How do 19th-century identities still inform contemporary notions of identity? How do the binaries of gender, sex, and race imposed upon individual human bodies overlap with self-selected collectivities and customs? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Kwame Anthony Appiah. The present conversation focuses on Appiah’s book The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity. Appiah writes the Ethicist column for The New York Times, and is the author of the prize-winning Cosmopolitanism, among many other works. He is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University. A previous conversation between Appiah and I, about his recent book As If, can be found here.
ANDY FITCH: According to The Lies that Bind, gendered, racial, religious, national, and class identities all manifest through generalizing labels applied to individuals, labels that matter to these individuals (and to their fellow in-group members and to out-group members), shaping both the normative significance for certain self-selected behaviors, and the ways in which others treat one and one’s group — thereby helping to constitute both “subjective” and “objective” experiences of these identities. And then, in your book’s historical sketch, identity, as an abstracted concept, emerges when people begin thinking of “these diverse sorts of labels…as things of the same kind…. The rise of identity is the rise of that thought.” So could you introduce some of the public conversations in which this book engages by starting to discuss how we moved from those various 19th-century identities to this particular late-20th-century notion of “identity”?
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: The book does open, as you say, by making two kinds of historical claims, one involving uses of the word “identity” to describe a general category, and the other involving the use of “identity” specifically to suggest conceptions of gender, race, class, and other cultural identities that we emphasize today (often derived from 19th-century thinking and a Romantic worldview). I don’t really have a clear story as to why we’ve settled on this single word “identity” to discuss all these different facets of ourselves. I do sense that Erik Erikson’s writing helped both to popularize and in some ways to complicate this conception of identity, by making it appear quite natural. And this all came about at a moment when many people around the world had decided or had been forced to migrate across national or regional borders (or with these borders themselves getting redrawn). In the lives of these people, identity came to seem salient roughly because they’d left the place where they had one, and then were reborn into some new identity wherever they arrived. In fact, this very act of leaving might have gotten them to first think of themselves as Italians or Irish or shtetl Jews (rather than as individuals from much more local communities or places). But when they then arrived they became foreigners, and also found themselves grouped together in ways they hadn’t been before. Then over the course of the early 20th century, many of those migrants gradually became white people (in the United States at least).
Similarly, earlier in the 19th century, religion just was what everybody did. You didn’t really think much about other people’s religions, so you likewise didn’t think about your own religion as defining you. You just thought of your religion as the truth. Though then again, gradually through the early 20th century, people in many places in the world become much more conscious of other people’s religions, until by the 1950s religious identities have become very different from what they were when this whole process got started.
Again I don’t mean to claim that all these identities appeared at one single point. I just want to show that how we think about identities and identity today does get shaped in important ways during the 19th century. I also find it significant that by the 1960s we see certain kinds of class politics, which had been central to life in the early-20th-century industrialized world, decline in significance. And I think in part this class-based politics declined because it had been so successful. By the 1950s and 60s, the material conditions of working people in many societies had dramatically improved. In England people had begun to acquire indoor toilets. Houses got telephones and then not just radios but televisions. As a result, these people started spending more time at home, which likewise changed relations between men and women.
So more contemporary gender politics emerge in a certain sense out of this long history of class politics, and out of people developing working-class identity, rather than simply being looked down upon — as in the 18th century, when they were simply referred to as the “lower orders.” And by the 1960s in the North Atlantic world, class politics (which had always been less important in the United States) undergoes this decline. But at the same time, other forms of identity, such as gender and race, come to seem ever more salient — in part because of the state’s increasingly significant role in shaping one’s prospects. Categories of gender or race or sexuality get significantly shaped by marriage law, by property law, by employment law, by Jim Crow laws, and by legal prohibitions and persecutions of lesbians and gays.
Now, once you realize that the state does these things to you, you feel the need to resist the state. You also recognize the need not just for the state to change, but for the whole society to change. So these emerging movements start to bring together the personal and the political, and to make the social claim that politics isn’t just limited to the state. Similarly, when you see that the state has been organized against you, you realize that the state could be organized to support you. You sense that a discriminatory state could become a state with strong anti-discrimination laws, or with affirmative action, or not just decriminalizing lesbian and gay sex, but actively recognizing gay marriage.
Today of course you also see conservative Christian groups (both Catholic and Protestant) seeking not just free exercise of constitutionally protected rights to practice their religion, but a more active engagement by the state to protect their interests. And here I’d also point to a dimension of identity that this book doesn’t address, but which very much interests me: our current, quite explicit liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican partisan identities. Over the course of my time in this country, I’ve seen these partisan tendencies become much stronger, with the parties themselves becoming much more ideologically defined, whereas until maybe Ronald Reagan’s presidency, you still could find left-leaning Republicans and right-leaning Democrats. Today’s politics seems much more about your tribe winning and defeating the other side.
