Picking apart our perception of identity

Staying In

AUTHOR AND ACADEMIC Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah has taught at the University of Ghana, as well as at Cornell, Yale, Harvard and Princeton Universities. He is now Professor of Philosophy at New York University’s Department of Philosophy and School of Law.  Pic: David Shankbone/CC BY-SA 3.0

Book review
Bríd Conroy

It’s that time of the year again, when over-indulgent guilt somehow forces the need to seek new clarity for the year ahead. Normally for me, this comes in some form of navel gazing, but this year it feels different.
The Covid experience has indeed turned us inwards in any case, but a new realisation has dawned on us: in order to keep ourselves safe we must keep others safe too.
But who are ‘we’ and who exactly are ‘the others’? This question is at the heart of a book by philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘The Lies That Bind – Rethinking Identity’, published by Profile Books.
Appiah looks at how we have shaped our identities by our creed, country, colour, class and culture. He uses little known characters from history to tell the stories of how identity has evolved, like Aron Ettore Schmitz born in Trieste In 1861 to Jewish Italian and German parents, or the African slave gifted to Anton Ulrich in Amsterdam in 1707.
Identity for Appiah fundamentally defines so much of what we do. In belonging to a ‘we’, we are also given a reason to do things. It is our ‘habitus’; the way a person is perceived in the world and the way a person reacts to the world. It influences all aspects of our lives, down to the way we dress, the way we speak and even the way we walk.
Identities ‘live in history’, crafted from a dialogue with our past. Creed for example, has not been as important in the forming of religion as we might think. Religion has developed through time, by defining who is in the group and who is out of the group.
What is a nation state? A group of people who firstly think they have a shared ancestry and secondly who care about that shared ancestry. But there are no natural boundaries to people you care about. Boundaries are not fixed and never were. We all belong to many peoples.
In a post-colonial world, nation states are also sovereign states, proclaiming a right to rule ourselves. Appiah aligns statehood to a ‘Medusa syndrome’: “What the state gazes upon turns to stone.” In our quest to self-rule we can lose sight of who we are and draw lines that are rigid and inflexible.
Ideas of race became a preoccupation of European historians and literary critics in the late 1800s. We now know that 90 percent of the world’s genetic variation is found in every so-called racial group, yet the perceived difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ still exists today, played out as race.
In relation to issues of class, solutions we have tried over time to encourage a more egalitarian society have often created worse conditions than those we were trying to remedy. “We keep tracing the same contours with different pens,” the author suggests.
Appiah ends his many stories of identity and mistaken identity with an acknowledgement that although modes of identity can become walls that hedge us in and block our vision, identity ironically only survives through change.
Humanity now has an opportunity to bring about change and an imperative to define more clearly who we are and to include more of ‘who we are not’ in our net of belonging.
For me, on reading this book, I was also keenly aware of the role we play as global citizens and our collective responsibility to engage and inform ourselves about where we have come from and our potential to decide where we can go.
This is a fantastic book to start the year with. It takes some deep philosophical questions and presents them beautifully in a way that is accessible to all.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.