The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

Who do you think you are? That’s a question bound up in another: What do you think you are? Gender. Religion. Race. Nationality. Class. Culture. Such affiliations give contours to our sense of self, and shape our polarized world. Yet the collective identities they spawn are riddled with contradictions, and cratered with falsehoods.Kwame Anthony Appiah’s "The Lies That Bind...

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Title:The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity
Author:Kwame Anthony Appiah
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The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity Reviews

  • Steve

    Liked this book so much! Reminded me of his Cosmopolitanism book. Very good discussions of things like race, nationality, sex but I most of all liked his treatment of religions and cultures.

  • Robin Friedman

    A Nightmare A Body's Got To Live With In The Daytime

    Robert Coover's, recent novel "Huck out West" carries the story of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and related characters through the Civil War to 1876. The story is told in Huck's voice with many observations, some cutting but some insightful. Among the latter sort, Huck says in this book discussing what contemporary readers would recognize as the concept of identity:

    "Tribes"... They're a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin y

    A Nightmare A Body's Got To Live With In The Daytime

    Robert Coover's, recent novel "Huck out West" carries the story of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and related characters through the Civil War to 1876. The story is told in Huck's voice with many observations, some cutting but some insightful. Among the latter sort, Huck says in this book discussing what contemporary readers would recognize as the concept of identity:

    "Tribes"... They're a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can't get away from them. They're a nightmare a body's got to live with in the daytime." ("Huck out West", p. 215)

    I was reminded of Huck's pithy observation in reading philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's thoughtful and learned book, "The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity" (2018) which is based on lectures he delivered for the BBC in 2016 titled "Mistaken Identities". Huck's statement could almost serve as a theme for Appiah. Appiah recognizes the importance of identity to individuals in terms of growth and self-understanding. Individuals are born into groups and we rely on one another in particularized surroundings to meet needs. Still, identities can turn into nightmares of rigidity in thinking of oneself and one's own group or "tribe" and in separating oneself and one's group from others, sometimes demonizing them.

    Some philosophies and religions are skeptical of concepts of personal identity and would try to do away with them, but that is not Appiah's way. Instead, Appiah tries to loosen but not eliminate ties of identity and to reformulate the understanding of identity in several critical areas of life where identity thinking is at its highest. Broadly, Appiah encourages the reader to eliminate views of essentialism and fixity in understanding one's identity commitments in favor of a more fluid view that recognizes change in what otherwise might seem as a fixed identity and continuity rather than otherness between oneself and others. The approach is broadly cosmopolitan. At the end of the book, Appiah quotes from the dramatist Terrence: "nothing human is foreign to me". Showing a commendable openness, Appiah says the aim of his book is to "start conversations, not to end them". More importantly, he tells the reader that "philosophers contribute to public discussions of moral and political life, I believe, not by telling you what to think but by providing an assortment of concepts and theories you can use to decide what to think for yourself. I will make lots of claims; but however forceful my language, remember always that they are offered up for your consideration, in the light of your own knowledge and experience."

    The book opens with a chapter discussing among other things the nature of labeling and essentialism in human identity formation. The chapters which follow discuss and try to modify understandings of identity in five broad areas: religion/creed, country, color, class, and culture, each of which is a sensitive subject for many people. Appiah tries to show problems in common essentialist understanding of identity in each area and often ties these problems into various developments in thought in the 19th century which have outlived their usefulness.

    Although not receiving a chapter of its own, Appiah discusses throughout perhaps an even more pervasive identity concept: the nature of gender and of one's sexuality.Although Appiah stresses what he sees as mistakes in understanding gender and in maleness and femaleness, I found this the weakest portion of the book and less convincing than the discussions in the remaining five chapters.

    For me, the most persuasive and important identity discussed in the book was creed and religion. Appiah does not try to persuade his readers for or against religion or a particular religion. Rather he points out insightfully and well that people tend to overestimate the importance of belief and creed to religion. He finds that religion is more a shared, changing practice of a group over time even when this shared practice facially involves elements of a creed, such as the recital of articles of faith. Appiah suggests how understandings may change while practices remain shared. He wants to discourage a heavy investment of personal commitment to creedal content and to a fixed separation of oneself from others. The discussions of the remaining four identity components, country, color, class, culture, also are important and worthwhile, although the section on religion had the most to say to me.

    The book proceeds in various ways, and Appiah's writing is often passionate, personal, and beautiful. The book offers argument and various forms of analysis, but it is more effective on a personal level and in its use of the work of other writers. Appiah uses many details from his own life, as the child of a British mother with ties to peerage and a father from Ghana with ties to Ghana's elite and to Ghana's winning of its independence. His own life shows the nature of loosening but not eliminating ties of identity in favor of a breadth of human understanding, where possible.

