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.
Our contemporary policies and attitudes about immigration in North America did not materialize in a vacuum. They have long histories, which shape and hue many of the perspectives we inherit today. In this conversation, we explore the ‘backstory’ to the present.
Stephanie Bangarth is an Associate Professor in History at King’s University College, at the University of Western Ontario. She is also an Adjunct Teaching Professor in the Department of History at Western and a Faculty Research Associate with the Collaborative Graduate Program in Migration and Ethnic Studies (MER) at Western. Her research interests also include Canadian immigration policy, social movements in Canada, and political history.
Shamiram Zendo, born in Aleppo Syria to an Assyrian family, moved to Canada in 1999. She is currently completing her Phd at Western University in the Health Information Science Program. She has worked extensively with the settlement of privately sponsored Syrian/Assyrian newcomers in the city of London.
Following up on a post from last September — When Inclusivity is Exclusionary — I wanted to make note of some other articles and quotes related to this analysis that I have come across in the interim.
…the rich diversity of peoples have been denied inclusion while only a privileged group have defined themselves as inclusive… (Tatah Mentan)
When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination… What we don’t need is to relegate ourselves to the position of depending on someone else to offer us inclusion… (Kẏra)
In order to commodify struggle it must first be objectified. This is exhibited in how “issues” are “framed” & “branded.” Where struggle is commodity, allyship is currency. (Indigenous Action Media)
The metaphorization of decolonization makes possible a set of evasions, or “settler moves to innocence”, that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity…There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonization. The too-easy adoption of decolonizing discourse (making decolonization a metaphor) is just one part of that history and it taps into pre-existing tropes that get in the way of more meaningful potential alliances. (Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang)
Beyond simply calling for cosmetic diversity…to merely include people of color in untransformed institutions… [recent movements] call for a comprehensive unsettling of colonial logics and institutions. (Jonathan Rosa, Yarimar Bonilla)
To what extent did ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ ever exist in politics and broadcast media before? How do the algorithms of social media fit into an evolving definition of propaganda today? Is society more ideologically ‘polarized’ than it has been in the past — and what would be the benchmark to measure this? How can accusations of practicing ‘post-truth politics’ and broadcasting ‘fake news’ be abused as politically rhetorical devices in their own right?
It boils down to a timeless question: what is truth and why does it matter?
Tim Blackmore is a Professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University. He has researched and written at length about war, war technology, propaganda and popular culture. His book, War X, focuses on the way humans understand the world of industrial warfare. Tim is especially interested in understanding how we use images and media to make war look attractive to ourselves as societies.
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