Mistaken Identities

Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s 2016 Reith Lectures series, entitled Mistaken Identities, is a must-listen. Over four lectures, Appiah analyzes four constructs of identity (alliterated as creed, culture, colour, and country) and questions the common narratives that underpin them.

For example, Appiah argues (transcript) that we over estimate the role of scripture in defining the religious identities of ourselves and others. From a historical lens, he posits that religions must continuously evolve, and that religious identity is itself highly fluid. There are all kinds of interesting implications that can be taken up here. (For instance, when detractors of Islam or Christianity quote scriptural references back to the faithful, what are the blind assumptions made about function of text in a contemporary community of religious practice?)

The second lecture tackles the idea of culture as identity. For instance, what exactly does “western culture” mean and who gets to write the definition? Appiah takes a pragmatic approach to suggest (transcript) that the concept of a western culture itself is unhelpful and nonsensical at best, and perhaps highly destructive at worst. This is challenging on many levels: once you have deconstructed and “dessentialized” the idea of “western civilization”, you are left with the problem of justifying how to define anyone by their civilization. But this is precisely Appiah’s point.

Appiah applies the same logic to race by proposing (transcript) that an unfortunate byproduct or residue of the Enlightenment is the concept of a “racial essence” that divides human groups from one another predominately on the basis of skin colour. Science has long since laid this notion to rest, and this leaves us with race as a construct of our own making: “race is something we make; not something that makes us.” This, too, obviously runs into difficult questions: if people are racialized by others, then does adopting a racialized identity or politics inadvertently conform to the racism (or agenda) of the people who are doing the racializing in the first place? But if race is used to oppress, how can race not then be used to gather solidarity for resistance? Appiah’s reflections on the BlackLivesMatter movement (in the Colour lecture) are thought-provoking:

Identities are going to have pluses and minuses. When an identity is used as a source of solidarity in order to help people resist oppression, for example, it also create boundaries with people outside who might want to be friendly with you because they’re not in favour of your oppression. And so you have to think as time goes on about how modulate the different roles that identity plays in our lives. (37:47)

Similarly, the question, “What is a national identity?” leads Appiah to a parallel position (transcript): nationalism is mythology. Appiah makes an increasingly popular distinction between nationalism and patriotism. In the end, the only so-called “national identities” that matters are common, collective commitments to shared beliefs. These commitments can be something worth defending, whereas defining a nation as a transcendent linkage to some geographically-based ancestral heritage is problematic. Therefore, you can be highly patriotic inasmuch as you share common values with others (like equality, for instance), while not necessarily being nationalistic (that is, believing that your country is inherently or manifestly superior to others countries).

I have been thinking about the intersection of identity and politics quite a bit recently, and this lecture series is a thoughtful, critical, and nuanced analysis. I think Appiah carves out a place for a constructive critique of identity without necessarily marginalizing the impacts of intersectionality in the real world. This seems important. Oppression, colonization, and racialization often seem to be systematically/structurally executed by groups who often justify their actions from a very clear sense of identity — such as ethnocentrism, nationalism, or some brand of economic idealism. Therefore, far from delegitimizing the role of identity in politics, a critical analysis of identity shows the ubiquity of identity.

Insofar as I can tell historically, wars have been largely waged over country, creed, culture, and colour — and that alone seems reason enough to warrant a critical investigation into the way we orientate ourselves towards the idea of “us” as a concept.

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