Kwame Anthony Appiah, a prominent philosophy professor at NYU and the New York Times Ethicist columnist, recently appeared on our campus. His talk went well, though he did not delve deeply into the substance of his new book, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. Despite his omission, you should consider checking out this interesting and thoughtful book.
Identity politics is a scary and destructive force in politics. Think Brexit. Think Charlottesville. Think campus zealots. There’s lots of blame to be spread across the political spectrum for this phenomenon. Appiah’s major point in The Lies That Bind is that the lines we tend to draw between ourselves and others are almost always somewhat artificial and often quite indefensible.
We tend to divide ourselves by religious creed. But is it really defensible for us to go through life believing with absolute certainly that our particular religion just happens to be the one religion that got it right, out of the thousands of religions that exist and have existed in our world? Do we really think that our religion, and only our religion, has a pipeline straight to a God who invisibly controls the universe? Have we not noticed that our religion’s beliefs have evolved over time and that we tend to pick and choose which of its tenets to follow and which ones to ignore? Appiah reminds us to think of religions not as sets of immutable beliefs, but as “mutable practices and communities.”
We also divide ourselves by country, ignoring the obvious fact that certain patches of real estate have been part of many different countries through history. And what country people find themselves living in may have as much to do with what year it is (1918? 1945? 1991?) as with anything else.
We often divide ourselves by color, with tragic results, though science has learned that “the vast bulk of our genetic material is shared with all normal human beings, whatever their race.”
We divide ourselves by class, though this seems particularly indefensible, especially in the U.S. where our Constitution provides that “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.”
And, finally, we divide ourselves by culture. The Representative Steve Kings of the world think of democracy, liberty, and intellectualism when they think of Western Civilization, ignoring the tyrannical kings that governed Europe through most of history since the Greeks and Europeans’ ugly tradition of colonialism and of slavery. Appiah argues that our modern conception of Western culture did not take its present shape until after World War II and bears little resemblance to the actual culture that Western Europe has embodied over most of the past 2,000 years. “How,” Appiah asks: “have we managed to persuade ourselves that we’re rightful inheritors of Plato, Aquinas, and Kant, when the stuff of our existence is more Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian?”
The book is not perfect. Not all of Appiah’s arguments are persuasive. And it offers almost nothing in the way of solutions. But The Lies That Bind is undeniably erudite and thought-provoking. We recommend it and suggest that you also check out our video on the In-Group/Out-Group bias.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (2018).
Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (2007).
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006).
Houman Barekat, “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity Review” (book review), The Irish Times, Nov. 4, 2018.
Anand Giridharadas, “What Is Identity?” (book review), New York Times August 27, 2018.
Afua Hirsch, “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah” (book review), The Observer, September 23, 2018.
Laura Miller, “Can Human Beings Ever Give Up Identity?” (book review), Slate, September 14, 2018.
Clifford Thompson, “Myths That Shape Our Notion of Identity,” Washington Post, August 23, 2018.
Featured photo, 1 November 2018. Photograph. Michael Mullenix Photography.