Your own politics might shift if you sense your tribe’s politics shifting. Today we see the paradox of how President Trump’s distancing himself from free trade has made free trade sort of no longer a conservative thing. Or by contrast, it seems hard to ignore that advances in free trade have helped bring about a massive decline in global poverty over the past two decades, which you would think people on the left would want to celebrate and to promote.
Well this lack of coherent policy preferences among certain partisans, combined with this nonetheless cohesive feeling of partisan identity, brings me to basic questions of essentialization. Of course my opening question, with its pivot from identities to identity, perhaps enacted its own form of essentializing. Or when The Lies that Bind describes identity-based essentializing as “supposing that at the core of each identity…some deep similarity…binds people of that identity together,” I wonder more broadly if humans typically learn by (and, as in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s or Friedrich Nietzsche’s contemporaneous mid-19th-century accounts, communicate by) essentializing some concept or kind into being, and then hopefully, at some point, stepping back and picking apart this new linguistic entity — maintaining connotative traction while also regaining some cognitive elasticity. So here again, in terms laid out by your book, how could / should we skeptically interrogate various aspects of identity, keeping in mind that “social identities may be founded in error,” but also that “they give us contours, comity, values, a sense of purpose and meaning”?
First, you’re right that there’s nothing terribly new about this tendency to essentialize. Psychologists find even very young children doing this in every society, and not just with their fellow humans, but with all kinds of organisms and physical objects. You also of course can track this sort of built-in cognitive disposition to categorize by reading ancient texts like the Iliad or the Odyssey or the Torah. The Jewish Bible’s historical part catalogs countless groups and labels and names.
But here just sticking to contemporary classifications into human kinds: this type of labeling suggests that all such people have some deep similarity. And these labels appear to play a predictive role across very broad categories, such as all women. If I find one woman who is short, I should expect all women will be short. If I find a different woman looking out for the children, then I should expect all women will look out for the children. Though of course for humans you find a great diversity within all of these large kinds. So any assumption about every member of the kind can cause a good deal of mischaracterization. Of course it also often leads us to the correct conclusion in a particular case, because many stereotypes do have some solid basis in the world. But it also could lead us astray in other cases — and can even cause us to overlook or undervalue very clear counterexamples. People do this all the time. They’ll hold onto a generalization about the kind, even while admitting to a lot of exceptions.
And again, of course many people themselves know that they do not fit into these stereotypes of supposed kinds. Perhaps, for example, men supposedly should be sexually attracted to women. If you as a man do not find yourself sexually attracted only to women (because you find yourself instead attracted to men, or not to anybody at all — or perhaps attracted both to women and to men), then frequently getting classified according to this general rule might feel like a real difficulty in any number of ways. But of course while we do tend to overgeneralize, say in terms of sexual identity, these identity categories still give us some rough concepts to work with. And turning now from the cognitive to the normative, these identity categories can allow us to experience forms of solidarity on the basis of such labels — solidarities that play a very important and productive part in human social life.
Identities don’t just allow us to form expectations about other people. Methodists, say, understand themselves, both as individuals and as a group, by forming their own conception of what Methodists should be. If you want to organize a church (or a community or a country), you need people to have that strong sense of affiliation. And overlapping affiliations of these types become important for building complex societies. You can’t have a nation in the modern democratic sense (with citizens supposed to run the republic together) unless these people have some sense of shared normative identification.
Similarly, all of the new social movements of the 1960s depended upon people having not only a strong but a positive identification with a particular label (a label often treated negatively by other parts of society). So to insist that sex-based categorizations produce mistakes does not need to mean that we should dissolve all positive affiliations allowing women to act together to address women’s concerns collectively. At the same time, we should be careful to avoid certain common oversimplifications. And if you think about it, one of the key moves from first-wave feminism to later forms of feminism involves this basic recognition of the internal diversity of challenges facing women. Feminists had to recognize that challenges facing black women were not always the same as challenges facing white women, that challenges facing professional women were not always the same as those facing middle-class women, and that challenges facing lesbians might differ in some ways from challenges facing straight cis women. Feminist theory has helped us to recognize that thinking through all of these differences is also somehow part of the work.
