Cover image for The lies that bind : rethinking identity, creed, country, color, class, culture / Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Title:
The lies that bind : rethinking identity, creed, country, color, class, culture / Kwame Anthony Appiah.
ISBN:
9781631493836
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, [2018]
Physical Description:
xvi, 256 pages ; 25 cm
Contents:
Classification -- Creed -- Country -- Color -- Class -- Culture -- Coda.
Abstract:
"Who do you think you are? That's a question bound up in another: What do you think you are? Gender. Religion. Race. Nationality. Class. Culture. Such affiliations give contours to our sense of self, and shape our polarized world. Yet the collective identities they spawn are riddled with contradictions, and cratered with falsehoods. Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Lies That Bind is an incandescent exploration of the nature and history of the identities that define us. It challenges our assumptions about how identities work. We all know there are conflicts between identities, but Appiah shows how identities are created by conflict. Religion, he demonstrates, gains power because it isn't primarily about belief. Our everyday notions of race are the detritus of discarded nineteenth-century science. Our cherished concept of the sovereign nation--of self-rule--is incoherent and unstable. Class systems can become entrenched by efforts to reform them. Even the very idea of Western culture is a shimmering mirage. From Anton Wilhelm Amo, the eighteenth-century African child who miraculously became an eminent European philosopher before retiring back to Africa, to Italo Svevo, the literary marvel who changed citizenship without leaving home, to Appiah's own father, Joseph, an anticolonial firebrand who was ready to give his life for a nation that did not yet exist, Appiah interweaves keen-edged argument with vibrant narratives to expose the myths behind our collective identities. These 'mistaken identities,' Appiah explains, can fuel some of our worst atrocities--from chattel slavery to genocide. And yet, he argues that social identities aren't something we can simply do away with. They can usher in moral progress and bring significance to our lives by connecting the small scale of our daily existence with larger movements, causes, and concerns. Elaborating a bold and clarifying new theory of identity, The Lies That Bind is a ringing philosophical statement for the anxious, conflict-ridden twenty-first century. This book will transform the way we think about who--and what--'we' are."--Dust jacket.
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Summary

Summary

Who do you think you are? That's a question bound up in another: What do you think you are? Gender. Religion. Race. Nationality. Class. Culture. Such affiliations give contours to our sense of self, and shape our polarized world. Yet the collective identities they spawn are riddled with contradictions, and cratered with falsehoods.

Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Lies That Bind is an incandescent exploration of the nature and history of the identities that define us. It challenges our assumptions about how identities work. We all know there are conflicts between identities, but Appiah shows how identities are created by conflict. Religion, he demonstrates, gains power because it isn't primarily about belief. Our everyday notions of race are the detritus of discarded nineteenth-century science. Our cherished concept of the sovereign nation--of self-rule--is incoherent and unstable. Class systems can become entrenched by efforts to reform them. Even the very idea of Western culture is a shimmering mirage.

From Anton Wilhelm Amo, the eighteenth-century African child who miraculously became an eminent European philosopher before retiring back to Africa, to Italo Svevo, the literary marvel who changed citizenship without leaving home, to Appiah's own father, Joseph, an anticolonial firebrand who was ready to give his life for a nation that did not yet exist, Appiah interweaves keen-edged argument with vibrant narratives to expose the myths behind our collective identities.

These "mistaken identities," Appiah explains, can fuel some of our worst atrocities--from chattel slavery to genocide. And yet, he argues that social identities aren't something we can simply do away with. They can usher in moral progress and bring significance to our lives by connecting the small scale of our daily existence with larger movements, causes, and concerns.

Elaborating a bold and clarifying new theory of identity, The Lies That Bind is a ringing philosophical statement for the anxious, conflict-ridden twenty-first century. This book will transform the way we think about who--and what--"we" are.


Author Notes

Kwame Anthony Appiah pens the Ethicist column for the New York Times, and is the author of the prize-winning Cosmopolitanism, among many other works. A professor of philosophy and law at New York University, Appiah lives in New York.


