nationalism follow a similar pattern. Appiah notes that “the reality of linguistic and cultural variation within a community” is often “in tension with the romantic nationalist vision of a community united by language and culture.” The idea of a modern nation-state was formed only as recently as the 19th century, when romanticism led nations to view their people as a people. But no nation is homogeneous; the boundaries of a nation are entirely arbitrary. Difference in accent and rates of literacy among people meant that populations did not even understand one another until recent years.

In this sense, national identity must be adopted before it can be received — the modern nation-state is a collection of strangers, and it becomes a nation only when those strangers care about their supposedly shared ancestry. But the same does not follow in all cultural contexts. With regard to color, for example, identity can be given before it is taken. Black Americans were turned into Black Americans by imposition, not will. Common grievance produces common experience, which, in turn, produces common identity.

Appiah is sympathetic to this consideration, and he acknowledges the legitimate claims to be made by identity-based activists. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo promote the interests of America’s historically marginalized groups, whereas white nationalists do not. In the current landscape, whether practitioners of identity politics are seen as civil-rights activists or as reactionary racists largely depends on the level of recognition that their group has already been granted.

But this sympathy does not lead Appiah to give any identitarians a free pass. Even historically persecuted groups have less in common than they think, and their efforts to assert their identities can be counterproductive and excessive. A black immigrant to America, for example, does not necessarily have much in common with a descendant of African-American slaves — and, by the same token, neither necessarily has much in common with a wealthy mixed-race man from San Francisco. One’s experience as a member of a group does not imply a shared experience with another member of the same group; we are more united by our individual complexity than we are by tribal solidarity.

Color exists on a spectrum, and there is no such thing as a consistent female experience. Individuals do not enter the world as fully formed group actors — they arise as an outgrowth of social interaction. This is a Durkheimian view of identity, unashamedly universalist and radically individualist. But crucially for Appiah, this should not be confused with a complete disregard for groups. The individual is born out of a collection of communities; each of us contain multitudes, and such multitudes give rise to a unique identity.

One modern way of articulating this idea has been the term “intersectionality,” which refers to the interconnected nature of identity markers. A person who is black and female does not simply experience life as a black person and a female person; rather, the interaction of both identities gives rise to a novel form of experience. Appiah describes intersectionality as raising a problem for practitioners of identity politics, because it proves that “having an identity doesn’t, by itself, authorize you to speak on behalf of everyone of that identity.”

The problem, however, is that most practitioners take only half of his message. They adopt the intersection while holding on to a thick conception of identity. The result is that they fall even deeper into the trap of essentialism: Signaling one’s intersection becomes a method of signaling an essentialism. An example of this is when transgender people adopt gender stereotypes to demonstrate their manhood or womanhood, essentializing the differences between men and women. This leads to conflicts of interest between various forms of feminism and transgenderism, each falling at various points along Appiah’s essentialist spectrum. The notion that gender is an entirely arbitrary category cannot be reconciled with the notion that we need more women represented in business. The result is a complete breakdown of conversation, as people refuse to engage with each other across identity boundaries.

Frustratingly, Appiah’s book falls flat on this topic. He offers a remarkably eloquent diagnosis but ends up excusing the architects of groupism. “Social identities may be founded in error,” he writes, “but they give us contours, comity, values, a sense of purpose and meaning.” He spends five chapters revealing the contradictions in identity politics but ends up repeating the same old platitudes.

So, you might ask, what is the point of Appiah’s treatise? Group identity isn’t going anywhere, even if it is based on a fiction. Do we deal with people as they are, or as how they conceive themselves to be? What modes of belonging are available to us without the lies that bind?

I was lucky enough to attend Appiah’s recent Whitehead lectures on class identity and took the opportunity to press him on this question. After he argued that equal self-respect could be a solution to unequal wealth, I asked him whether lower-income workers could achieve self-respect without collective respect. He responded with the claim that collective respect aids self-respect — and he’s absolutely right, of course. That is why they are the lies that bind. But if this collective respect is based on a baseless identity, does that mean we should disown it and look elsewhere? Can people find purpose and meaning without being part of a fictitious group?

Two responses have been widely discussed, and both have worthy defenders.

One is to respect the lies that have come to bind and organize people today. This means giving into identity politics but striving to moderate its extreme manifestations. A healthy respect for the local coupled with a tolerance of the other; appreciating in-group loyalty while resisting out-group contempt. Identities must be fully recognized as distinct, and people should be able to advocate on behalf of those who mean most to them — even if the identities themselves are held together by fiction. In the long term, this also means giving a voice to the identitarian grievances of historically dominant groups — not to enable them to assert their superiority, but to facilitate the affinity shared among members of any given group.

Another path is to disown the lies that bind and search for less tribal forms of belonging: cosmopolitanism, humanism, and Appian intersectionality. These are based in fact, and available to all. Science may reveal racial differences across populations, but the only real truth is that each of us is profoundly complex. Setting up identities in opposition to one another limits the scope for human connection, because our categories are arbitrary and our variation infinite. Color-blindness and open borders may be practically difficult, but both are entirely worthwhile ideals. Any bonds based in falsehoods are prone to exclusion and exploitation; nobody owns a culture, and anybody can participate in one.

Appiah’s ambivalence seems to strike a middle line between these projects. He takes aim at the utopian nature of humanist ambition: “There is a liberal fantasy in which identities are merely chosen,” but lies are exciting, and the truth is often disturbing: It is easier to unite people around a lie than around a truth. Yet Appiah is a committed cosmopolitan, and he’s not elitist about it. He believes that we could all do with being a little more cosmopolitan (and, crucially, he believes that we all can be so).

He writes: “We have to recognize that one day we, too, shall be ancestors. We do not merely follow traditions; we create them.” The question to ask, therefore, is: What are we creating? And for Appiah, the answer isn’t pretty. By committing the sin of essentialism, we overlook our capacity to renew. We forget that we can reinvent stories in communication with history.

Perhaps the two responses to this challenge are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the particular can provide a path to the universal. At their best, differences of creed, country, class, color, and culture help people recognize their common humanity; they engender virtue, gratitude, compassion, and responsibility, leading us to the identities that “should bind us all.”

Appiah’s contemplation is a reminder that identities are multifaceted, malleable, and manipulable; the individual is a product of yesterday’s labels, but no label is written in permanent marker. As technological and demographic change challenges our understanding of what it means to be human, it will be up to use to create the identities of tomorrow. We should do so with humility and bravery, in constant conversation with our past, and on our way, we might shine a light on those labels that were always written in invisible ink.

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