🎧 Kwame Anthony Appiah: Rethinking Identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah and Yascha Mounk discuss how to strengthen the human bonds that allow diverse democracies to flourish.


Kwame Anthony Appiah is a British-Ghanaian philosopher, the Ethicist columnist for the New York Times Magazine, and one of today's deepest thinkers about the nature of identity. His scholarly writing, journalism, and novels help us to envision a world in which our professed categories enrich rather than impoverish—or, in his terms, a world which reveres “universality plus difference.” 

In this week’s conversation, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Yascha Mounk discuss neutrality as a liberal ideal, the limits of identity politics, and the merits of race-abolitionism.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Much of your deepest thinking in the last years and decades has been on various questions of identity. What is this weird concept that we didn't really talk about a century ago, but now seems to stand at the core of so much culture and political thought?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: It's one of the most interesting and important facts about this concept of identity—which we now all bandy about and take for granted—that nobody talked this way before the Second World War. I've looked, and you just don't find this way of thinking. Now, of course, the things we call identities all existed, and people talked about them. But the new thought is that gender and race and sexual orientation and nationality and religion and class are all, in some sense, things of the same kind. And that's a surprising thought. 

Then you think as a philosopher, “Okay, so what do they have in common?” I think there are three things. [First,] all of them involve labeling kinds of people. So, I'm a nominalist about identities—I think that they're not just responses to some real thing out there. The process of naming plays a role in their genesis, I think. And that’s true of the ones that people think are, in some sense, natural, like gender. So the first thing they have in common is the labeling. 

The second thing is that once the labels are an operation, some people to whom the labels are applied think of themselves as men, as Catholics, as liberals, and they think of that as giving them reasons to think and to feel and to do things.

The third thing is that they’re social—and that means it’s not just that you think of yourself as something or other, but that other people think of you as that. And again, they think that gives them reasons to treat you in various ways. They do things to you, they think about you, they respond to you in ways that depend upon them thinking of you as a “man” or as a “liberal” or as a “Catholic”.

Mounk: Is the rise of the focus on gender and race, in part, a function of the success of the fight against class as a separate category?

Appiah: Yes, because once you're beginning to conceive things in this new way, an analogy will suggest itself to you between class and gender, which is that they are sources of inequality, that they are sources of your sense of who you are, but also sources of other people's sense of who you are. That would be fine, if they didn't also come with forms of inequality that just don't seem to be defensible. Now, why should women earn 70 cents on the dollar of what men earn? Maybe there's an explanation, so we should look into it, we should try and figure out why it is. But if it's just because they're women, then that seems unfair in the way that discrimination against the working class seemed unfair. 

And the same, obviously, is true about race. There are big differences in all kinds of social statistics between blacks and whites and browns in United States and, again, there might be an explanation that's consistent with thinking that this is fair, but that was very hard to believe in the United States, where you had legal discrimination. And so there was a sort of pressure to do something about those things too. And then on the tail of feminism comes gay rights, because that's also about gender, and then trans rights.Tthese are all kind of in succession.

However, one bad effect of this—and this is why some people on the left don't like what they call “identity politics”—is that we have stepped backwards on the class thing. The modern precariat in North Atlantic societies is in the kind of very bad position that the working class was in, in England, before the Second World War. It’s likely that some feature of our social arrangements is generating these inequalities, and if that is what's happening, we ought to change the social arrangements. 

People are thinking about race and gender, and they're worried that in pursuing those, we've lost the gains we made about class. And I think that's true, and so I'm all in favor of reminding us that we are still living in class societies, that social and financial and cultural capital are very unequally distributed, they make a huge difference in life chances, and we could do something about that if we wanted.

Mounk: What attracted you to the race-abolitionist view?

Appiah: Well, first of all, because the strong belief in race is associated with false beliefs about the proper biological classification of human beings. Most of the genetic variance in the human population is within the continent of Africa, or Asia, or Europe or North America, so these forms of racial differentiation don't correlate very much with lots of the things that matter about people. That’s very hard to keep track of if you keep the race concept central to how you think about the people around you.

Given how little race tells you about biology—which is what people start thinking about, when you think about race—it might be better if we didn't store information about people under the labels “black,” “white,” “yellow,” or “brown,” because the information will be enormously misleading. A lot of race thinking is grounded in the thought that these are informative biological categories. They aren't.

