Can a Philosopher Help Calm the Identity-Politics Wars?

Kwame Anthony Appiah. Photo: Jason Carter Rinaldi/Getty Images for Berggruen Insti

On paper, we’re supposed to realize that identity categories aren’t that big a deal, that all those boundaries that supposedly divide us are in fact rather porous: Race is more or less a constructed fiction, male and female brains overlap a great deal, the very concept of the nation-state, and therefore nationalism itself, is a historical accident. And yet identity retains great purchase on every part of the political spectrum. On the right, the story line is obvious: In the wake of the one-two punch of the financial meltdown and the migrant crisis, much of Europe is being rocked by a tidal wave of nationalism — old ethnic politics that were supposed to be dissolved away in the European Union instead are swelling. The election of Donald Trump, meanwhile, has emboldened the segment of Americans most fixated on the idea that the nation is fundamentally white and Christian and must remain that way. On the left, things are a bit more complicated: While it’s progressives who have done the most work to knock down old identity categories, at the moment the left is also hosting a raucous internecine discussion over the purpose and limitations of “identity politics” — a term defined in a thousand ways by a thousand participants. These debates have touched just about every political and policy issue there is.

Into this fraught, tumultuous fray steps Kwame Anthony Appiah, a New York University professor of philosophy and law (and the author of “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times), with a new book entitled The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, published August 28 by Liveright. Given that Appiah is the child of a white mother born on a farm in the British countryside and a black father born in Ghana, where the two met, it’s little wonder that he has been thinking and writing about the complexities of identity for a long time — he’s also the author of 2005’s more academic The Ethics of Identity (not to mention a host of other books). In The Lies That Bind he simply asks the reader to consider, with a bit more rigor, various sorts of identity categories that we often take for granted. He argues that they often have fuzzier boundaries and less clear meanings than they might appear to at first blush. “I’ve set myself the task in this book of discussing some of the ideas that have shaped the modern rise of identity and trying to see some of the mistakes we regularly make about identities more clearly,” he writes in the introduction.

Intelligencer recently spoke to Appiah about the double-edged nature of nationalism, why overly broad identity categories can be useful, and how America’s Christian history influences our approach to Islamic terrorism.

Your book deals a lot with the idea that identity can be a double-edged sword, and I find nationalism to be such an interesting example of that. I remember after the travel-ban news came out I went to JFK for the protests there, and there were thousands of people there who were genuinely invested in the fight against people being excluded from the country on the basis of race or religion. What struck me, despite stereotypes about the left hating nationalism, was that it could actually be seen as a nationalistic gathering in a certain way.
Yes, absolutely. I mean it wouldn’t have made sense for them to be there unless they cared, I would say, about American rightness. They were there in shock because they thought that in the name of their country something terrible was being done and they wanted to actually play a role in stopping it happening.

Right, there is a certain, unifying power to the idea that as Americans we will not stand for this. Which is probably why both liberal and conservative politicians seek to tap those sentiments.
Yes. I mean, you could’ve been there, and probably there were people there who were not American citizens. There may have been a few who were just there under the rubric of respect for rights, or hostility to Islamophobia, or a bunch of other things. But, as you say, sometimes you want people just to be brought together by the sense of “Hey, we are the people who care about rights.”

For me, another double-edged identity concept is “people of color,” which is generally used for good or benign purposes but which strikes me as sometimes problematic. Taken literally, “person of color” encompasses what, 3 or 4 billion people? Some part of me does worry that these claims often are essentializing because they gloss over so much difference among massive groups of people who are often held together by flimsy, artificial racial categories. Am I being sort of overly sensitive? Should I just let it go because it’s being used for good purposes? How do you view that kind of language?
It’s often the case that what brings people together is the hostility of some other group against them. European Jewry was extremely diverse but it was brought together by the rise of organized anti-Semitism, or the re-rise of organized anti-Semitism in the late 19th and into the 20th century. So Moses Mendelssohn and some peasant in a shtetl — these are very different kinds of people but the most important thing for both of them in the context of their lives (if they were, say, in Berlin) would be that they would both be potential objects of anti-Semitism. So I think that one of the things that does actually bring people together is even if they are otherwise extremely diverse is a form of hostility that identifies them than if they were organized against everybody in the group.

Now what we don’t want to do is forget when we start talking about people of color, that there are vast differences in experience. Differences having to do both with, as it were, what kind of color you are, what kind of nonwhite person you are, and also with other things — gender, class, and so on. The result is that there’s a risk every time you take one of these labels that you essentialize and you treat everybody as if they were the same in ways in which they’re not. It’s something to be vigilant against, but I don’t think that needs to lead us to be against using such labels providing we use them carefully. I think it’s good to have in the culture the general thought that we should worry about this kind of essentialization so that when we do appeal to these sorts of concepts we remember that there are going to be things that divide people of any identity group.

I guess the flip side of that is the way “whiteness” is often discussed in progressive spaces. I find this to be a tricky thing to talk about. But I’m a white liberal Jew living in Brooklyn and I genuinely think I have more in common with the “average” person in Brooklyn, as big and diverse as it is, than I do with either the “average” white person in Appalachia, or the “average” white Republican in a Texas suburb. I find it’s hard to find the language to express that. It seems to me that there’s something going on with the language that seems to imply the problem is white skin itself — like white skin gives rise to problematic politics and behavior, rather than the problem being reactionary politics, or racism, or whatever.
Right. Yeah, and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. We should remember that it’s not inevitable that the label white should mean very much to its bearers. Some people are thinking, “I’m a white person, so I’m going to do this,” and a lot of people don’t. Now, it would be reasonable to point out that if you’re not otherwise marked, then one reason why many liberal-minded white people don’t think about being white is that they don’t have to worry about the color of their skin because it isn’t, in the context of interactions with officials and so on, likely to be burdensome to them. But I think that it’s perfectly proper to insist that essentialism about whiteness is as absurd as essentialism about blackness or any of these other identities.