    The book is perhaps even more impressive in the range of learning Appiah shows and the use he makes of the lives and work of others. Appiah calls many other writers and books as witness to his development of a fluid concept of identity, including, for example W.E.B. DuBois, Matthew Arnold, Cavafy, Sir Edward Burnet Tylor, and Philo. He discusses at length Anton Wilhem, a distinguished philosopher and the first African to earn a PhD in philosophy from a European university. But the figure who appears closest to Appiah's heart in this book is the novelist Italio Svevo (Aron Ettore Schmitz) whose novel "Zeno's Conscience" is a modernistic classic. With a background in both Judaism and Christianity and ties to many nationalities, Svevo developed a cosmopolitanism and an openness to shared identity that appears to be a model for Appiah's own. In one of several passages discussing Svevo and "Zeno's Conscience", Appiah writes:

    "Although he once referred to Trieste as a crogiolo assimilatore -- an assimilating crucible, or melting pot -- Svevo knew how much remained unmelted. His Zeno is, above all, a walker in the city, a boulevardier and rambler, moving from one neighborhood to another. He is also a man always struggling with his own irresolution, always smoking his 'last cigarette', always betraying his ideals, and forever scrutinizing his own prejudices and preferences like a quizzical ethnographer. He wants to confront uncomfortable truths -- to side with reality, however much it stings." (p86)

    Appiah clearly writes from the more liberal end of the political spectrum, but enjoying and learning from this book does not involve a commitment to a political creed. Appiah has written a provocative, thoughtful account of the nature of identity and of hot-button issues in identity that helped me and may help others with this treacherous subject. Perhaps, with modification, loosening, and thought, identity does not have to be the "nightmare a body's got to live with in the daytime" that Huck found it to be in Coover's novel.

    Robin Friedman

  • Sanjida

    Clear, insightful writing on religion, class, ethnicity and culture, eschewing and debunking essentialist framings. Appiah is a kindred spirit to my own views and this book is a delight.

  • Sara

    The author is a Ghanian/ British philosopher who has spent most of his career in the US. He gets a little academic at times, but does a brilliant job of dissecting and debunking ideas of identity around "creed, country, color, class and culture," showing how too much of our thinking about those things are left over from bad 19th century ideologies.

    He doesn't think we can get rid of identity in the sense of social groups, but "the problem is not walls as such but walls that hedge us in; walls we

    The author is a Ghanian/ British philosopher who has spent most of his career in the US. He gets a little academic at times, but does a brilliant job of dissecting and debunking ideas of identity around "creed, country, color, class and culture," showing how too much of our thinking about those things are left over from bad 19th century ideologies.

    He doesn't think we can get rid of identity in the sense of social groups, but "the problem is not walls as such but walls that hedge us in; walls we played no part in designing…walls that block our vision and obstruct our way." Rather than use our identities to separate ourselves, we can use them to define our own freedoms and connect ourselves with the larger world. If "identity politics" and the fragmentation and polarization of the world trouble you, this is worth picking up.

  • Jackie Law

    Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that:

    “labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And moralit

    Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that:

    “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.”

    “As a rule, people do not live in monocultural, monoreligious, monolingual nation-states, and they never have.”

    The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a section on classification. This lays the groundwork for all that is subsequently discussed.

    “Identities […] can be said to have both a subjective dimension and an objective one: an identity cannot simply be imposed upon me, willy nilly, but neither is an identity simply up to me, a contrivance that I can shape however I please.”

    The author writes of clannish tendencies and habits, of how children have manners drilled into them that enable them to fit in with their home society. The way they walk, talk and dress offers acceptance and safety. ‘Others’ may be regarded as threatening and suffer suppression.

    “In many places in the world one ethnic or racial group regards its members as superior to others, and assumes the right to better treatment.”

    What though is an identity? The section on creed discusses how the major religions developed, how their holy books were created, and how interpretation of texts changes over time. Like everything else that is important in human life they evolve. Fundamentalists defend practices they favour and try to force them on others.

    “Heretics aren’t killed because they differ in arcane theological details; they’re killed because they reject, and threaten, the authority of their theocratic rulers.”

    Religion, it is argued, is not so much about belief but rather practice and fellowship. It is a verb more than a noun.

    If identity requires acceptance and a feeling of belonging, the section on country challenges what this could mean in terms of place. It explores how borders change over time and how citizens travel and settle elsewhere. A country of birth may cease to exist due to mergers and divisions. The language used to educate may then be changed alienating the next generation.

    Colour also presents challenges of classification as so many, including the author, have forebears from multiple lands. Birthplace or family ties offer little in the way of answers to certain prejudices.

    The discussion on class is also complex encompassing as it does financial, social and cultural capital. Education may offer a chance of mobility but resentments can fester when success is perceived as unearned.