Here The Lies that Bind positions reflective accounts of gendered identity as methodologically central — with gender presumably one of humanity’s oldest identity categories, and with several recent generations of feminist philosophy offering an incisive framework for thinking through how fixations upon biological morphology (sexual identity) have distracted us from numerous aspects of cultural practice and performance (gender identity). And in terms of propensities toward positivist biological differentiation, sexual designations likewise stand out for essentializing a stark either / or binary (rather than any more fluid masculine / feminine continuum, for instance). At the same time, gender stands out as an identity category subdividing any seemingly homogenous racial, religious, national, or class constituency into at least two. In this way, gender offers a potential cross-cutting identity, linking together new collectivities among supposedly disparate groups. So as you describe the central importance of tracking gendered identities in this book, could you also discuss further how conceiving of gender in less essentializing terms lends itself particularly well to foregrounding intersectional aspects of identity, and how such an intersectional approach in turn might lend itself to your book’s broader social proposition that “The unities we create fare better when we face the convoluted reality of our differences”?
Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, one reason to start with gender is just because several generations now have given us a feminist philosophical framework for thinking about these topics. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel identity-by-identity. Whether you’re talking about sex or gender or race, for example, we tend to focus on the body. We have a method for recognizing that people treat socially produced aspects of identity as if these were part of our biological natures. So gender does offer (ironically, maybe) a kind of master category, to help us make more general points about how identities work — and also how to avoid essentializing these vast social categories, and how to retain a more nuanced sense.
And then from a more abstract to a simpler point of view, focusing on gender can help us to see that people who share an identity share a label, not an essence. Again in terms of intersectionality, what any label means to any particular person or group will vary across the cases. Being a man might be an important part of my identity, but its importance also gets inflected by my class and my sexuality and my nationality and so on. There’s really no such thing as a “woman” or a “man” separate from these other factors. And thanks to trans activists, we also have increasing recognition of more than one way of coming to be labeled as a woman or a man — even from a focus on the body. We likewise can see more clearly that, given the biological complexity of human morphology, there really never was some stark binary divide just sitting there in the natural world waiting for us to discover it. We had to invent that binarity ourselves, because biological morphology always has produced multiple kinds of intersexual identities.
Racial taxonomies of course stand out as equally fraught, particularly in vernacular contexts. Your book recounts, for example, how 19th-century eugenic speculations swiftly get eclipsed by modern genetics research showing both how similar any one human’s chromosomal makeup is to another’s, and how much variance exists within supposed racial groups — but with essentialized notions of ethno-racial difference particularly intractable in subsequent public conversations (no matter how dubious, for example, any linguistic equivalence between “European” and “white,” or “African” and “black,” had been from the start). And as The Lies that Bind challenges the enduring assumption that we could / should consider each individual member of a racial group as typical, representative, expressing the nature of the group (or, conversely, that we should foreground a racial group’s generic traits, and treat any single person’s individualizing traits as secondary), I wondered how the visual nature of racial classifications might especially reinforce tendencies towards typological thinking. Does race provide this book’s most striking example of embodied presence / perception and reductive cognitive categorization overlapping in complex, confounding ways?
So this particular way of organizing people into groups on the basis of ideas about the racialized body is relatively modern. In this book’s chapter on race I tell the story of Anton Wilhelm Amo, born in the 18th century in what we today call Ghana, who became a philosopher in Germany and then returned to Ghana. At the beginning of his life, Europeans had not yet developed these strongly essentialized views about black people. They were open to experiment — and, in fact, they did experiment with Amo. They educated him along with the children of a German duke, and he ended up receiving a very good education and becoming a distinguished university professor. Now, by the early-19th century, Northern Europeans no longer conducted experiments like this, because they thought they knew the answers. They thought they knew that black people could not succeed in this kind of intellectual activity. And though a few individual Africans did, for various reasons, receive a European higher education across the 19th century, the numbers remained surprisingly small, given the extensive contacts between Africans and Europeans in this period.
So yes, this form of racialized thinking very much focused on the bodies of people from Africa and Asia, on physical marks of identity, on skin and hair and the shape of a face (and on other properties that human beings can detect quite swiftly and easily), all of which can make racial essentialization feel quite natural. Once you have parceled out people into such categories, and have developed beliefs about some deep similarity uniting members of one category, and differentiating them from other categories, you might have a hard time loosening the grip of that thought, which gets constantly reinforced by everyday interaction even in a so-called multiracial society, where you can constantly bump into people who fall into other categories, and think: Oh, well, she’s different from me. He’s different from us.
But notice that while certain physical characteristics might allow us to swiftly assign most people one racial category, racial groups actually do not have sharp boundaries. And also note that these boundaries get drawn very differently in different places. People called “black” do not all share some deep biological property. The NAACP’s mid-20th-century leader Walter Francis White, for example, was not only ironically named, but also ironic in appearance — having blue eyes and fair skin.
According to mid-20th-century American ideas about ancestry, you couldn’t necessarily classify Walter White just by looking at him. And more generally, you always will have some dark-skinned people with tightly curled hair, and some without. So ultimately huge numbers of people will not fit easily into whatever biological category we seek to devise.
