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Why identity is a lie we can’t live without

Kwame Anthony Appiah on how identity defines and distorts our politics.

Waring Abbott/Getty Images

It’s become fashionable to complain about the rise of “identity politics” in America.

The basic argument you hear from academics like Mark Lilla or journalists like Jonathan Chait (both self-identified liberals) is that the left’s focus on race, gender, and sexual identity has destroyed liberalism and prevented the Democrats from unifying the country. If the left would just focus on the economy, the argument goes, they could broaden their coalition and retake power.

There are interesting claims on both sides of this debate — but it’s also useful to step back and rethink what we actually mean by “identity.” Maybe identity politics is both unavoidable and potentially a positive force in American politics.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University and the author of a new book titled The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. It’s a fascinating look at how we label ourselves, and how those labels define us and the conflicts that drive our politics. But it’s also about how identity is more fluid than we imagine, and why it often obscures all the things we have in common.

I called Appiah to talk about the book and why he thinks most of our conversations about identity and identity politics are misguided. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing

I’ll start with the double question you open the book with: What are identities, and why do they matter?

Kwame Anthony Appiah

The short answer is that identities are labels that we use to group each other. When you take one seriously, when you identify with a label, then you think of it as giving you reasons to do things and not to do things. If you’re a Catholic, you have reasons to obey the Catholic church and its teachings. You have reasons to help with Catholic organizations, and all the people associated with it, and that’s what makes it social.

And we respond to people in terms of these identities — so it’s not just that you have the label and you and the people who share it with you take it seriously, but other people do as well, and so the label affects how you’re treated. And once you see that that’s how identities work, you can see that they must be important at both the personal and political levels.

Sean Illing

The title of your book implies that “identity” is a lie. What do you mean by that?

Kwame Anthony Appiah

There’s something misleading or mistaken about the pictures that underline these identities and yet they bind us together in spite of that. They do bring people together, as well as divide people, and I think that the lies, the untruths, are often a very important part of how they work. They’re important to how people are held together.

People — and when I say people I mean everybody — need these simple stories and labels to help them understand their place in the world. Life is complicated, and the social world is complicated, and identities simply all that for us. And yet these are often just constructs, artificial labels that we’ve created, and our attachment to them can blind us to that fact.

Sean Illing

Do you think that identities force us to reduce ourselves and other people to abstractions?

Kwame Anthony Appiah

I think it can certainly do that. Especially when you forget that identity groups are incredibly diverse and that even people who share significant identities differ in all sorts of other ways. White people, for instance, are incredibly diverse, and one reason is that some of them are men and some of them are women, some of them are straight and some of them are not, and so on.

I think we run into dangers when we allow our identities to push us around, to make us do things we don’t actually want to do or need to do, just because we feel that’s what a black person would do or that’s what a white person would do or that’s what a Republican person would do. These identities can make all sorts of demands on us, and often that can overwhelm who we are as unique individuals.

Sean Illing

How did race or ethnicity become a central feature of personal identity? Or was it always thus?

Kwame Anthony Appiah

I don’t think it was always thus. People have always used labels to justify other people and those labels have always had something to do with appearance and ancestry. But there’s something distinctive about the modern way of doing it.

With the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, color comes to be very, very important in the Western world. The distinction between black people and white people and the native populations of the Caribbean, of the Americas, are mapped onto color, and these distinctions suddenly become extremely important.

And then in the early 19th century, with the rise of modern scientific ideas about humanity and the rise of modern biology, people come to think that these differences, these superficial differences in appearance, are a reflection of some deep physical separation. And so biology becomes this attempt to study the differences between these races and with that we get racism as we currently understand it.

Sean Illing

Each of us has multiple overlapping identities. In my case, I’m white and male and straight and American and a journalist and on and on. What determines which of these identities are activated at any given time?

Kwame Anthony Appiah

That’s a really important question and it’s something that people often don’t think about. I think the answer is that it depends on what we’re doing. So there’s an upcoming election and I’m very preoccupied with being an American and hoping that I can do something for my country and that my fellow citizens will go along.

