The Good Fight
Kwame Anthony Appiah on the Right—and Wrong—Way for Universities to Handle Identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah on the Right—and Wrong—Way for Universities to Handle Identity

Yascha Mounk and Kwame Anthony Appiah discuss cultivating thick identities (and thick skins).

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a British-Ghanaian philosopher, Professor of Philosophy and Law and New York University, and the “Ethicist” columnist for The New York Times Magazine.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Kwame Anthony Appiah discuss why universities discarded an ethic of common humanity for a new form of identitarianism; how we can recognize and respect individual and cultural diversity without making it the main factor in our interactions; and why faculty must be agents for the change they wish to see in universities.

This conversation is part of the Persuasion series “Universities, Diversity, and Democracy,” a new collection of podcasts and essays, featuring leading voices in higher education, that explores how universities can pursue truth in the spirit of philosophical liberalism and in pursuit of social progress. This series is made possible by the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

 Yascha Mounk: You've been thinking for a very long time about questions of identity. I was at a dinner recently at which somebody pointed out that when they were doing diversity work around 2010, the name that came up most often in terms of intellectual foundations of what that work should look like was Anthony Appiah. Today, when people do diversity work, often the names that come up are rather different—Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi and others. 

How do you see change in the way in which the public in general (and perhaps leading universities, in particular) have come to think about diversity in the last decades? I think people are going to be relatively familiar at this point with ideas like DiAngelo's in White Fragility, which says, for example, that white people are inescapably racist and that the first step is to acknowledge that they're going to be racist no matter what. How do the ideas that you've developed and advocate contrast with that?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I think one way of explaining part of the change is a sort of generational thing, which is that I think there's a generation growing up now that might think that the ways we thought and acted about identity when my ideas were widely accepted didn't do the work, that American policemen are still shooting black people or putting their knees on their necks and so on. They wanted something more radical-seeming because they thought that the problem was deep and it needed a more radical solution.

I start from a general account of identities, not about race in particular. And in the general account, identities are these motivating labels that we use to think about our own lives and to think about how we should treat other people. And they're the subject of social negotiation. I don't own my labels; I share them with the other people who have the same label, but I also share them because they're part of public discourse with people who don't share the label. So the label black doesn't belong to black people, the label white doesn't belong to white people. The label man doesn't belong to men, the label woman doesn't belong to women. Trans people don't own trans identity. These identities belong to all of us, and we have to make them work together so that they work as well as possible for as many of us as possible. 

I think I share with these more radical views the sense that a lot was wrong with the way these identities were configured in the past and that we've made progress. Maybe they don't think we've made enough progress, but I think we've made considerable progress, and maybe that's just because I'm older and I remember different times when I think it was sort of obvious that things were much worse than they are now around race and gender and gender identity. Anyone who's lived through the last 40 years has seen enormous and I think positive changes around those things. But the key thought though is that these are subjects of negotiation, which means we all have agency and we can make choices about how we live our identities. Our identities are not deterministic scripts that force us to do anything in particular—they affect, of course, how we interact with one another, but they don't determine how we interact with one another because we have choices to make. 

Mounk: I think on the point of progress, that to me, and I argued that in my latest book, is fundamental to how you approach the world. If you are convinced that there's been no progress at all, then it's a relatively natural concomitant to ask why do we need the basic principles of liberal democracy? Why do we need values like free speech? They are part of a system that has stopped us from making any progress at all. If you adopt, as I also do, the more optimistic approach—that genuine injustices persist but we have been able to make genuine progress—it makes you far more likely to say we can continue to make progress on the same front. 

I'd love to hear what you think is the connection between the ways in which identity is imposed on us and the ways in which we don't want to create a world without identity (that would neither be feasible nor perhaps desirable, but we should always remain aware of the negative potential of those forms of identity as well).

Appiah: Anything interesting and complicated is going to have downsides as well as upsides. When you lose an election to a populist, you can feel pretty negative about democracy; it produces bad results as well as good results, but at least it produces democratic results. And in the long run, those of us who are democrats think that it's worth holding onto, even though it doesn't always do what we want. And identities are like that. I mean, if we continued to live as our remote ancestors did in groups of 50 people, maybe we wouldn't need social identities. But we live in a world where we're constantly and daily interacting with more people than most of our ancestors met in a lifetime. And we need some guidelines, and the fact that this is another human turns out not to be a sufficiently useful guideline because people come with indications of identity that are helpful in dealing with them. Once I know about Judaism and Islam and Jewish and Muslim identities, I know it's rude to serve pork to my Jewish and Muslim friends for dinner because they think it's wrong to eat pork, some of them.