In the Caribbean, people may get categorized as black or white or mixed. In the United States, with its particular legal history of slavery, we mostly just had black and white — until more recent upswings in migration from Asian and Latin American countries. And the US didn’t until quite recently develop a strong notion of a mixed-person-of-color category, which long had central roles in Caribbean and Latin America societies (and, indeed, in New Orleans, because New Orleans is basically part of the Caribbean).
Keep in mind also other historical circumstances where the physical body’s appearance becomes even less relevant in assigning race. The word “racism” emerges in the 20th century, after all, to characterize the attitude of fascist Germany towards Jews. And while anti-Semites often might think that they can identify Jews simply by looking at them — well, they can’t. So here especially you see fantasies about the body (rather than empirical or observable truths about the body) doing much of the work. Or when appearance does play a role, it might have much more to do with social customs than with physical traits, with things like styles of beard and forms of dress.
In our own present, I also would note that the category “Latino” plays out in particularly interesting ways, as a supposed racial category that really doesn’t allow you to judge people just by their body, without resorting to cultural stereotypes (which often don’t help much either).
Sure, and the generic aspects of US-based conceptions of “Latino” and “Asian” identities seem pretty clear: with people from South Asia, people from China, people from the Philippines all lumped together in one single racial category, but with somebody from San Diego apparently categorically different from somebody from Tijuana. And just as racial identities assume some strict overlap between certain physiological features and one’s biological categorization, nationalism, as formulated by Romantic-era thinkers like Johan Gottfried Herder, idealizes the alignment of a hereditary “people” and a physically boundaried state. And just as with racial identities, national identities forever need to negotiate taxonomic ambiguities and conceptual incoherences regarding who fits inside / outside such designations, as decided by whom. So here, keeping in mind that not even the most monocultural-seeming nations like Japan offer the neat and tidy overlap imagined for the nation state, and the present-day reality that any true establishment of “self-determination” for a “people” would most likely tear apart existing countries and their more heterogeneous communities, could we start to track some of the most constrictive, reductive, generative, constructive frictions you see playing out in a couple of ongoing postcolonial national-identity projects — say, for instance, in Singapore and Ghana?
Well, let me start by saying that Singapore is 11 years younger than I am. Its creation in the mid-60s came about partly through a series of political accidents. But when it began, Singapore had a strong leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who sensed the necessity to create a national identity that could recognize the existence of at least three or four distinct kinds of people — defined as races, but mostly sorted by ethnic origin.
For historical purposes, Singapore took its Malays to have been on the Malay Peninsula all along — even though, in fact, Singapore’s Malays came from many different parts of Malaysia, and didn’t all speak the same language. Still they become one basic official category. Singapore’s Indians mostly (but again not entirely) had come from South India, Tamil Nadu, and spoke Tamil, and had arrived over the course of the 19th century for reasons to do with the British Empire and its maritime trade. And then Singapore’s largest racial category contained people of Chinese origin, with 99% of them speaking not Mandarin but some other Chinese language, such as Hokkien or Fujianese or Shanghainese.
And then as a trading city, a port city, a former British colony, Singapore also had people from all over Europe and Asia — and with great religious diversity, again with Malay Muslims and Indian Hindus and Chinese Taoists and European Christians. So when Singaporeans theorized themselves, and wanted to recognize their status as a multiracial nation while still giving salience to each of these groups, they developed the designations of Chinese, Indian, Malay, or Other. Early on, everybody was assigned one (and only one) of these four categories. And if you were labeled Chinese, and even though 99% of Singaporean Chinese didn’t speak Mandarin, Singapore designated Mandarin as your language. From then on, if you had a C on your documents to identify you as Chinese, your parents were required to raise you to speak Mandarin, and English (which served as the official national language, in order not to privilege any sub-community). If you had an I for Indian on your identity documents, your children would learn Tamil and English in the schools. If you had an M you learned Malay, and if you had an O, you got to pick your language.
So in terms of constructing a multiracial identity, everybody would learn English in order to talk to one another as citizens. Politics would take place in English. Lee Kuan Yew, himself Chinese and Singaporean, learned Mandarin at this point. His first language was English, and he went to Oxford. And with the Chinese in the majority, it was very important to make sure that the Indians and the Malays didn’t feel dominated. The first catastrophe of Singaporean life had come in the form of a 1960s racial riot between Chinese and Malays. And the government deliberately presented the Malays, who were over-represented in the working class, as sort of a founding people. They selected a national anthem in Malay. They picked Malay parade commands for the Singaporean army, and treated this minority population with a kind of special respect.