My students in the United States correctly see the point when I say to them, “Can you imagine me sitting on a plane having a conversation with a stranger in the United States, going home to my family and saying, ‘I just had a great conversation.’ And my husband's saying to me, ‘Well, was it a man or a woman? Was it a black person or white person?’ And my saying, ‘Oh, I didn't remember that. Why would that matter?’” That's not socially imaginable in the United States today.

Mounk: There is also a more political element of this, right? African Americans for example—a group with a very strange and tragic history that has been forged through the imposition of injustices—were not in any meaningful sense a coherent cultural or ethnic group in Africa before coming here and being forced together. But I can see how it is now, in a meaningful sense, an American subculture, and that losing it would be a cultural loss and a loss to the identity of other members of the group.

How do you balance the legitimate reasons for why groups might want to organize, and why might we even want to encourage that form of self identification? 

Appiah: I think, in the case of schooling, there is an important political argument to be had, and it's based on the recognition of an important piece of social psychology. This is an argument against segregating children at the age of eight or nine by anything, including class. I was sent at the age of eight to an English boarding school. You had to be pretty well-off to go there, and so I was class-formed from a very early age, not just by the experiences of class at home, but by the very strong class formation processes that go on in English schools. I was deprived of the experience of growing up and interacting daily with people of my own generation who had different class experiences from mine. 

And the same objection arises with respect to race and, I think, religion. Our school was an Anglican school, but we had a rabbi because there were Jewish students. I think it was good that we had a rabbi, but also good that the Jewish students were in school with the rest of us. It was actually a school that took people of any faith and took care that their religious lives were accounted for. So yes, I worry very much, for this reason, that there's a kind of cross-cutting social capital across identity. That is absolutely crucial in political life, because we have identities as citizens of places, and we sometimes need to be able to mobilize those in a way that transcends the identities that we’re divided into. Public schools that are run by the government, for everybody, are a very important site of that. And one of the bad things about the history of public education in the United States is that because of residential segregation by geography, they didn't turn out to be performing that function. And after Brown v. Board of Education, public education in many places, especially in the South, was reorganized in order to avoid the creation of this very valuable kind of cross-cutting social capital.

And if we're liberal in that sort of Millian way, we should say there's a reason why we think you should be permitted to have religious schools, but we also think that your kids would be better off in a liberal society, they'd be better citizens, if you didn't do that. If you do, you [better make] some effort to find other spaces where they can create these cross-cutting links.

Mounk: There is a kind of neutrality that is important to liberalism: the freedoms that the individual enjoys in a liberal regime should give the state a certain kind of respect for the individual’s moral autonomy, how they want to lead their lives. But then, as you're indicating, there's a way of taking it too far. Where does that line lie?

Appiah: I think of the form of neutrality that I'm inclined to endorse as operating like this: If a group comes to us and says, “We think the state is disfavoring us in virtue of our being Sikh, gay, women, etc.,” the state has a responsibility to make sure that that isn't true. It has to think about issues like: “Shall we exempt Sikhs from requirements for wearing motorbikes to go helmets?” Because it's really hard to wear a motor bicycle helmet, and also wear the turban which is a deep element of Sikh identity for men. This is a matter of a kind of respectful negotiation. 

If you push people into a certain kind of identity politics, they're going to claim that it's a terrible imposition on them. They feel that's what it is to be engaged in politics: to be claiming things on the basis of identity, and that the way to win the argument is by saying, “This is super important to me, and who is the government to say it isn't simply important?”

We do have models for dealing with this. One model is the model that developed in societies that had conscription, for conscientious objection. We didn't just allow people to declare that they had a conscientious objection. We asked them to show that they belong to a serious tradition in which they and other people together were committed seriously, say as Quakers. And they had to show that they were willing to take on the sort of risk that conscription imposes on people without being willing to fight. That's why Quakers filled the ambulance brigades in the First World War. They were conscripted like everybody else, but they were allowed to say, “My form of conscription isn't going to be one which involves me killing people. It's going to be saving people to the extent that I can.” And this is because the claim that this is a serious, conscientious matter is spotted. You can't just declare it out of the blue. 

Mounk: Which is to say that, as you're describing it, it is really important for a liberal state to be very mindful of not discriminating and listening very attentively to claims about injustices. But at the same time, you need to actually bring evidence of this that can be rationally assessed. It can't just be a claim without evidence or a claim in which the assertion of lived experience is proof enough.

