- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (August 28, 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1631493833
- ISBN-13: 978-1631493836
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,114 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity 1st Edition
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“Appiah believes we’re in wars of identity because we keep making the same mistake: exaggerating our differences with others and our similarities with our own kind… [his] writing is often fresh, even beautiful… We need more thinkers as wise as Appiah.”
- Anand Giridharadas, New York Times Book Review (Cover Review)
“Excellent… Appiah hopes to inspire a rethinking of our restrictive and therefore divisive notions of who we are. But if that seems an impossible task, should the massive obstacles stop us from trying? [Appiah] brings to the task a number of insights and the mind of a realist… if the solution to the fracturing of our world remains elusive, this book at least helps us think clearly about the problem.”
- Clifford Thompson, The Washington Post
“Appiah makes the controversial and difficult subject of identity lucid, edifying, and even fun. When it comes to the humane values that allow us to live with one another, he may be our most penetrating―and entertaining―major philosopher.”
- Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal
“The Lies that Bind is a small volume of mighty power. In his lucid prose, Appiah elegantly dismantles the humbug, dogma, pseudo-science and propaganda that have long dogged our attempts to discuss 'identity,' and offers in their place a practical and philosophical tool-kit, as subtly radical in its aims as it is humane in application. From the illusions of 19th century ideas of biological destiny, to the late-capitalist logic of our contemporary 'cultural appropriation' debates, this book will help a lot of people think with far more clarity about some of the thorniest issues of our times. An inspiring and essential read.”
- Zadie Smith, author of Swing Time and Changing My Mind
“The Lies That Bind ranges even more widely in time and space than [Francis Fukuyama's] Identity… The point of this entertaining, meandering journey is that identities are less solid than is frequently thought.”
- The Economist
“Through this meditative journey, Appiah calls on us to buckle down to the difficult task of living with complexity―that is, the task of being modern. Erudite, personal, timely and deeply humane, this is a book for our time.”
- Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land, a National Book Award finalist
“Not only does that elegant writer and transcendent thinker, Anthony Appiah, clarify the historical gaslighting around color and racial stereotype, he also forges radical new theories of identity as they apply to almost every conceivable aspect of self. The Lies That Bind forces you to rethink what tribe you actually belong to with regard to race and religion, geography and gender, class and sexuality. Sheer genius and a joy to read.”
- Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir
“Kwame Anthony Appiah again demonstrates that he is one of our foremost writers on identity, culture, and difference. With his trademark clarity, elegance, and rigor, he is a most useful guide to thinking through some of the complicated problems of who we are and what we can be.”
- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sympathizer
“A provocative and brilliant intervention into the current discussion of the role identity plays in our society. We’re doing it all wrong, as Appiah demonstrates with characteristic erudition, clear thinking, and elegant prose.”
- Annette Gordon-Reed, co-author of the bestselling “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”
“This wonderful book unravels a tapestry of suppositions about identity. Understanding what draws us together and what tears us apart lies at the core of democracy. This is a vital book, an antidote to violent nativism, and a key to success in the human experiment.”
- Louise Erdrich, author of LaRose
About the Author
Kwame Anthony Appiah pens the Ethicist column for the New York Times, and is the author of the prize-winning Cosmopolitanism, among many other works. A professor of philosophy and law at New York University, Appiah lives in New York.
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Appiah first recognizes the enormous importance given to issues of identity in the modern world. These identities— whether racial, religious, national or cultural—tend to be viewed through an essentialist lens: they are real things that express themselves in individuals.
Appiah rightly dismantles the essentialist account. Instead he offers his own theory that identities are merely labels which correspond with certain expected behaviors and certain expected treatment by others. One can try to change these norms but the labels are shared by a wider community and so ultimately one must persuade the wider public that a change in attitude is necessary. (A recent example of this is society’s change in attitude towards homosexuals.)
To accomplish this dismantling Appiah advances example upon example of the fluidity of identity labels. While gender may be appear to be binary there are in fact many intersex people. While we tend to view religions as creeds there are many different beliefs within one community. And while people do have different skin colors there is no such thing as a race.
The problem with this dismantling is that Appiah oversimplifies the construction of these identities. While genetic aberrations may occur that make some people not fully biologically male or female this doesn’t prove that gender is a mere label anymore than any other genetic malfunction causes humanity to lack a certain characteristic. And while, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, many churches began stressing their respective creeds, the example of many beliefs within one faith community does not prove that there are no core teachings any more than the fact that libertarians disagree on drug legalization proves that libertarians do not have an essential belief towards limited government. Finally, the idea that race as reported by the census bureau is largely a social construct does not mean that genetic differences don’t exist between different peoples around the world that can partially explain differences in culture.
In short, while not an essentialist, I simply don’t agree that all identities are merely labels with no core meaning whatsoever. While sympathetic to Appiah’s defense of those marginalized by identity, I do not believe that all identities are lies which bind. Some identities are meaningful though Appiah’s deconstructions are worth considering before opting for a very rigid notion of identity.
Wonderfully written with a sincere effort to provoke thought and better the world I do recommend this book to all even though I must disagree with some of its major conclusions.
These are lies, and mostly do not work well, but sometimes they work well enough to achieve important political goals.
Contemporary left-wing identity politics promote lies, but lies that cannot help the oppressed because minorities can effectively agitate for inclusion, but by sowing discord, must lose. Moreover, the idea that all 'minorities' will bind together on the basis of being a 'minority' has never worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future.