You know, on the one hand, however you feel about your whiteness will sometimes make a difference to what happens to you — and on the other hand, it may not matter very much, to you. You may not think of your whiteness as having to do with anything except regretting the role of racism and so on. So that’s to make the point that identities have both a subjective and an objective dimension in some sense. They matter to how the world treats you, but they also matter to how you feel about the world, and the very same label can have very different subjective meanings for the people who bear it, and it can also lead to very different objective results in different circumstances. And all of that’s worth remembering.

So in other words, the other side of me saying I don’t feel like I have a deep essential commonality with the Appalachian or Houstonian is that whether or not I feel that way we will all benefit from being white — we’re, in certain contexts, less likely to get pulled over or followed around a convenience store, and stuff like that. That exists independent of my own feelings of what my identity is.
Right. There are a few things to say about it. One is, it’s important to care about it because it’s a very important fact about how our society works, and something we might like to do something about as citizens. But the second thing is: you didn’t do that. You didn’t make that true. You’re probably not doing anything to keep it being true, so it would be wrong to hold you responsible for it. There’s a difference between thinking someone is privileged by some identity and thinking that they’re to be blamed for that privilege. That’s not true, in general. There’s also the kind of privilege where people are desperately trying, actually, not to take advantage of it, though it isn’t up to them whether they gain advantage from it, because as I say identities have this subjective dimension in the sense that other people will treat you in virtue of their identities in a way they decide to, and you don’t control that.

Right, and it seems like there is a little bit of moral confusion in the air that mixes up those two concepts: being the beneficiary of privilege and actively causing privilege or trying to actively maintain it.
Yes, and I think it’s strategically unfortunate because instead of getting those people on your side you get their backs up if you talk to them in that way. So I think it’s important to get this right and to see that … Look, it’s probably also important to remind people that in the context of these racial identities in our society that there are lots and lots of other kinds of unearned privilege, some of which are held by some black people. So there’s lots and lots of, as it were, unearned class privilege in the United States and upper-middle-class black people get that too. So it’s not as if some people are permanently privileged by all their identities and other people are disprivileged by all of them.

There are contexts in which being black is a terrific thing in the United States. Because I am of African descent I have been treated extremely well in many contexts by African-Americans with whom I don’t have much history in common, just because we are both black. I mean, suppose I had been white, and otherwise had all the same properties that I have — I would have been, for them, an upper middle-class Englishman, and probably upper-middle-class Englishmen don’t seem like natural allies or friends for many African-Americans. For me, in many contexts in this country, being black has been a privilege as well as, no doubt, potentially the source of abuse or discrimination.

I really like your chapter on religion. People to seem to think that the rank-and-file ISIS members are all deeply devout, religious fundamentalists when in fact they’re often recruited just by the promise of a social identity and a place of belonging, and more terrestrial concerns like that.
Many of the European recruits of ISIS, of course, don’t know Arabic and can’t, therefore, read the Koran in the way in which you’re supposed to if you’re a devout person.

Even most Americans who go to some sort of church or synagogue probably intuitively understand that a lot of the time they’re just mouthing along — they’re there for the community, or comfort, or simply out of habit. But why do you think we have so much trouble extending that logic to others, either in the context of ISIS or religious conflict more generally? Why are we driven to want to think that that guy over there really does have crazy beliefs in his head rather than he’s just a member of a different tribe with slightly different rituals?
We’re just very bad at treating other people’s identities with the same care with which we’re happy to treat our own.

One of the ways in which you identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian in this country is by insisting that you believe in the literal truth of the Christian Bible. I think of that as just a performance — something that you say in order to indicate where you are on the community questions and on the moral questions. Because I simply cannot believe that anybody who has read the Bible — and these people mostly have — can actually believe, literally, everything in it. For one thing, it’s inconsistent, and you can’t literally believe both sides of the contradiction when it’s drawn to your attention. And there are just obvious problems with the stories in the Bible, starting with the fact that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis, which seem to be different from each other.

So I’m not being disrespectful … in fact, I’m being respectful! I’m saying, I can’t take you seriously when you say that because I too have read the Bible and I think that a sensible person, like you, can’t believe literally everything that’s in it.

Anything else you want to talk about or you want people to know about the book?
The arguments in the book are meant to be offered up for consideration and conversation. I’m not claiming to have got everything right about any of these things, I’m just trying to, as it were, move the conversation along by pointing to some things I think I’ve noticed. I’m hoping to generate lively debate about these things that’s less sort of aggressive, hostile, nasty than some of the debate about identity that’s currently going on.

Do you think things on the left are getting more and more essentialist or is that an overstatement?
Um … I’m thinking about this because I don’t know that I have a lot of evidence about whether things are changing. Yet there is a lot of essentialism everywhere, on the right as well, and I’m in favor of reducing the extent to which that’s true. Since I myself am a progressive liberal person, I’m particularly worried about it when my people do it because I think it undermines the main thrust of the progressive liberal tradition, which is to aim to liberate people of all identities so that we can have meaningful lives.

So I worry, but everybody who is a citizen of this country is a fellow citizen of mine and I care about thinking of all of them, even the ones that I disagree with about policy, and so I would hope that everybody on the left and right would be willing to entertain for the moment the possibility that they may not have got this right, and that our lives would all go better if we were less inclined to essentialism.

Can a Philosopher Help Calm the Identity-Politics Wars?