Anthony Appiah probes the myths of social identities

In an age of identity politics, Professor of Philosophy and Law K. Anthony Appiah questions the truth of the labels and affiliations that most people take for granted. His 2018 book, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, argues that social identities—whether racial, religious, national, class, or cultural—always involve various myths and misconceptions, even as they create important forms of solidarity.

Yoshino and Appiah in discussion
Kenji Yoshino and K. Anthony Appiah

On September 26, as part of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging’s annual Speaker Series, Appiah sat down with Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law, to discuss how modern notions of identity have developed and how they can be reimagined.

Selected quotes from K. Anthony Appiah:

“It’s not an unnatural thought that if you see the damage done by patriarchy and sexism, or by racism and white supremacy, or by homophobia and heteronormativity, to think, ‘Oh, well, maybe we should just try and do without these things. Maybe the alternative to bad identities is no identities at all.’ That’s not my view. My view is, the alternative to bad identities is better identities.”

“What happened with the rise of nationalism in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries…was the spreading of [the idea that] this body of people who shared language, traditions, religion, culture…needed a shared state to express the commonality that they already had. The opposite is closer to the truth. So far as there are bodies of people who have shared culture, religion, a language, above a certain size, that’s the result of the existence of states—not, as it were, the precondition of the existence of states.”

“[Even in a meritocracy] you’re creating forms of inequality that will mean that people have differential amounts of social and cultural capital. And what will they do with that? Well, of course they’ll use that to guarantee that their children enter into the privileges of the upper class. Even if they got there themselves by merit, they’ll be working hard to turn their children into the kind of people who have the properties that will guarantee them success.”

“Now that we see that these identities are things we make together, we can also see that they don’t need to be so heavily policed and imposed upon everybody.… We need to have structures within which to make our lives. But they need to be structures that work for everybody.”

Follow the full discussion on video:


Posted October 11, 2019; updated October 14, 2019