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

The supposedly eternal categories people use to group themselves into antagonistic collectives are misleading memes of recent vintage, according to this probing critique of identity politics. New York University philosophy professor Appiah (Cosmopolitanisms) argues that, although people have an innate "clannishness"-an instinct to identify with groups-the common essential properties that bind those groups are arbitrary, inconsistent, and mainly imaginary. The idea of fixed biological races, he contends, developed in the 18th century to justify the transatlantic slave trade; the notion of homogeneous national identities sprouted from a 19th-century romantic philosophy that forced them onto multiethnic, multilingual communities; modern religious divisions are based on contradictory, often unintelligible scriptures; and, contrary to the dicta of both white nationalists and Afrocentrists, Western culture isn't the creation of Europeans, Egyptians, or any other single people. Writing in erudite but engaging prose, Appiah spotlights figures who created identitarian doctrines or challenged them, including a West African boy who traveled to Germany in 1707 and became a philosophy professor, and ponders his own complicated identity as a gay, biracial man descended from English knights on his mother's side and Ghanaian royalty on his father's. With deep learning and incisive reasoning, Appiah makes a forceful argument for building identity from individual aspirations rather than exclusionary dogmas. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


New York Review of Books Review

A JAPANESE-AMERICAN political scientist and a Ghanaian-British-American philosopher walk into a bar where a brawl over identity is underway. "Stop fighting!" the philosopher cries. "The identities you're fighting for are lies." The political scientist steps forward. "They're not lies," he says. "They're just the wrong identities to be fighting for!" The scholars succeed in ending the conflict, because the brawlers leave for a less contentious bar. The political scientist in my meh joke is Francis Fukuyama, who famously declared "the end of history," and then, when history continued, said it depends on what the meaning of the word "end" is. The philosopher is Kwame Anthony Appiah, a cosmopolitan by background and choice who argues that we are all citizens of the world. The bar, sadly, is our brawling country - and others like it. Here are a couple of sage Ph.D.s seeing if they might intervene in the identity wars now plaguing so many nations. Both books belong to one of today's most important genres: the Not-About-Trump-But-AlsoSort-Of-About-Trump, or N.A.T.B.A?S.O.A.T., book. There is a hunger to understand this moment, but from a remove. And both books help explain so much more than Trump. #MeToo. White nationalism. Hindu nationalism. Black Lives Matter. Campus debates about privilege and appropriation. Syria. Islamism. The spread of populism and retreat of democracy worldwide. The rise of the far right in Europe. The rise of the far left in the United States. All these phenomena throb with questions of identity, of "Who am I?" and "To what do I belong?" Appiah and Fukuyama seek out answers. Appiah believes we're in wars of identity because we keep making the same mistake: exaggerating our differences with others and our similarities with our own kind. We think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes up against other tribes, whereas we each contain multitudes. Fukuyama, less a cosmopolitan and more a nation-state guy, has greater sympathy for people clinging to differences. He thinks it a natural response to our age - but also seems to believe that if we don't find a way to subsume narrow identities into national ones, we're all going to die. Appiah begins "The Lies That Bind" by observing that he, a man of ambiguous identity, is constantly asked, "What are you?" His book is an exploration of why people feel a need to pin identities down - to essentialize - and how to escape the pinning. Appiah's project is to point out our most common errors in thinking about five types of identity, all conveniently beginning with the letter "c": creed, country, color, class and culture. (This gimmick lends proof to his cosmopolitan idea: A British-born philosopher can also be an American salesman.) Among the errors we make: On "c" No. 1, creed, we tend to think of religions as "sets of immutable beliefs" instead of as "mutable practices and communities." We make religion a noun when it should really be a verb, which gives rise to fundamentalism. When religion is "revealed as an activity, not a thing," it is easier to accept that "it's the nature of activities to bring change." On country, we create "a forced choice between globalism and patriotism." We prefer people with simple answers to the question "What are you?"; we disparage and deport those Appiah calls "the confessors of ambivalence." We often forget that a modern, pluralist, liberal democracy like America is "not a fate but a project." On culture, he argues that we should "give up the very idea of Western civilization," because the notion of a distinct Western essence - "individualistic and democratic and liberty-minded and tolerant and progressive and rational and scientific" - ignores basic facts about the West and everywhere else. But just as people on the left finish clapping at that, he decries the left's complaints about "cultural appropriation," because culture is too complex to have a clear chain of title and, he says, because "those who parse these transgressions in terms of ownership have accepted a commercial system that's alien to the traditions they aim to protect." Appiah's writing is often fresh, even beautiful: 19th-century scientists who tried to make the non-thing of race a thing were being "recruited to give content to color." Fair warning, however: This book also traffics in a disconcerting amount of philosopher-speak - both the signposting tics of "I aim to persuade you that..." and substantive sentences like "Scholarly exegesis can also run athwart older ecclesiastic interpretations," which risk turning away many who need this book. If Appiah has a blind spot, it is in assuming that everyone can be as comfortably cosmopolitan as he. He quotes the Roman playwright Terence: "I am human, I think nothing human alien to me." "Now there's an identity that should bind us all," he writes. But this vision is afflicted by the same misappraisal of others that Barack Obama's father made when he returned to Kenya and dismissed its tribalisms as parochial and ended up a failure, according to Obama's aunt. "If everyone is family, no one is family," she told the future president. People like to belong to things small enough to feel. Fukuyama is more sympathetic to that need in "Identity." The assertion of particular identities, and the insistence that respect be paid to them, is a hallmark of our age. And it is, in his telling, not because people are bad at reasoning or narrow, but because of how discombobulating our age has been. GLOBALIZATION, THE INTERNET, automation, mass migration, the emergence of India and China, the financial crisis of 2008, the rise of women and their displacing of men in more service-oriented economies, the civil rights movement and the emancipation of other groups and the loss of status for white people - these are just some of what we have lived through of late. Yes, the world has gotten better for hundreds of millions. But Fukuyama reminds us that across much of the West, people have suffered dislocation and elites have captured the fruits. Amid these changes, Fukuyama writes, identity politics has come to the fore, and it has become our common culture, no longer the province of a party or side. In American politics, for example, the left used to focus on economic equality, he argues, and the right on limited government. Today, the left concentrates on "promoting the interests of a wide variety of groups perceived as being marginalized," whereas the right "is redefining itself as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion." Fukuyama suggests that we are living in an era in which the sense of being dismissed, rather than material interest, is the locomotive of human affairs. The rulers of Russia, Hungary and China are driven by past national humiliations. Osama bin Laden was driven by the treatment of Palestinians. Black Lives Matter has been driven by the fatal disrespect of the police. And a large swath of the American right, which claims to loathe identity politics, is driven by its own perception of being dissed. Unlike many avuncular critics of identity politics, Fukuyama is sympathetic to the good such politics does - above all, making the privileged aware of their effect on marginalized groups. "Outsiders to those groups often fail to perceive the harm they are doing by their actions," he writes. Fukuyama does have his criticisms, however. He fears identity politics "has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality." Fukuyama worries that the "woker" the left gets on identity issues, the weaker it gets on offering a critique of capitalism. Unlike Appiah, Fukuyama doesn't seem to think it's possible or desirable for humans to see themselves as human before all else. He is a believer in the nation-state as a healthy unit of human affairs, and he spends the final part of his smart, crisp book exploring how countries can cultivate "integrative national identities" that are rooted in liberal and democratic values - identities large enough to be inclusive, but small enough to give people a real sense of agency over their society. A low-key shortcoming of Fukuyama's book is that, like Appiah's, it is a book about books about books. On the one hand, theorists gotta theorize. On the other, with an issue so fraught and a world so full of rage, each author could have made good use of a rental car and the Voice Memos app. For all their strengths, both books lack the earth and funk and complexity of dreaming, hurting human beings. We need more thinkers as wise as Appiah and Fukuyama digging their fingers into the soil of our predicament. And we need more readers reading what they harvest. ANAND GlRlDHARADAS is the author of "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World."