Mounk: It depends on how religious they are; if you propose to serve pork to me, I would be delighted.

Appiah: Well, that's the point about these things, which is that, on the one hand, it's useful because it gives you broad guidelines—you should ask people whether they are keeping kosher. And on the other hand, within these large identity groups, people are enormously diverse. And so they tell you something, but they don't tell you a lot.

I think there's a kind of tendency, which academics sometimes call essentializing, to treat an identity as if it's sort of sitting there in the heart of each person who has the identity and it's driving their lives, so of course their lives are all going to be driven in the same direction. But that's not right, not only because even if I shared all my social identities with somebody, I'm also me, and there are lots of things about me that are not identity-driven but at least as important. If you are a devout Catholic, when you get up in the morning, pray and think of your life as a Catholic life and you commit yourself to things because they're Catholic—that gives meaning to certain lives. But if you think that your American Catholic friends all agree about gay marriage or abortion or something like that, you'll be profoundly misled, even though we know what the church's view is on those matters. So maybe it's easy for a kind of rich upper middle class person like myself to say, but I think people should hold their identities maybe a little more lightly than they currently are prone to do, that they should recognize that they can't speak for all the black people or all the trans people or all the cis people or all the men or gay people. And that while these identities give us guides to how people are going to interact with us, they're loose guides and the more we know them the less useful they're going to be.

I think we should not succumb ever to the basic essentialist thought, which is that all the “Xs” are fundamentally the same in all the important human ways that matter. They're not—men are all different from each other. Women are all different. Trans people are all not the same. The cis people are very various. Americans are incredibly diverse and different from one another and have different dreams. 

We have a long history of thinking about this in relation to religious identities. We’re constitutionally committed to allowing people to live a very great diversity of religious lives without making any one of them the dominant religion of our society. That's hard and we haven't done a terrific job of it always. Descriptively speaking, there's a lot of Christian stuff about America and yet there are lots of us atheists and lots of non-Christians for whom that is sometimes a little bit annoying. But our constitutional commitment is that you can be any of those things and that the state isn't going to speak as a Christian state or a Jewish state or a Muslim state or an atheist state. Secularism is not about the state being atheist. It's about not taking sides among religions, including atheism in my view. 

Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell, said he didn't want a majority of any sect on the board of his university, including the sect of atheists. I'm with him on that. 

Mounk: So that leads me naturally into what was going to be my next question, which is about identity politics. Now, I find that that term is so broad that I'm sometimes sort of interpreted as a critic of identity politics and I wouldn't myself put it that way: I mean, the AARP is doing identity politics, right? I don't agree with the AARP on everything, but I think it has a legitimate place in our politics. More broadly, I would say that some of the American historical figures I most admire, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., were in certain senses engaged in identity politics. 

Now, what distinguishes in my mind the positive forms of identity politics from the ones that I'm most skeptical about is whether they were asking for inclusion under universal rules and norms or whether they were rejecting those—what Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King have in common was their demand for inclusion under universal rules: By what virtue are you saying that because of the color of my skin, I'm not allowed to sit where I want on the bus? 

Perhaps there's also a second condition on what makes a positive identity movement, which is to what extent you emphasize some similarity in order to have that kind of positive form of identity politics. At the minimum, presumably you need a common fact of disadvantage or oppression, right? African Americans in 1880 were deeply disadvantaged, and that fact they had in common, even if they had very different ambitions for their lives, very different religious beliefs, or very different moral conceptions. 

Is that all the commonality you need for the positive form of identity politics, or is there something that goes beyond that? And where does it start to be essentializing in ways that should make us concerned?

Appiah: I think when people make demands on the state in the name of identity, there are two kinds of demands. One is the one you're talking about. It's to say our identity is not an appropriate basis for exclusion from some aspect of citizenship or participation more broadly in social and public life. But another is to ask for exceptions, to go to the state and say “If you don't allow this way of slaughtering cattle, I can't eat meat because my religion requires that meat be kosher.”

