In an exploration of the ways we label and confine ourselves, a celebrated philosopher advocates for a theory of human identity that recognizes but transcends race, religion, nation, culture, and class.
In his excellent new book Kwame Anthony Appiah takes on an estimable, if—at first glance—naive pursuit. In an era of Brexit, the 2017 Charlottesville incident, and 'I Really Don’t Care, Do U?,' Appiah hopes to inspire a rethinking of our restrictive and therefore divisive notions of who we are. But if that seems an impossible task, should the massive obstacles stop us from trying? Appiah, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University and the author of eight previous books, brings to the task a number of insights and the mind of a realist ... Having both acknowledged the necessity of identity and demolished some notions of it, The Lies That Bind has little specific to say about how to awaken the world to a more productive understanding of what makes up our identities. But perhaps that will be the subject of Appiah’s next book. In the meantime, if the solution to the fracturing of our world remains elusive, this book at least helps us think clearly about the problem.
What sounds at first like a direct challenge to our political culture’s obsession with identity turns out to be a series of highly literate but dilettantish 'explorations'—discursive arguments that racial identities are sometimes based on obsolete science, national identities depend on fictions, religious identities have more to do with practice than with doctrinal belief, and so on. The difference between Mr. Appiah’s stated aim and the content of his claims is reflected on the book’s title page: Identities are outright 'lies' in the title, but in the subtitle they don’t require debunking but a mere 'rethinking.' He doesn’t so much argue that racial, class-based and national identities are false or fabricated as point out the ambiguities at their margins. But surely very few people need to be told that human identities lack the certainty of mathematical theorems.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.