Library Journal Review

Appiah (philosophy, New York Univ.; Cosmopolitanism) argues that people identify with ideas and groups in ways that are inescapable but dangerous. The key danger lies in essentialism, the view that a group has fixed conditions of identity that apply without exception to its members. Thus, Scriptural determinism holds that people who profess a religion are committed to beliefs found in canonical texts, yet to view religion in this way is to ignore the diversity of belief and behavior among those who profess a particular creed. In another example, Appiah denies that race determines intelligence and personality traits and offers similar considerations along lines of country, class, and culture, moving easily over diverse fields including biblical scholarship, philosophy, history, and anthropology. Appiah often draws examples from his own remarkable life, as well as from personalities such as Michael Young, a sociologist who coined the term meritocracy and was an architect of the post-World War II British welfare state. VERDICT Written in a clear, nontechnical style, this book by an outstanding contemporary philosopher presents critical thinking about public issues at its best and should appeal widely to anyone interested in serious thought. [See Prepub Alert, 2/12/18.]-David Gordon, Ludwig von Mises Inst., Auburn, AL © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

Introductionp. xi
1 Classificationp. 1
2 Creedp. 33
3 Countryp. 69
4 Colorp. 105
5 Classp. 135
6 Culturep. 187
Codap. 213
Acknowledgmentsp. 221
Adinkrap. 225
Notesp. 227
Indexp. 248