I think these, in a way, can be interpreted as part of the first thing, because what they're saying is, “You didn't notice this, but you are (and maybe not intentionally) excluding us from a certain kind of participation. And furthermore, you wouldn't exclude other people of other identities if they had similar problems.” In other words it is a demand in a way to be treated like everybody else, it's just that what it is to be treated like everybody else depends on what you're like. And so what you're asking for is different. But if a Catholic asked you for an exemption from prohibition on the grounds that wine is required for the mass, you would surely say, “Yes, all right, that's part of free exercise.” It's complicated, but you'd make some special exceptions.

We're different, so what it takes to make us all equal is different, but still the basic idea is that it's not that we're the same, it's that we want to be treated equally and that may require special attention to the problems of particular groups. Now that's different from the demand for inclusion where there's an explicit exclusion, where there's segregation, apartheid, bans on gays in the military, refusals of gay marriage. I'm not saying those are the same thing. but they're sort of broadly under a rubric of egalitarian inclusion, I think. And that seems fine to me. 

I'll say one other thing, which is that for most of us who are citizens of at least one country (and unfortunately there are people in the world who have denied citizenship of any country and that's a scandal) but for most of us who are citizens of at least one country, there is available to us a form of identity, which is a national identity, which I think should be important to us. Lots of people in Mississippi disagree with me about almost everything, but I still think that the federal government should build roads in Mississippi and that the American Health Care Act should apply in Mississippi and that social security should be available to people in Mississippi. And I know that that means that the net flows of, say income tax in this country go from my state to Mississippi—New York takes less out of that system that it puts in because we're a rich and prosperous state. And that's fine by me, but it's only fine because they're my fellow Americans. You have to make a different demand of me if you want me to worry about Peruvian healthcare—I might be persuaded to care about Peruvian healthcare, but it would be under some other rubric.

So that's one place where we need national identities. It's to motivate us to care about everybody in the nation. And that's necessary because nations are enormous and they're communities of strangers and they need some conceptual binding and being American, being German, being British, being Ghanaian is a kind of binding and it's remarkably, amazingly successful. I mean I'm older than Ghana, the country I grew up in. You couldn't be Ghanaian when I was born, right? And yet now there are people who care deeply about Ghana and being Ghanaian. My father, who wrote a memoir called The Autobiography of an African Patriot, once wrote an editorial in our local newspaper whose title was “Is Ghana worth dying for?” And he thought the answer was yes. That's kind of amazing because he was in his 40s when Ghana was created. He spent most of his life as something else. 

It's sort of a mystery how this happens when it happens. And it's a very good thing in my view that it does happen, because how else are we going to care about 330 million people; or if you're Indian, one and a half billion; or Chinese, one and a half billion? It's through the mediating idea of a shared national identity.

Mounk: I grew up as a German Jew and so I often joke that patriotism or nationalism did not come naturally to me. But I came to very similar conclusions to you for two reasons. First, because, as you're saying, there is a kind of strange alchemy to the power of patriotism or nationalism in the modern day. And I worry that unless we find ways to domesticate it, to use it for good, the worst kinds of political forces are going to use those symbolic resources for ill. 

But secondly, I do think it is a very important part of a system of structured identities that can hold societies together. Certainly in a place like New York where we're both based, but also in Berlin and in Paris and increasingly even in Tokyo and in other parts of the world, there's great heterogeneity of people in those cities. And that's a wonderful thing. But for that to work, we also need to sustain forms of solidarity with each other. We need to see similarity at the same time as appreciating difference. And so I think that we shouldn't think of those sub-national identities as always necessarily standing in conflict with national identities. We need a healthy form of patriotism in order to sustain peaceful forms of cooperation. And of course you've pointed out in your work on cosmopolitanism that there's a sort of third level of that structured set of identities that is also compatible with that, and that doesn't necessarily necessitate that you have to deny national bonds or subnational bonds.

Appiah: No, I'm the author of an essay called “Cosmopolitan Patriots.” And I think that New York provides a good example of why the thought that patriotism and cosmopolitanism are in tension is wrong, because I have a strong identity as an American, now having been a citizen for a while, but I also have a strong identity as a New Yorker. And the thought that strong identification with New York rules out being strongly identified with the United States would be rightly recognized by everybody as preposterous, right? When I'm thinking about the mayoral race, I'm thinking about this city and its life. And when I'm thinking about the presidency, I'm thinking about this country and this city. The presidency matters for my city as well as for my country. Occasionally, those things will pull apart and I'll have to make a choice. I'll have to decide what's more important: what's good for New York or what's good for the average American. 