    “It is no accomplishment to have been born on the finish line.”

    Appiah enjoyed a privileged upbringing with influential contacts in Britain and Ghana. Although recognising the advantages to wider society of a meritocracy, of fairness of opportunity, there is recognition of the difficulties in achieving this ideal.

    “being able to give money to your children incentivises a parent”

    Wealth acts as a gatekeeper to elite education and the opening of doors to certain respected careers.

    The final section, on culture, explores what differing groups and individuals regard as of value and influence, and how sections of society try to claim ownership.

    “we should resist using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture.”

    Appiah accepts that intellectuals have a tendency to suppose that the things they care about are the most important things.

    In talking of Western culture he argues that the division is not so much between nations as between Christianity and Islam. Despite the historic conflicts involving the two religions, there has been more sharing of knowledge and ideas over the centuries than may be credited.

    The traits men use to distinguish themselves from others are shown to be self-serving and often contradictory. Identity offers the benefit of belonging, but with who can be difficult to define or agree.

    Appiah’s arguments are cogent – conversation starters rather than prescriptive. Despite the complexities of the subjects pondered, this is a digestible read.

    “I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

  • Joshua Born

    I had high expectations for Kwame Anthony Appiah's

    . Its title – describing as it does identities based on membership in a group as "lies" – foreshadowed that my reading of it would be an extended session of proverbial preaching to the choir. Such is my antipathy toward the extended tribalism that is, unfortunately, human civilization. Furthermore, an encounter with a synopsis of the book had spoiled to me that its dénouement turns upon its own theme and ma

    I had high expectations for Kwame Anthony Appiah's

    . Its title – describing as it does identities based on membership in a group as "lies" – foreshadowed that my reading of it would be an extended session of proverbial preaching to the choir. Such is my antipathy toward the extended tribalism that is, unfortunately, human civilization. Furthermore, an encounter with a synopsis of the book had spoiled to me that its dénouement turns upon its own theme and makes an argument for the value of group based identities. I looked forward to this, as well, as I like to challenge my own worldview, and I supposed that I would be more amenable to a defense of group identities coming from an author who attacked them first for several chapters.

    What I found was that

    failed to live up to both ends of this bargain, which admittedly existed only in my own head. There is little of the incisive, acerbic criticism of the fallacies of group identity for which I had hoped. Neither is there a particularly strong plea for the value of group identities in the coda.

    Instead, the book has one central thesis: that group identities are transient and, in a sense, arbitrary. What defines a group identity varies over time and from individual to individual, and to view them as fixed is a mistaken form of what the author labels "essentialism." The text takes a meandering tour through several forms of group identity: gender, religion, nationality, color, class, and culture, giving historical anecdote after historical anecdote, in a pleasant stroll that feels earnest, but lacks any sense of urgency. Every now and again during this stroll one is reminded of the motivation for all the examples and urged to contemplate how a particular kind of group identity is more malleable than one might suppose.

    I enjoyed this experience. I do not regret it. It was edifying at times. However, I do not feel like I was challenged by it. I felt myself waiting for the book to begin, wondering if real crushing blows would come on the next page, only to find the book was ending.

    The chapter on class I found to be particularly poor. It is heavily invested in the work of sociologist Michael Young and his criticisms of meritocracy. These criticisms struck me as a low point in the book. They appear to be directed at straw men and consist of such facile sentiments as everyone is the product of their circumstances and some people are better at certain things and some at other things.

    The chapter on culture, on the other hand, was one of the book's strongest. It leads off with how the concept of "Western culture" is actually a rather modern,

    rationalization of the past. It ends with apt criticism of the concept cultural appropriation, arguing it based on a fundamentally mistaken concept that some group of people can claim ownership over practices. Examples illustrate how all culture has been appropriated, and it is arbitrary to pick a point in this chain of appropriation at which a transgression lies. Furthermore, offenses that are the object of claims of cultural appropriation are better criticized more directly, for instance, as examples of exploitation or disrespect.

    The section describing intersectionality in the first chapter struck me as being shoe-horned in. It was brought up in the service of an argument about the difficulty of any one person to speak on behalf of a group, for the way that membership in that group is experienced varies based on what other groups its members also belong to. A more profound description of this difficulty would be not intersectionality, but subjectivity: we exist in our physical realities as individuals – individuals who have different experiences such that one person speaking on behalf of the experiences of many is always a distortion of reality. This substitution of intersectionality for subjectivity wound up being informative to me in its own right. It is as if the concept of intersectionality is a compromise for those who start to realize the speciousness of group identity, but aren't quite ready to discard the lie of the group to find the truth of the individual, and so they can only criticize group identity with a another appeal to group identity.