It all sort of worked. I mean, Singapore quickly transformed from a poor ex-colony to one of the world’s richest countries, and without too much in the way of renewed communal violence. Most Singaporeans live in public housing, which has maintained an explicit ratio of Chinese to Malays to Indians in every large building, corresponding to the ratio of the national population. And no doubt Singapore still had its troubling aspects, as a quite authoritarian state (historically, at least). But its multicultural identity worked pretty well, with this authoritarian society even making it criminal, for example, to speak badly of other religions and races. Though here we also can see an exemplary danger about ethnic essentialisms, with younger Singaporeans often not able to speak the language of their grandparents, once they were taught according to ethnic category.
One other success in building this multiracial nation appeared through lots of intergroup marriage. Today large numbers of Singaporeans have parents from two different categories, so that it doesn’t make much sense to tell these children: “Hey, this is your group’s language.” So they gradually will have to reformulate this policy, in part because it has worked so well to create a multiracial nation, in which national identity allows people to cooperate with one another. And obviously you could find something similar in multiethnic, multilingual nations like Switzerland and Canada.
And about a decade before Singapore started implementing its multicultural model, Ghana had developed its own. Ghana emerged as a country by gaining independence for two former British colonies, which then joined together: the old Gold Coast colony, and British Togoland. These two societies decided by plebiscite to become Ghana. So you start with two distinct parts of this new country. To the east of the Volta River, you have people speaking a great diversity of dialects of the Ewe language. To the west, you have something like 80 to 100 other languages. You literally have scores of previously separate political entities, with distinct systems of government. In the north, you have a significant number of Muslims, and in the south a significant number of Christians of various sorts, along with roughly 100 traditional religions involving gods and ancestors and spirits.
So despite the fact that black Ghanaians mostly would have looked similar to a European outsider, Ghana contained this incredible diversity. Its internal boundaries, especially in the east, always had been somewhat unstable — and then had essentially been redrawn on a colonial map at the Berlin Conference of 1884, without much regard for the realities of everyday life.
Ghana also had its own histories of local conflict. The Ashanti, Ghana’s largest group, had dominated the region basically as imperialists until the British arrived. The Ashanti had enslaved large numbers of people, both from other parts of present Ghana and from other parts of Africa through the Saharan trade. So Ghana’s people certainly didn’t start from a history of mutual respect and happy cohabitation, but colonialism itself then helped to produce an independence and nation-building movement.
Over the past 60 years or so, we’ve seen this people with its diverse histories, and religions, and languages come together. And again like Singapore, Ghana uses English as its government language, so that no single group’s language could be said to give it an advantage over others. Today, if you can speak English and Twi, you can get by in most places, though less in the east and the north. And in Accra, the capital, many traditional dwellers speak Ga.
But these internal diversities have not prevented people from coming to think of themselves as Ghanaians. It hasn’t stopped them from working together. Ghanaians of all ethnic groups take pride in Kofi Annan. They follow the Ghana football team in the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup. They celebrate Ghanaian writers who win international prizes, and so on. They celebrate Ghanaian music — quite popular around the world. Still everybody knows that the emergence of the Ghanaian state itself created “the Ghanaian people.”
More broadly, across much of the postcolonial world, the notion of a national people comes from various groups joining forces to seek independence against an imperial power. That historical fact might not seem to make much sense as the basis for an ongoing nation. Though in the book I argue that this basis for the nation also didn’t make much sense in the place that invented the nation state, but that these European peoples likewise came to embrace it. People came to believe in something they called the German people, the German Volk, a concept first put together by the Prussians in the late-18th century, and later essentially comprising modern Germany — and then the reunited German people brought back together at the Cold War’s end.
Now, we have a million reasons to question this story. First of all, lots of German speakers don’t live in Germany. Most Austrians, some Northern Italians, and many Swiss also speak German, as do various other parts of Europe. So Germany’s national territory does not correspond perfectly to the German-speaking parts of Europe. And similarly, just because these various groups all spoke some dialect of German never made them culturally identical. To the extent that Germans have a shared culture today, that has come about through a century and a half of state action, including through the creation of the German education system. And even though an education ministry does exist in Berlin, education still remains quite different in different parts of this country — the home of the Protestant Reformation, which nonetheless never became fully Protestant. Large parts of Germany, especially Bavaria in the south, have stayed predominantly Catholic in tradition. And of course large numbers of Jews lived in Germany until the middle of the 20th century, and significant numbers of Muslims do so today. So again, the idea of a national people unified by territory and culture and religion and language, this idea which served as the basis for 19th-century nationalism in Europe, never really rang true, even in Europe.