I think my view is the same as my father's view about tribalism in Ghana, which is that when you're acting as a national citizen, you're not seeking to advantage your own tribe; I have to think about New York with a kind of impartiality when it comes to national politics, I think. My point is only that we know how to manage this. We know how to be a citizen of a city, a state and a nation and adding the world to that doesn't add any difficulties of principle.

Of course, the transition between levels is always a transition to something slightly different. The transition to the world isn't a transition to a system that has a practical form of citizenship. And so I don't act in the world. For example, I can act in my nation and my city and my state democratically, but in the world I can't act democratically because there's no mechanisms for democratic accountability (except by way of the democratic accountability of national governments). So I'm not saying it's the same, but there's no difficulty of principle, I think. And once you see that, then you can see that this is not just about the nested identities of cities and states and world, but about all the other identities: Sometimes what matters is my gender, sometimes what matters is my nationality. Usually they both matter to some degree and I'm perfectly capable of weighing them and giving them each appropriate weight.

Mounk: We've been talking mostly in our capacity as philosophers, in your case, and political theorists, in mine. Let's put on a different hat and speak in a more parochial way from our identities as academics and as members of university communities.

How well do you think leading American universities have been dealing both with the challenges that can come with different identities and the beliefs and interests that can go along with them, and with their pedagogical mission of teaching their students a healthy attitude towards their own identities and those of others? Are universities doing decently on that count, and if not, where are they falling short?

Appiah: Well, unlike you, I haven't made a systematic study of this. So all I can say is about how things look from where I live. I think there are mechanisms in place that encourage a kind of hypersensitivity to real or imaginary identity slights—that is not good for encouraging the kind of vigorous debate that there ought to be in political life and in university life. 

When I teach seminars about race and so on, I begin always by saying that we're going to assume in this class that everybody's operating with basic goodwill and that if somebody says something that upsets you, it’s not because they meant to upset you; and we could use that fact, if it's connected to identity, to think about the topic of the class. Universities are about understanding things. And when you're upset and the serotonin and the adrenaline are flowing, you may not do your best thinking. So you may want to stand back from the moment when you're upset and hold on for a moment, think about what happened and then come back with it if it's relevant to the subject matter. But don't immediately let it fly. And I've said that over the years to many, many classes of students and I almost never had anything bad happen. And I think there's evidence that they have to some extent gotten worse because of this invitation, which is there in the language of microaggressions and so on, to be constantly alert to the possibility that somebody's dissing you.

Now, I know that it matters to people not to be dissed, that being treated respectfully is an important aspect of relating to other people in a humane way. But it's hard, and it's especially hard in a diverse community such as a university. And so you should give people a break if they don't do it perfectly, I think. And that is not the attitude that I detect in the institutional structures of response to student aggrievement.

In a modern university, which is a multicultural, multi-religious, multinational institution, where the faculty and the students are international and so on, a bit of a thick skin is actually one of the things that your education ought to teach you. Look, I get upset sometimes by things people say about various things. I don't mean to say that I don't get upset, but I have mostly trained myself to think that that's something to think about; and that usually when I do think about it, I can see that the person who's upset me didn't mean to upset me, and that maybe I shouldn't have been upset and that if I was legitimately upset there may or may not be something I can say to them to help them see why. But they may not. It may just have to be that I have to bumble along in a world in which sometimes I'm upset—if you're not going to be a hermit, that's sort of inevitable in human life. So I think it's a matter of having a kind of moderate attitude, both an attitude of intellectual humility and, as it were, moral humility, thinking sometimes I'm gonna be wrong. I'm gonna have a response and it's gonna be a misinterpretation. I'm not always right.

That's one of the most important attitudes that philosophy departments ought to encourage in their general education and in the education of their majors—the recognition of how hard it is to be right and, therefore, how unreasonable it would be to assume that it's always you that's right. And therefore to cut other people some slack; and about everything, but especially about these things where we're currently not cutting each other enough slack, I think. So that's what I would urge to be the guiding thought; that yes, of course, there are challenges in coming together as a diverse bunch of people.

