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Festival of Ideas

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity Kwame Anthony Appiah

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Kwame Anthony Appiah challenges our assumptions about how identity works, weaving personal anecdotes with historical, cultural and literary examples to explore the entanglements within the stories we tell ourselves.

How do we craft identities? Is identity personal? Or are the identities that shape the world, our struggles and our hopes actually social ones, shared with countless others? What roles do family, nationality, culture, class, race and religion play in the shaping of our sense of self?

Appiah examines how identities are created by conflict, questioning misleading myths and offering a new way for us to think about ourselves and our communities.

Photo credit: Steve Bisgrove

Audience Member Review

Written by Hugh D Reynolds

The cosmopolitan impulse that draws on our common humanity is no longer a luxury; it has become a necessity.’

Our nationality, so some would have us believe, must be a cornerstone of our identity.

Last year, I was taken aback by a poster at my daughter’s nursery extolling ‘British Values’. Whilst heartily endorsing all of these as worthy principles (Tolerance, The rule of law, Mutual respect…) the suggestion that any of them are peculiarly and essentially British I find deeply problematic. Thanks to Ofsted requirements, there’s a roaring trade in these posters. Have a look online. A particularly odd example I’ve just spotted has the headline rule ‘We treat everybody equally’ overlaid with the image of an old lady who this year will be paid £82.2million by taxpayers. (Ask your Gran about her state pension. It’s likely to be around 0.01% of that figure.)

Is it really possible to distil the essence of what makes ‘us’ us, as distinct from ‘them’?

If you’ve embraced an identity or had one foisted upon you; if you’re looking for some profound similarity that you share with others of your ilk; you may want to save yourself some bother and come hear Kwame Anthony Appiah talk about The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (Profile, 2018). (booking details here)

Country is just one of the affiliations which Appiah considers in a book that calls-out many of the myths around identity. Within any classification, be it a creed, colour, class or culture, Appiah’s message is the same: we all share things in common with each other, but there’s no one thing we all share.

Don’t take from this that Appiah thinks we can easily unshackle ourselves from the concepts of identity. Far from it. They are The Lies That Bind. Fictions created through conflict, subject to constant change, yet possessing a cohesive power that passes itself off as something perpetual.

Some of the most insightful features I’ve found in Appiah’s latest work are biographic. He writes of those whose lives and work confront preconceptions of ourselves as fixed beings in a static world order. People like the social reformer Michael Young and his oft mis-interpreted term Meritocracy. The sociologist and African-American activist W E B Du Bois – on whom Appiah has written extensively elsewhere (see his Lines of Descent (Harvard 2014)). Philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo, the first African to attend a European university, in 1721. Modernist writer Italo Svevo whose very pseudonym, Appiah explains, shows the complexities of national identity: the Italian Swabian (a.k.a. Aron Ettore Schmitz) who ‘changed countries without leaving home’.

I read Appiah’s work as a rejection of a claim made by Svevo’s most famous character, the eponymous, unreliable memoirist in Zeno’s Conscience:

You see things less clearly when you open your eyes too wide.’

When it comes to identity and nationhood, some are content to keep their (and our) eyes wide shut. Appiah quotes Ernest Renan, a conservative French scholar, arch patriot and reactionary:

Forgetting and, I would even say, historical error, is an essential element in the creation of a nation.’

This is from an influential essay from 1882 entitled: Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? Given our country’s current predicament, there are few more apt questions to be asking right now. Renan’s observation – that what forms the fabric of a nation involves fabrication – rings true. There appears to be a high-degree of error and forgetting in the national stories we’re ‘recovering’ through Brexit, and in those being cooked-up to nourish us beyond 29 March 2019.

Appiah explains that, for Renan, what really matters in making a nation is:

‘“the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.” That’s why he said that a nation’s existence “is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite”. What makes “us” a people, ultimately, is a commitment to governing a common life together.’

So each day ‘we’ live together is a vote for that way of life?

What’s that… ? You want a second referendum?

Renan reckons we hold one every day!

Many of ‘us’ would like to continue the common life together ‘we’ thought ‘we’ had. The trouble is, should you and I disagree on the perimeter of ‘we’ – who’s in, who’s out, who we care about and how – holding a plebiscite on the issue of whether to keep holding these plebiscites… Well. It all rather scuppers Renan’s neat picture.

Where Renan may have a point is that it’s better to see any grouping as ‘not a fate but a project’. Appiah is keen to highlight various forms and extensions of this thought. For example, his view that in religion we underplay the role of orthopraxy (acting right) in informing orthodoxy (believing right). Religion is a verb; something that is to be done.

What we do together matters as much, perhaps more, than what we’re supposed to think together.

That person at your shoulder, marching/singing/praying/moshing/saluting/dining/chanting with you under some common banner – they may have wildly different ideals and motivations from your own. What’s bringing you together is the act.

This Renanian nation – built on activities played-out across a people and their will to stay in the game – some see as a reaction against an older notion of what a nation is, which Appiah calls Herderian.

Joseph Gottfried von Herder was an eighteenth century Romantic from what is now (not without some irony given our topic) a part of Poland. He ‘explored the idea that the German people were held together by a spirit embodied, above all else, in German language and literature…’. But to be part of Herder’s herd, wasn’t as simple as learning to talking like him and read Goethe. Divine Providence had already moved to pigeon-hole us all, creating ‘wonderfully separated nationalities not only by woods and mountains, seas and deserts, rivers and climates, but more particularly by languages, inclinations and characters.’

