Book Review - The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy and law, has the perfect credentials to challenge our assumptions about identity. His father was Ghanaian, his mother English; He was born in Wiltshire, but grew up in Ghana; his mother’s religion was Anglican, while his father was a Methodist; Appiah now lives in New York and is married to another man.

In his latest book, inspired by his 2016 Reith Lectures ‘Mistaken identities’, Appiah covers creed, country, colour, class and culture, devoting a chapter to each theme. Identities are important, he asserts, because they “can give you a sense of how you fit into the social world…they give you reasons for doing things.” Essentialism, in particular, is problematic as a means of classification because there isn’t an “inner essence” that determines the makeup of different social identities.

According to Appiah, the fluidity and flexibility of identity is crucial. Religious traditions, change over time, so “we need to think of creedal identities in terms of mutable practices and communities rather than sets of immutable beliefs.” Cultural practices are also “mobile” and benefit from crossover. What’s important about values, he suggests, is that “you need to keep caring about them.”

In his chapter on Country, Appiah uses the example of Aron Ettore Schmitz to illustrate the limitations of defining nationality too narrowly. Schmitz, whose pen name was Italo Svevo, was born in Trieste in 1861, at a time when nation-states were not yet considered the dominant form of global political organisation. His parents were Jews of both Italian and German origin. He was born in the Austrian Empire but at the time of his death, Trieste was an Italian city: “he was a citizen of one country who became a citizen of another without leaving home.”

Tracking back and forth between continents and prejudices, Appiah includes extracts from classic texts and builds on and develops the scientific research of others. He sometimes states the obvious. For instance, many historians believe that the rise of racism in the latter part of the eighteenth century was a direct consequence of “the need to salve the consciences of those who trafficked in and exploited enslaved men and woman.” Writing about class, Appiah declares that meritocracy, advocated by Americans as a means of bypassing the old British class order, is also unreliable, because of the desire to hand down our hard won success to our children. The baton of privilege continues to pass between generations.

In this methodical interrogation of the “lies that bind”, Appiah warns against using outdated (mainly 19th century) modes of thought because much of it is “unhelpful or just plain wrong.” His main premise is that people can misuse identity to support negative “hierarchies of status and respect and… structures of power.” It’s a topical study, particularly given today’s societal divisions in the US and UK. Appiah’s conclusion - that our social identities should “expand our horizons”, not confine them - is also timely.

Originally published in The Tablet