Mounk: I share your judgment that most students do want to have real conversations and discussions in college. Their moral starting points are often quite different from mine in ways that might not have been true 10 or 20 years ago, but when you approach subjects in a thoughtful way, a great majority of them are willing to think through them in an open way, and many of them end up changing their minds. The same is true of faculty members, right? I mean, most faculty members are not ideologues who use the classroom in order to proselytize and impose their views on people, though that certainly exists, but not in most cases. 

And I share your sense of the importance of recognizing that we might all be wrong, that the first precondition of a serious intellectual life is to realize that we all collectively and each of us individually may have the wrong end of the stick in some important ways. But there is, I think, a symmetry of fervency that is often translated into an asymmetry of power on campus, because it is the relatively small ideological minorities who are the most fervent, who are most willing to use tools, whether it is cancellation or denunciation, to dominate the campus discourse, who are the ones who explain why suddenly there's a hotline to call in case of microaggressions and then there's administrators who might investigate, who explain why many faculty members who are not sexist or racist or any of those things live in fear of being accused of being sexist or racist by the colleagues or by the students or by some other member of a community. 

How can people who want to preserve all of those intellectual virtues, who don't want to turn themselves into ideologues in response, who don't want to start denouncing others, nevertheless robustly stand up for what the core mission of the university should be. Because if I'm thinking about why many universities aren't living up to their own stated values, I think it is in many cases because of the silence and the inaction of that reasonable majority and their unwillingness to take risks or overcome their fears.

Appiah: The fact is that our national politics too is dominated by the ideologues, and most people are in fact somewhere towards the center. I mean, if it was left to the 80% of the 90% of Americans in the center, we wouldn't have an abortion politics. We'd have settled on a set of rules that everybody could live with. In the university, one of the things that's happened is that the professionalization of the academy has left the management of the university in the hands of people who may have been academics but have moved into a different way of thinking, an administrator's way of thinking. Now, they’re our colleagues and they all have PhDs and so on (at least most of them). So it's not that they don't understand the academic vocation. But the administrative vocation is a different one. And if you leave the university's central policies in the hands of administrators and trustees, it won't be in the hands of academics. 

Since the Second World War, increasingly, we've sort of abdicated the central role of the faculty in setting the policies of the university—now, as in everything in American life, lawyers play too large a role. But the real challenge is to think about the university as something managed by academics. We don't hire deans, but we do hire faculty members, our colleagues. My second paying job was as a fellow of a Cambridge college, and the fellows ran the college. There was a bursar and a master, who sort of explained financial things to us, but we made the decisions.We had a finance committee, but the finance committee was made up of academics. King's College is rich in part in the 20th century because it wisely put its fellow, Maynard Keynes, in charge of its investments.

We've sort of abdicated that role, we've moved into our departments and often into our offices and we aren't engaged enough as citizens of the university in thinking collectively. The way that happens is that members of the faculty get put on committees and they get put on committees by deans. Deans are not foolish—they put the people on the committees who they think will come to the conclusions that they already favor. I'm not as cynical about it as I'm sounding, but the fact is it is important for us to recognize that the university as a self-governing system run by academics is a misleading picture of what universities have become. One thing we could do is take it back, pay more attention. And when things happen that we don't like, say we don't like what's going on and that we think there's a better way of doing it and that we'd like to put together a group of faculty and administrators to think about it. 

Now, I've taught at quite a lot of universities and they're all different and they have different degrees of faculty engagement in these sorts of things and the faculty is closer to the administration in some places than others. My current university is the largest private university in the United States so it's large and complicated and so there are all these structures, senates and so on. But which are staffed by faculty. So I think, if we want to do something about this, we shouldn't just complain in The New York Times, we shouldn't just complain in our department meetings, we should act as citizens of the university.

I feel that, on average, American faculties have less of a sense that it's their university and their job to set the tone than I think they had even when I arrived in this country at the beginning of the 1980s. We can't just complain in our departments to each other that we're getting these directives from the diversity and inclusion officer that we don't understand or that we think of philosophically as a suspect. We should say that. We don't need to say it collectively. We should say it as individual members of the faculty. I think complaining is most effective if you have an alternative proposal—you have to make an active proposal as to what to do instead, and stress the attractiveness of the university's diversity rather than the risks and the dangers of it.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.