If I’m in a gay bar, then my gayness is salient and so is the fact that I’m male. When I’m teaching a philosophy class, I’m aware of the fact that the male and female students are male and female — I can’t ignore it. But it doesn’t seem very relevant to what we’re talking about, unless, of course, we’re talking about feminism, and then gender is very relevant.

We’re pretty good at recognizing that there are features of our identities that are salient and help us divide ourselves. That’s one of the reasons why they’re important and even helpful. So you’re a journalist, that’s your professional identity, and it’s crucially important when, say, a cop wants to know who you’re talking to and how you got your information. Your identity as a journalist will be activated in that moment and as a result you’ll want to protect your sources of information.

Sean Illing

This seems like an important point, because I think we tend to think of identity as intractable or fixed, and so we get locked into these labels and they come to define us and define our conflicts with one another. But as you say, we have multiple identities and multiple points of contact with other people, and it’s almost never true that there is no shared ground at all.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Yes, it’s very important to remember that someone you don’t share identities with is likely also someone you do share identities with. We’re currently very divided into political tribes in this country, and this defines the lines of conflict. But the areas of disagreement can become so outsized that they obscure the things we do share, like the fact that we’re all Americans.

We have to be very careful not to reduce other people to caricatures based solely on their partisan identity. You can never truly engage with people like that, and you’ll miss the things you actually do share. But if we get locked into fixed identities and locked into a cartoon interpretation of the other “team,” then we’re in deep trouble.

Sean Illing

There’s an interesting argument in the book about how identity-based movements that define themselves in opposition to dominant cultures are bound to cement their marginality. Can you say a bit about what you mean here?

Kwame Anthony Appiah

If you allow your identity to be totally shaped by your opposition to a dominant culture, as many racial groups have done because of the history of racism and xenophobia, you can become locked into that minority status. The first time a group becomes conscious of itself as an important social group, it is because they realize that they’re all being subjected to something.

But if you define yourself through the act of opposition, then you’re letting the oppressors set the terms. And it might be better — though of course it’s proper to resist the racism, the xenophobia, the homophobia, the sexism — to give your identity an affirmative content.

First, you come together as a group to protect yourselves, but later you can develop an identity with positive content that isn’t based purely on hostility to your oppressors. That is far better in the long run.

Sean Illing

Is identity becoming more paramount and determinative in a world that is changing faster and faster?

Kwame Anthony Appiah

There is certainly a connection between the large movements of people we saw after WWII and the range of diverse identities that have been activated since. Identity allows people to know who they are and navigate their way through a crowded, diverse world. It also allows groups to mobilize and act in concert, which is central to politics. But of course now we’re seeing a lot of pushback against so-called “identity politics.”

Sean Illing

Right, but here’s the thing: Politics largely consists of leaders activating certain identities that they think will create advantages for them, and usually that involves fomenting the right divisions or cleavages in society. So there’s all this pressure in the system pushing us to separate into teams or groups based on identity.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

The key thing I think is to make sure that the teams are held together by more than just hatred and contempt for the other team. There’s always going to be an element of that, but if you lead with the hatred and contempt, as Donald Trump often does, then you’re leading irresponsibly.

We desperately need a way of doing politics that illuminates shared interests and emphasizes improving the conditions for everyone, not just a particular group. And we’ve seen this many, many times before, such as during the Civil Rights movement in which white and black people worked together for the welfare of everyone.

The goal there wasn’t merely to get recognition for one group over another, or to give one group a special standing over others, it was to produce an outcome in which everyone enjoyed the same rights and privileges.

Sean Illing

My response to a lot of the complaints people make about identity politics is that I don’t know what politics looks like without identity. There was never a truly pre-identity politics era. The question is not whether to do identity politics or not do identity politics; it’s about which identities we activate and how inclusive or exclusive they are.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

I totally agree. It’s simply not possible to do politics without identity, unless we’re talking about the sort of politics that Aristotle imagined, which is politics in a community where everybody knows everybody else — but that’s not the world we live in. We have to be communities of strangers, and the only way communities of strangers can do anything together is through imaginative identification. And that’s what identity gives us.

So I completely agree with you, and that means we have to notice the dangers of identities and demand responsible leaders who will use them with an awareness of those dangers, and with a desire to advance common causes.