No doubt many people have beaten me to this analogy, but I can’t help hearing, say in this mythic 19th-century reuniting of the primordial German people, echoes of the bible’s Tower of Babel story. And this might sound like a counterintuitive pivot, but I actually see your chapter on rigid scriptural determinism shaping 19-century religious identity as offering a quite useful vantage on 21st-century US politics. For me at least, conceiving of religious identities as caught up in complex vectors of inherited catechisms and individuating personal experience, of established cultural practices and ever-evolving moral communities (rather than conceiving of religious identity as strictly delineated through some airtight metaphysical / textual system), points to how we likewise often base present-day partisan identities less on fixed or coherent or transparent policy preferences, than on under-articulated, self-contradictory, ever-shifting conceptions of one’s (and one’s group’s) place within the broader collective — and with, as you say, this apparently foundational sense of identity ever subject to reinterpretation, with this persistent instability “not a bug but a feature” of how even the most impassioned identity formations endure and mutate over time.
Well I do, as you say, want to argue that we mistake ourselves when we conceive religious identity solely as a creed or a system of specific beliefs. And I agree with you that political identities likewise often come more out of a historical culture than out of a timeless creed. We have no guarantee that, say, Republicans 50 years from now will believe what today’s Republicans believe. The same is true of conservatives and liberals. And of course, just as with a religion, our political identities have any number of sects and competing ideas about how one should behave. And just as no definition of “Christian” or “Protestant” can contain all of this historical and contemporary variation, it doesn’t really make sense anymore to say people cannot call themselves Republican unless they believe in reducing the deficit.
These breaches of orthodoxy take place in a wide range of religious and moral communities. Certain African American denominations still might have some quite homophobic language in their preaching practice, for example, even as many of those churches have gay choir directors, with everybody in the community understanding these men to be gay. Here you could ask: “What does this community really believe? Does it really consider homosexuality a sin? If so, shouldn’t it get rid of the choir director? Doesn’t that contradict its stated beliefs?” And I would answer: “It’s not really either.” I mean, both of these practices are in some sense sincere. They’re just not very coherent when brought together. And certainly this also plays out with our political parties. I don’t want to pick too much on the Republican Party, but it has claimed the status of the “family values” party all along, even as our only divorced and remarried presidents have been Republicans.
Returning then to this book’s stated objective of making public debates about identity “more productive, more reasonable, even, perhaps, a little less antagonistic,” of “hoping to start conversations, not to end them,” could you unpack here the politely framed implication that, amid our polarized differences and defensive self-contradictions, we do not, at present, have nearly enough such reasonable discussions and open-ended conversations? Where do you see such discussions taking place? Where do you see a desperate need for them? How might you characterize your own lived intellectual experience, say, on college campuses where one might hear an insistent formulation of race or gender being a social construct, even as one encounters claims to cultural identity (and / or habits of identity-policing) that seem based more on rigid legalistic frameworks of ownership and property than on any supple, pragmatic, liberatory, widely affirmative political vision? How might you go about making the most direct, most constructive possible case to the broadest possible audience not only that “culture is messy and muddled, not pristine and pure,” but that this very fact of culture having no essence “is what makes us free”? And / or why might the most direct such argument not be the most constructive possible approach here?
Well, first, I’d acknowledge that books written by philosophers typically won’t play a hugely important part in what drives social change. But at the same time, I like to repeat as one of my slogans that it is in fact important to preach to the choir. We often use that expression to suggest a pointless act, but maintaining solidarity among reasonable people seems to me quite worthwhile. It does not stop unreasonable people from acting unreasonably. But the reasonable themselves can have more impact when they clear up their own argumentative picture, and when we recognize our own temptations to unreasonable thinking. And along with readers of this book hopefully questioning their own intolerance of political difference, I would hope for audiences to question any impulse towards retreating into our identity groups. I consider it crucial in our present politics to promote interactions with people from whom we feel politically divided by these tribal identities of our time.
And I don’t consider the most important forms for these interactions to take to be direct political debates. People in churches and synagogues, for example, used to end up much more frequently alongside people with different political identifications. But increasingly our various denominations themselves have become politically identified, so that you can’t feel comfortable as a Democrat in a lot of Protestant megachurches, and you can’t feel comfortable as a Republican in some mainline Protestant churches. And if you’re an East Coast Quaker Republican, I don’t know where you go.
So where might one have these interactions today? Well, work might seem like one place, but we don’t often talk about our politics at work. So schools and universities really have become the main place, potentially at least, for these types of exchanges. Public schools are supposed to be places where you can come from whatever racial or religious or political background, and get an education that you and your family value. But we’ve actually made it quite hard to talk about politics in public schools, and I sense that American private education continues to get more and more politically segregated. So if we still want to establish space for Americans to talk to people with a wide range of different political identities, that basically leaves universities.
I think universities can lead on this role, and I think they should. I also do detect, as you’ve suggested, a proprietary conception of identity in contemporary student culture, which means (among many other important questions worth pursuing) that students often feel they can’t say much about people whose identities they don’t share, without getting into trouble. This makes it hard to have sensible discussions about politics, because political policies have different impacts on people with different identities, and at some point that seems a natural topic to bring up, but then once it does come up, identities get engaged and people quickly can find themselves in very fraught conversations.