"Tribes"... They're a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can't get away from them. They're a nightmare a body's got to live with in the daytime." ("Huck out West", p. 215)
I was reminded of Huck's pithy observation in reading philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's thoughtful and learned book, "The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity" (2018) which is based on lectures he delivered for the BBC in 2016 titled "Mistaken Identities". Huck's statement could almost serve as a theme for Appiah. Appiah recognizes the importance of identity to individuals in terms of growth and self-understanding. Individuals are born into groups and we rely on one another in particularized surroundings to meet needs. Still, identities can turn into nightmares of rigidity in thinking of oneself and one's own group or "tribe" and in separating oneself and one's group from others, sometimes demonizing them.
Some philosophies and religions are skeptical of concepts of personal identity and would try to do away with them, but that is not Appiah's way. Instead, Appiah tries to loosen but not eliminate ties of identity and to reformulate the understanding of identity in several critical areas of life where identity thinking is at its highest. Broadly, Appiah encourages the reader to eliminate views of essentialism and fixity in understanding one's identity commitments in favor of a more fluid view that recognizes change in what otherwise might seem as a fixed identity and continuity rather than otherness between oneself and others. The approach is broadly cosmopolitan. At the end of the book, Appiah quotes from the dramatist Terrence: "nothing human is foreign to me". Showing a commendable openness, Appiah says the aim of his book is to "start conversations, not to end them". More importantly, he tells the reader that "philosophers contribute to public discussions of moral and political life, I believe, not by telling you what to think but by providing an assortment of concepts and theories you can use to decide what to think for yourself. I will make lots of claims; but however forceful my language, remember always that they are offered up for your consideration, in the light of your own knowledge and experience."
The book opens with a chapter discussing among other things the nature of labeling and essentialism in human identity formation. The chapters which follow discuss and try to modify understandings of identity in five broad areas: religion/creed, country, color, class, and culture, each of which is a sensitive subject for many people. Appiah tries to show problems in common essentialist understanding of identity in each area and often ties these problems into various developments in thought in the 19th century which have outlived their usefulness.
Although not receiving a chapter of its own, Appiah discusses throughout perhaps an even more pervasive identity concept: the nature of gender and of one's sexuality.Although Appiah stresses what he sees as mistakes in understanding gender and in maleness and femaleness, I found this the weakest portion of the book and less convincing than the discussions in the remaining five chapters.
For me, the most persuasive and important identity discussed in the book was creed and religion. Appiah does not try to persuade his readers for or against religion or a particular religion. Rather he points out insightfully and well that people tend to overestimate the importance of belief and creed to religion. He finds that religion is more a shared, changing practice of a group over time even when this shared practice facially involves elements of a creed, such as the recital of articles of faith. Appiah suggests how understandings may change while practices remain shared. He wants to discourage a heavy investment of personal commitment to creedal content and to a fixed separation of oneself from others. The discussions of the remaining four identity components, country, color, class, culture, also are important and worthwhile, although the section on religion had the most to say to me.
The book proceeds in various ways, and Appiah's writing is often passionate, personal, and beautiful. The book offers argument and various forms of analysis, but it is more effective on a personal level and in its use of the work of other writers. Appiah uses many details from his own life, as the child of a British mother with ties to peerage and a father from Ghana with ties to Ghana's elite and to Ghana's winning of its independence. His own life shows the nature of loosening but not eliminating ties of identity in favor of a breadth of human understanding, where possible.
The book is perhaps even more impressive in the range of learning Appiah shows and the use he makes of the lives and work of others. Appiah calls many other writers and books as witness to his development of a fluid concept of identity, including, for example W.E.B. DuBois, Matthew Arnold, Cavafy, Sir Edward Burnet Tylor, and Philo. He discusses at length Anton Wilhem, a distinguished philosopher and the first African to earn a PhD in philosophy from a European university. But the figure who appears closest to Appiah's heart in this book is the novelist Italio Svevo (Aron Ettore Schmitz) whose novel "Zeno's Conscience" is a modernistic classic. With a background in both Judaism and Christianity and ties to many nationalities, Svevo developed a cosmopolitanism and an openness to shared identity that appears to be a model for Appiah's own. In one of several passages discussing Svevo and "Zeno's Conscience", Appiah writes:
"Although he once referred to Trieste as a crogiolo assimilatore -- an assimilating crucible, or melting pot -- Svevo knew how much remained unmelted. His Zeno is, above all, a walker in the city, a boulevardier and rambler, moving from one neighborhood to another. He is also a man always struggling with his own irresolution, always smoking his 'last cigarette', always betraying his ideals, and forever scrutinizing his own prejudices and preferences like a quizzical ethnographer. He wants to confront uncomfortable truths -- to side with reality, however much it stings." (p86)
Appiah clearly writes from the more liberal end of the political spectrum, but enjoying and learning from this book does not involve a commitment to a political creed. Appiah has written a provocative, thoughtful account of the nature of identity and of hot-button issues in identity that helped me and may help others with this treacherous subject. Perhaps, with modification, loosening, and thought, identity does not have to be the "nightmare a body's got to live with in the daytime" that Huck found it to be in Coover's novel.
I enjoyed the chapter on religious identity.
On the other hand, I felt the historical chapters were too long, and needed editing. I wished the entire book were a little shorter.