The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity, by Kwame Anthony Appiah (Liveright/Profile), $27.95/£14.99
Focusing on creed, country, colour, class and culture, in The Lies that Bind Kwame Anthony Appiah examines the mistakes we make about identity. Our religious, national, race, class and cultural identities can matter to us and motivate us to do things together in solidarity with other members of our group. At the same time, they can set us against those with different religious, national, race, class and cultural identities and do enormous damage. How might we walk this fine line between granting the importance of identities and mitigating their dangers? This is the question Appiah sets himself to answer – not definitively but as a contribution to a conversation.
Gender and sexual identities are not among the beginning-with-“c” identities that Appiah examines, but perplexities they involve provide him with an orientation. Identities possess three general features: they are labels we apply to ourselves and others; they form our ways of acting and behaving as well as our ideas about how we should act and behave and they affect the ways others treat us. But take questions feminists have raised about who should receive the label of a woman, questions that have recently erupted into hostile debates over whether trans women are women. If women or female human beings are those with two X chromosomes, what about not only trans women but those with one X and one Y chromosome who have androgen insensitivity syndrome and have stereotypically female features or those with two X chromosomes where maternal androgens give them stereotypically male ones? If we turn to gender characteristics and if women are meant to be more gentle than men, what about women warriors? And what about the way one’s religious, national, race, class and cultural identity shape one’s female identity? What is meant to connect, say, Sudanese Muslim women with white, middle-class American women? What do female CEO’s share with their worst paid female employees? Feminists have proposed different ways of conceiving of what women share: for example, overlapping and crisscrossing characteristics between women (Ann Garry); subordination along some dimension due to “observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction” (Sally Haslanger) or expectations or realities that include pregnancy or nursing (Linda Martín Alcoff).
Appiah thinks we might as well dispense with such proposals. The tendency they illustrate is to think that once a set of people acquires a certain label there is something about those people, some essence they share, that explains their similarities and justifies the label. But if we look at creed, country, colour, class and culture, what this essence is meant to be in each case remains unclear. We often think that what binds adherents of a certain religion together is their beliefs. Yet, since one can be Jewish, for example, without believing in God and since accepting all of Maimonides’ thirteen principles does not make one Jewish, beliefs are clearly not the point. We often equate our nationality with an ancestry, language and set of traditions we hold in common with others of our nationality. But the attempt to align nation states with this sort of “peoplehood” is both overly exclusive, leaving off people with whom we share a nation but nothing else, and overly inclusive – take the Celts of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man who share an ancestry but are not a nation. If we turn to colour, the problems with the idea of race or racial essences are well known: for one, even if some of our traits are part of our genetic heritage, we do not inherit our genes as parts of racial packages. And what is class? Appiah calls it the “four-color-map” problem of the social sciences. Marx’s division of capitalists and proletarians obviously leaves out a number of people but the more variables such as wealth, status and proximity to power that one tries to account for, the more elusive the composition of class becomes – even though the goal of equality remains similarly elusive. As for culture, at least Western culture, perhaps the less said the better given what it owes to the many cultures from which it historically has tried to distinguish itself and the different tasks to which it has been set.
If, as Appiah argues, the thought that there is an essence or “golden nugget” to any of these identities is a nineteenth-century invention, how should we think of them and what can they still do for us? In the United States, we live in an environment of tribalism and polarisation in which our religious, gender and racial identities increasingly align with our political and ideological ones, in which both social media and our segmented real world interactions cement these alignments and in which we find it more and more difficult even to fathom the views and attitudes of those outside our tribe. Indeed, when it comes to others’ experiences we are cautioned against even trying to understand them: white poets such as Anders Carlson-Wee are not to try to speak in the voice of homeless African American men; white gay filmmakers such as David France ought not make films about black transgender activists. Does this identity alignment, voluntary segregation and mutual mistrust not suggest the excesses of our devotion to our identities? Might we not try to wean ourselves from our current preoccupation with them? Appiah argues that we do not need to. Instead, we can simply recognise that our identities have been and can be lived in different ways and that their meanings are open and contestable. Why set creed against creed when religious identity is not about doctrine but about practice and ritual? Why worry about cultural appropriation (as opposed to cultural respect) when cultures are always already the result of intercultural borrowing and reciprocal education? Why not acknowledge that the identities with which we align ourselves are heterogeneous and changing and why not try to live them, then, in ways that promote human flourishing rather than division?
These are good questions. Appiah’s book is written with relaxed elegance and his characteristic good sense. It is filled with histories and stories – not only stories about himself and his multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-class family but also tales about a wealth of other intriguing people and histories of nations such as Singapore. These stories add ballast to Appiah’s arguments, complicating any ideas we might have that identities are easy or straightforward. And yet the question remains: given how strident and split our social, political and even cultural worlds have become, is good sense enough? We need to understand the complexities of our identities, as Appiah advises, and to live them in more generous ways. But we might also try to discover new solidarities that can help us with the formidable global and environmental challenges we face.