So we need to deliberately design fora to allow these conversations to arise in the most constructive possible way. Now, sometimes, a classroom can become this forum — but so can other spaces. And keep in mind that the First Amendment does not apply to the domain of the classroom. Teachers can manage these conversations in a way that we might consider inappropriate in the public sphere. Teachers have the authority to ask people to stop saying unhelpful things. And within these managed contexts, you also can say positive things like: “Look, let’s just assume that the object of this exercise is to try to gain a better understanding of one another. Let’s also assume that the things you find upsetting are not being said in order to upset you. Let’s assume we all are bringing our sincerely held views to this conversation, and let’s see where we can get.” Within that context, you hopefully can start to explore the ways in which identities affect all of our lives, the differential ways that these identities arise, and the complex phenomenon of people having hardened identities that shape both their life options and their personal opinions.
If we could better understand one another’s complex deliberations, then many more of us might feel inclined to compromise on this or that. But this all requires a background of trust, a type of trust that I believe can happen by sharing a campus and getting to know one another, and doing things together that place less emphasis on the large social identities — supporting your college team or participating in a drama club or whatever. And more broadly, this means moving beyond a sort of collapse of the public in which we spend more and more time on our own, or with our lovers and friends, or on the web with communities which have filtered out people who disagree with us. To be clear, my own expertise is not in building institutions, so I don’t know precisely how to create this space where people feel comfortable both to express themselves and at times to concede a point or to change their mind. But I do consider the institution of the university perhaps our best place at present to try out these kinds of experiments.
Of course the policing of many identities makes it especially hard for people to articulate views that fail to conform to their apparent identities. A black intellectual, for instance, is just not supposed to oppose affirmative-action policies. But at the same time, much contemporary polling data suggests that on many questions a significant plurality of Americans could agree on positions that do not get represented by either political party — with, for example, one party committed in every instance to a woman’s right to choose, and the other equally committed to prohibiting all abortions. Now, I myself might happen to belong to that freedom-to-choose school. But when you live in a society in which many people feel very strongly that most (or perhaps all) abortions are wrong, you’ve got to come to some kind of settlement — and to a settlement which doesn’t involve, for example, these absurd scenarios in which the state of Texas gets forced to acknowledge a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, but still can make it practically impossible for many women ever to actually get an abortion.
And here again in terms of how political discourses intersect some of our lives’ most personal aspects, I found this book’s Cavafy-echoing coda especially moving, particularly when you describe “This life…made possible through other people’s struggle…and by my taking small risks with friends, employers, and families,” and how “Without the reshaping of gender that has increasingly liberated us all from old patriarchal assumptions, I could not have lived…as a gay man, married to another man, making a life, in public and private ways, together.” I try to avoid asking authors why their books don’t include more of something — such as here, a more sustained chapter on queer identity. So instead, could we take this book’s meticulously chiseled formulation that “Identities work only because, once they get their grip on us, they command us, speaking to us as an inner voice; and because others, seeing who they think we are, call on us, too,” and could you describe how the inner voice (and the intimate voice) that speaks to you as a queer voice infuses this whole project, and perhaps your broader ongoing philosophical investigations?
I guess I consider questions about queer identity part of the package of thoughts about gender. I see homophobia and attacks on the lives of lesbian and gay people as directly connected to the thought that it’s inappropriate for a man to be sexually passive, or for a woman to be sexually assertive. I sense that gender norms can get expressed in particularly sharp form in relation to queer people, but that these gender norms also affect everybody’s lives. But again I find it hard to generalize much about gay identity per se. Some societies think of gay men as people who do something bad with each other. Other societies think of gay men as people who refuse to do something good with women. Those different negative thoughts about gay people lead to different practices, and to different lived outcomes for gay people.
Right, those questions of intersectionality (here bringing in nationality, religion, class, race) again become important.
And maybe just because of my own personal experiences, having lived in places with fantastically different attitudes towards same-sex relations between men, I actually find it a little hard to say what I think. I mean, given where I grew up, I consider myself remarkably lucky for not having my sexuality become this hugely burdensome fact of my life. In Ghana in the 1950s and 60s, homosexuality just was not a topic. It wasn’t salient. So my father (who here doesn’t stand out as unusual) simply was puzzled by same-sex relations between men. A man enjoying sex with a woman…this seemed to him such an obviously pleasurable thing. He also assumed that everybody would want to have children, and that same-sex couples couldn’t do that. But he probably didn’t think about any of this very much, and most people around him didn’t either.