Appiah: And I think that's why I'm a little bit leery of all this talk of lived experience. Of course, there is such a thing as lived experience, but often, it's just an excuse for saying, “You don't get to question me about this: I declare, and you have to accept.” That’s just not how citizens in a liberal society ought to address one another. And I say that, aware that, of course, what I just said might lead some comfortable people in majorities not to take the demand that I just enunciated very seriously. That's true. But the fact that people will abuse a claim doesn't mean it's not correct. 

Take religious neutrality. What it means in a society is just going to depend on what the religious traditions happen to be in that society, the variety of them, and what matters to them. Very generally, what happens, at least in the United States, as people of different religions migrate in, is that their form of religious life actually gets Americanized. They may not recognize it. But roughly speaking, American Catholics are a good deal more Protestant than Irish and Italian Catholics. They've sort of adopted some of the assumptions about Christianity which are, historically speaking, Protestant assumptions. And this has happened to Judaism too. I remember going once on the High Holy Days to one of the big synagogues on Fifth Avenue and couldn't have felt more comfortable because it felt exactly like an Anglican Cathedral: The pews, the stained glass, organs. I knew where the preaching was going to come from, because there was a place for a preacher to stand. That's good, I think, because it means that it's easier to fit Jewish religious life into the United States, because it's adapted itself a little bit. 

I remember on the train from Washington back to New York once hearing a group of prosperous-looking, besuited South Asian Muslims talking. And they were talking about how, if in the United States Muslims were to be tolerated, then Muslims maybe had to accept that in the United States homosexuals would be tolerated. If you said that in Abu Dhabi, they would say you're crazy. But in American Islam, this is a developing thing, this kind of toleration. And it's not just in America—there's little things like this in Turkey and all sorts of places where Islam is important. We should push back sometimes a little bit because I think people can think of things as important, which turn out to be—if it's required for accommodation—a little bit less important than they were inclined originally to think. This is a very delicate process, in other words.

Mounk: Which of these forms of identity should we—as private actors, as institutions—encourage, and what's the case for cosmopolitanism being a part of that answer?

Appiah: It's a very good thing if people have a sense of human identity, a global identity, a sense that they are connected with all members of the species, combined with a recognition that that isn't because we're all the same. 

We're living different lives, both as individuals and as communities, and that's fine, within broad limits set by some moral constraints. You can encourage that by the things that we think of as cosmopolitan in many domains. You can encourage it by making sure that you raise children who've read some Chinese novels as well as some German novels and have seen movies from all over the place, and listen to music that isn't all from, you know, Bavaria, and so on. And I think we should encourage people to meet people who have come from other places, and that will create these kinds of links that are human links. Not because there won't be specific elements in them—any two humans have much more in common than their humanity—but because the project of making links with people who are unlike yourself is something that you value. 

I don't know that I can argue that this is morally compulsory, but it is extremely attractive and important. And in particular, in our world today, we'd better have a lot of people doing this, because there are lots of things that we are going to be able to manage better, together. We're not going to solve global warming unless we have a significant number of people who know how to care about what happens to people in China, who aren't Chinese. Maybe not everybody has to do that in order for this to work, but we need people like that. 

I am, in the technical sense, a partial cosmopolitan. That is, I think that that level of identification is perfectly consistent with having a strong sense of special responsibility to my fellow citizens, the people with whom I share a nationality. And of course, having a special responsibility to people with whom I share the republic, and the responsibility for running the state, is consistent with my having special concern for my children and my family. I mean, I sometimes think that people sort of forget this very elementary thing, when you start talking about global ideas. 

So, how can you combine global identity with national identity? Well, how can you combine New York identity with American identity? People do that all the time. I vote for the mayor of New York, the governor of New York State, and the President of the United States, and I vote for a member of the United States Congress. They're doing different things, so I think about different things when I vote for them. And I care about New York City more than I care about Albany, because it's my home. This is rooted cosmopolitanism. 

Of course, everybody matters. But my family matters to me, and it doesn't matter to you except as another human family. Partiality is a deep part of the structure of the moral world, and that's why I can sometimes say to myself, “I think my country's doing the wrong thing for the world, and the world matters enough to me that I'm going to vote against my country here. I'm going to say my country shouldn't be doing this thing. And I'm going to be proud of my country when it makes a useful contribution to the world's well-being in a way that I'm not proud of Sweden when it makes a useful contribution.” It's easy to think that equality is inconsistent with partiality. That's not true. Equality and impartiality are different ideals. I'm against impartiality.

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