    Perhaps I felt unchallenged because the book's coda, instead of an emphatic argument for the value of group identities, is merely a statement of a rather obvious kind: that some group identities have been mechanisms by which oppressed individuals have banded together to overcome their oppression. This strikes me as an invocation of what might be called the "mafia fallacy." Even if one takes the simplistic narrative that some group identities have improved the status of oppressed groups, they have done so only by addressing inequities also created by group identities. At best group identities remediate – and only in part – problems that they have themselves created. Thus group identities are akin to mafia members who come demanding protection money, but were there no mafias in the first place, there would be no need for protection.

    This review may seem overly negative, but I would recommend this book to anyone curious about the subject. It will not rock one's worldview, but it might get one thinking about how one identifies oneself by membership in groups. Thus, while the book does not live up to my own spurious expectations, it does fulfill exactly its own, for as the author states, "my aim is to start conversations, not to end them."

  • Katrina

    A wonderful, easy-to-read introduction to deconstructing "identity" and critiquing the concept of cultural appropriation. I plan to use this in and undergraduate course addressing those issues.

  • Mehrsa

    This book is more of a contemplation of identity--it's not really a "rethinking" so much because there's really nothing new here. Just thoughts about religious and racial identity and how those things shift and are culturally bound and can be shed. I like everything he said and I like his solutions (that it's better to conceive more broadly of our identities as opposed to creating small and warring identity groups), but I just didn't really learn much that was new. Still, I found myself nodding

    This book is more of a contemplation of identity--it's not really a "rethinking" so much because there's really nothing new here. Just thoughts about religious and racial identity and how those things shift and are culturally bound and can be shed. I like everything he said and I like his solutions (that it's better to conceive more broadly of our identities as opposed to creating small and warring identity groups), but I just didn't really learn much that was new. Still, I found myself nodding along mostly throughout the book so maybe it's because I agreed that nothing struck me as original.

  • Damon Taylor

    “The fact that identifies come without essences does not mean they come without entanglements”

    It would be unwise to describe the above quotation from a book which actively warns against essentialism as its ‘essence’. Accordingly, I will say only that this is perhaps the mission statement – one of the many ‘entanglements’ of the work.

    Appiah’s project is to expose three psychological intuitions – essentialism, tribalism, and habitus – nesting in the vocabulary of identity. These are psychological

    “The fact that identifies come without essences does not mean they come without entanglements”

    It would be unwise to describe the above quotation from a book which actively warns against essentialism as its ‘essence’. Accordingly, I will say only that this is perhaps the mission statement – one of the many ‘entanglements’ of the work.

    Appiah’s project is to expose three psychological intuitions – essentialism, tribalism, and habitus – nesting in the vocabulary of identity. These are psychological truisms that cannot be excised from human impulse, but which underwrite and mislead discussion of religion, race, culture, class, and nationalism.

    He does so with nuance and examples of lived experience. On the first, for example, his discussion of western culture reaches the surprising conclusion that, while appeals to the direct western lineage are a fiction, there is nevertheless a value to the discussion and enjoyment of ‘western’ culture. Culture is our common heritage – it does not play favourites with race or nationality. Use of culture with due respect for its significance is a healthy human practice. That is to say, no one people is entitled to no one culture; rather we are all free to play in the many tributaries which feed our common existence. But if you are a visitor, just don’t shit in them, you know?

    Similarly, speaking of his own experiences of identity – with English and Ghanaian heritage laced together with a illustriously biography – Appiah draws on diverse and ample wells. Perhaps these are a little self-indulgent at times. Appiah is not slow to remind the reader of his many ‘old friends’ who happen to be pillars of intelligentsia. Nevertheless, the effect is personal and sincere. These are examples that generate understanding, as much as they illustrate the details of Appiah’s conclusions.

    It is certainly true, as some readers might observe, that one rather large identity is missing from the discussion. Gender is utilised by Appiah as an introduction to the ideas he wished to explore in depth with his other potted identities. For that reason, then, it is the archetype of identity. Nevertheless, its discussion is burdened with setting up the broad framework for the rest of the discussion. While it’s use here means that the general discussions of identity are, as Appiah raises in the final pages of the book, true of gender a more sustained treatment would be fascinating. Then again, lived experience is crucial to Appiah’s account. As a Ghanian Aristocrat educated alongside the English and Ghanian elite, Appiah can comment on all five of his categories from personal experience. Not so with Gender identity, so perhaps his forbearance on the issue is wise. Accounts of lived experience from Women of Colour – for example Reni Eddo-Lodge – offer equally valid treatment of the subject.

    In all, The Lies that Bind is articulate, nuanced and sincere while raising a new framework with which to engage issues and ideas around identity. Identity has no essence, but nevertheless informs the content of human development. I’m a fan.

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