And then in England in the late-1960s and 70s (when I was coming out and becoming sexually active), within middle- and upper-middle-class circles, on the whole, people were pretty relaxed. When I was at university, people thought that you couldn’t have a proper party if you didn’t have a few homosexuals to sort of enliven the conversation and be amusing and so on!
So it just never occurred to me that I might have a life without a partner. Whereas if I’d been born 10 years earlier, I probably would have had to worry about that thought. So again, given my personal good fortune, while I can look at the world and see horrible things happening to gay people, and while I want to be active and do something about this, for my own self, I just feel very grateful to the preceding generation for having made my life fantastically much easier.
On the other hand, I never felt very drawn to the idea of a gay community as it were — to living your life primarily among other gay men. Of course I have many gay friends, but I do sense that most of us don’t think of ourselves as living in something called “the gay community.” We think of ourselves as living in the world as gay people. Whereas again, for an earlier generation and for many people today, their sexuality speaks to them by drawing them into a life that is a gay life, a life in which you spend much of your time in gay public space. You have a lot of your social interactions with other gay people. That just wasn’t how my own sexuality spoke to me.
And finally, still on this topic of speaking, could we discuss a bit more how personal style does play out in books like The Lies that Bind, As If, Cosmopolitanism? Perhaps in terms of starting conversations, could you describe, for example, what appeals to you in beginning each of this book’s chapters with compelling biographical hooks? And / or could you describe your cultivation of a distinct prose texture across these books, in which you interweave any number of anecdotal and research-based and gestural strands? Did you long want to explore certain snags in Christian scripture, or to make the Mouse that Roared joke, and finally find the rationale for doing so here? Did you start with a basic argumentative outline and then fill it in, either dutifully or pleasurably, with these localized details? I admire, overall, how, unlike so many public-intellectual books I read, this one doesn’t seem reducible to a much shorter streamlined account, but has insightful / delightful aspects of its argument keep unfolding as one goes — and I wondered if certain favorite textual or performative models stand out for you for that type of pacing, and / or what you only could accomplish intellectually through that particular prose rubato.
Well since this book in particular grew out of public lectures for the radio, I did want each chapter to start with some emblematic life narrative to carry the more abstracted propositional argument forward. And with this book’s focus on identity, I wanted to work with stories about people and communities.
My first two books were full of propositional arguments, and then I wrote a book that was not. I’d realized I wanted to make as attractive as I could a kind of intellectual temperament which was conversational, relatively undogmatic, aware of its own fallibility, conscious of irresolvable tensions in its own thinking. But of course making these claims directly wouldn’t really show that temperament at its most attractive. So instead I had to figure out how to write that way.
My model, as far as I have one, probably comes most from the man who invented the word “essay,” Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s idea of an essay involves, as the French term suggests, trying something out. It also means testing, as in “assay” in English. And I think of those books you just mentioned as testing our ideas against other lives, against other experiences, against other stories. And this doesn’t come from the word “essay,” but Montaigne also provided our modern sense of the essay as distinctly personal — as one person talking to other persons. You don’t adopt the detached voice of the universe, or of God. You simply try to think something through, and to make public your own attempts to understand these things, for other people’s benefit.
And of course, with all of the temptations to essentialism that this book considers, I have experienced them myself. For all of the binaries and divisions and stereotypes, they have tempted me too. But I do think one can develop an intellectual style and temperament that allows one to resist the bad sides of these temptations — including the broader philosophical temptation to try and reduce everything to a single matrix. In As If, for example, I argued that you can’t live a human life in which you possess only one picture, and in which all the parts appear to fit together perfectly. You have to hold onto many pictures, and they will at times line up inconsistently.
I mean, this book’s religion chapter argues against textual determinism, but if you asked “So do the scriptures not matter?” I’d say: “Well no. That couldn’t be further from the truth either.” And humans will remain infinitely ingenious. People have taken texts that for thousands of years served to keep women in their place, and have used these texts to develop Jewish feminist theology, Christian feminist theology, and increasingly Muslim and Buddhist feminist theology.
And of course plenty of people discredit these interpretations, and feel that they betray those traditions. But from the point of view of someone inside these traditions, it also might seem attractive to extend them in unpredictable ways. And similarly, you just can’t predict what will happen with class or race. People used to peg me as a racial abolitionist, but only a prophet would know what human beings will do next with race. Abolition is only ever one option: another is revision and reform. In 1980, you just couldn’t have predicted (or at least I couldn’t) this rise of mixed-race identities in the United States, or this rise of the rhetoric of people of color, and so on. These endlessly surprising outcomes should remind us all of our human potential to shape our identities. You might want your own life to make sense in terms of available identities, and other people might try to do the same, but they will have different projects, different lives, and so they’ll do it in different ways than you.