Although Renan rejected Herder’s position that race, language and culture should root a nation, and though he appears to allow a degree of choice in the matter of nationhood, Renan’s account – based as it is on some intangible collective will or agreement – is still laden with ethereal spirits. Still for Renan: ‘A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.’

Spirits never die, but their material consequences decimate.

What’s known as the Volksgeist is still, in its various guises, very much a lie that leaders expect followers to kill and die for; supposed to distinguish my character from that of Johnny Foreigner; meant to be roused within the first couple of bars of some pompous anthem.

Appiah ably communicates the rift between those who see nationhood as something spiritual, and those for whom it’s an issue of practicalities: ‘The Romantic state rallies its citizens with a stirring cry: “One people!” The liberal state’s true anthem is: “We can work it out.”’

He isn’t sure there is any such thing as a truly Herderian people. Most peoples, ‘Ghanaians [for example] are perfectly aware that they are not a Herderian people with one history and culture, a single unifying Volksgeist. But that doesn’t stop anyone from thinking of themselves as Ghanaians. . .’.

If nationhood is possible without destroying individuality, why is global citizenship – cosmopolitanism – taken to be impossible without destroying groupings like family, local community, city or shire?

Take the Prime Minister, in a conference speech from 2016 (which Vince Cable, with unhelpful hyperbole, likened to Mein Kampf):

But, if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.’

What May may be missing (or worse, I suspect she gets in full but pretends to her audience she misses) is a point writ large by Appiah: traditions survive only by changing; interacting with others.

I’d extend this in two directions to say that both the world and the citizen too are dynamic entities. They have the capacity – the potential – to change each other as notions of citizenship expand, overlap and spawn not just new shared ideas and goals, but novel worldviews.

Appiah’s own life-story – his accidents of birth and experience; ‘Grandson of a British Chancellor of the Exchequer and nephew of a Ghanaian king’ – these go a long to explaining the ease with which he can embrace cosmopolitanism.

A couple of early US reviewers of the book pick up on this point. Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times writes: ‘If Appiah has a blind spot, it is in assuming that everyone can be as comfortably cosmopolitan as he.’ Whilst Clifford Thompson in The Washington Post says the book: ‘has little specific to say about how to awaken the world to a more productive understanding of what makes up our identities.

They’re right. Appiah appears to have been privileged in his global background, and he doesn’t spill so much ink on the practical reforms we could do with. But Appiah is clear that cosmopolitans can be made as well as born, and as he says in his 2016 BBC Reith Lectures (upon which his book is based): ‘There are things to be learned. That’s one of the cosmopolitan thoughts.’

I’m no shining exemplar of cosmopolitanism; I’m often to be found hemmed-in by my own self-absorbed English concerns. But it was through learning that I realised I should attempt to embrace, not shun, a slightly wider world than that to which I was born.

Thanks to Michael Young and other visionaries, in the early mornings of my formative years, I’d switch on the tele for a children’s show, and instead be fed an Open University programme on The Age of Enlightenment. BBC Language courses like España Viva could be studied – for free – by anyone – on daytime TV. It was learning that led me (through curiosity rather than economic compulsion or fear) to go abroad and do Voluntary Service Overseas and, on my (freely made) return – to seek out international food, films, work, people, news and ideas. The BBC, the OU, VSO.

These national institutions once made it possible for me to get beyond both my nation (and the notion of nation) without giving-up on it.

I had a choice. This freedom matters to the survival of cosmopolitanism. The kinds of choice that most migrants make (if they have one) is of a very different nature and needs to be seen as such. So many of those born to this nation, supposedly opposed to cosmopolitanism, appear limited in their capacity for choice too.

Opportunities in and from a bigger world are not being granted where they’re wanted; not being taken where they’re offered.

It’s not a contradiction to want your locality to thrive within a global network of other – but intimately connected – thriving localities. It’s not unpatriotic to accept that ‘outsiders’ can affect positively – rather than infect – whatever we think of as the ‘inside’. It’s not naïve to observe that we have no monopoly over virtue, and that, whatever ‘our’ values are, they are often forgotten within our midst whilst being shared elsewhere. (To think they’re shared everywhere, now that would be naïve. Appiah has much to say on the dangers of assuming ‘Western Civ’[ilization] is all there is to civilization.)

It helps if you’re an Emperor, but you don’t have to be. Nor does there need to be anything imperialist, nor pretentious in saying, after Marcus Aurelius: ‘I am a citizen of the Universe’. Or, better, after legendary experimental theatre performer Ken Campbell: ‘I am a citizen of the Multiverse’.

Must it be a luxury to broaden one’s horizons? We should ask those who are forced to do so through economic and political necessity. They may tell us something of what it means to truly lose one’s nation – not through, say, a progressive union with friendly neighbour states – but through armed aggression, invasion, state collapse, annexation, plague, famine, genocide… Things that – we tend to forget, as Renan said we would – recur in our own nation’s stories.

This forgetting facilitates exaggeration and, in time, extremism.

To steal a line from Giridharadas: ‘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.’

For as long as we bang on about what makes ‘us’ us – these wars will rage.

Reading Appiah has helped me understand the vacuity of those posters.

Whatever it is that makes a nation, it can’t be stuck to a wall.

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