“Essential” Conversation: A Review of “The Lies That Bind”

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity” is an incisive look into identity and its meaning for political conversations today. He helps to define identity, to look at different constituents of identity (religion, race, nationality, culture), and to try and find a place for identity in our consciousness. It is at once a deconstruction of what we think of when conceptualizing identity and a plan for dealing with this most challenging of topics. On both the left and right, the concept of identity and its meaning for us today permeates nearly every political conversation, often resulting in the devolution of conversations into arguments. Why is this so?

Ideologues on both the left and right have taken up the banner of identity to argue for their pet policies- whether it’s the alt-right demanding fealty to their interpretation of “Western Culture” or social-constructionist critiques of the “dominance structures” in society today. Professor Appiah rightly points out that essentialism- the tendency we have to mentally assign characteristics to an individual based on whatever group we think they belong to- has destructive consequences for society. He shares with his readers a series of studies that show how this tendency show up in children at an early age, and is therefore likely a cognitive shortcut that we all make. It is, in a word, something that’s not likely to go away.

So the question is, how do we deal with it?

The answer lies in the critical survey of identity constructs that Professor Appiah leads us through in his book. He cites many examples from Jews in mid-century America to Ewes and Jains in Ghana to the Roman emperor Julian. He also attacks ideas of any pure or unified religion, culture, etc. It is an enlightening and interesting journey.

For Professor Appiah, identities are ultimately what we make of them. it is up to us to have conversations about what they ultimately mean and their role in determining how we view the world:

“If essentialism is a misstep in the realms of creed, color, country, class, and culture, as it is in the domain of gender and sexuality, then it is never true that identity leaves us no choices. The existentialists were right: existence precedes essence; we are before we are anything in particular… For these labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And morality and political prudence require us to try to make them work for us all.”

-Kwame Anthony Appiah

The bit about the existentialists is particularly poignant because it gets at what is so important in all of this: the role of responsibility. We are all responsible ultimately for who we are. There is a tendency in contemporary sociology, political theory, and social psychology to argue that we are all simply creatures of the social constructs in which we are born and live. There is a denial of human agency here that seems to put us all into boxes: white people will be given all the advantages, black people will struggle with the law, hispanics will be viewed as lazy no matter what they do. But this denies the power of the will within each individual; the idea that if someone wants something bad enough, she can go after it and get it. Despite the undeniable influence that our social milieu has on forming who we are as a person, ultimately it is up to us to challenge and ultimately change the reality we are given. For Jordan Peterson, it starts with “cleaning your damn room.” For Professor Appiah, it is a responsibility we all have to go through these arguments, look at them critically and then have a discussion about what identity means.

I think this conversation has particular relevance in two senses, one that touches on essentialism and the other that touches on the free speech issues we see on college campuses today.

The first is the essentialist roots of concepts like “white privilege” or “white rage.” We see today people asserting absurd things like “all white people are racist.” The disturbing thing is that labelling people in this way is asserting the exact same type of essentialism that we all abhor, just in a new way. This type of essentialist has led to some pretty depressing historical incidents, such as the murder of kulacks or the misguided affirmative action policies in Malaysia. Less disturbing, but more germane to today’s political discussions is the way the idea that forcing white people to self-identify themselves as racists is simply the wrong way to go about fostering political dialogue. If you assert something like “Trump voters are racists,” is it any wonder why there has been drastic increases of fear and animosity across the aisle in recent years? Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that people must be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” How do we reconcile cries of “beckyism” with these magisterial words? Ultimately, you reap what you sow, rhetorically speaking: if you call someone a pejorative name like “racist”, “becky”, or any fill-in-the-blank-phobe, is it a wonder that any basis for meaningful discussion is now impossible? Is it any wonder that there is no basis for conversations in search of consensus?

The point here is not that there isn’t a lot of work to do to keep black Americans safer from bad or misguided police officers, or that we need to continue to use the free market to help everyone regardless of race get access to a meaningful work, to make the workplace more fair for women who want to have both a family and a career, to encourage people to become responsible, upstanding members of their community, or to make our immigration system functional so that oppressed people from the world over can come to our borders in search of the American dream. The point is that our rhetoric has spun out of control and people on both sides of the aisle are peddling ideas that will ultimately get us nowhere as a country.

The second sense in which what Professor Appiah is saying is important regards “cancel culture” and the circumscription of free speech on campuses. Trigger alerts and safe spaces prevent students from confronting ideas they find abhorrent. They promote visceral outcries of “hate,” “________phobia,” or “micro-aggression” rather than reasoned responses. Campus administrators and professors much ensure that students are shown that the best way to defeat wrong ideas is by showing why they are wrong through civil argument. People with ideas different than our own are not to be shouted down, have their microphones turned off, or be subject to physical intimidation. They are to be engaged on the merit of their arguments. Professor Appiah should be applauded for his promotion of civil conversation on these topics.

These answers cut deep to the heart of what we must promote as a liberal society: the free market of ideas. True racism is abhorrent and must be dealt with through reasoned debate about why it is wrong. True hate speech has no place in our national conversation and we must root it out, together. But this cannot be accomplished through a centralized censorship authority. We must continue to focus on education, on teaching citizens to reject demagoguery in all its forms. We must confront ideas different than ours in order to know what we think. We must shoulder the burdens of pluralistic democracy and engage. This is exactly what the existentialists were talking about when they invoked responsibility.

I thank you for reading; stay tuned to future posts on this blog as I continue to grapple with ideas from across the ideological spectrum.

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