Anthony Appiah On Why We Are Wrong About Identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Anthony Appiah

Born in London and raised in Ghana, Kwame Anthony Appiah is a multicultural individual who has lived through a multitude of experiences.

His father was a Ghanaian lawyer and politician, a Member of Parliament, an Ambassador and a President of the Ghana Bar Association. His mother was an English novelist and children’s write who was also active in the social, philanthropic and cultural life of his home town.

As a proud alumni of Cambridge University, he then went on to teach at some of the world’s top universities, including Harvard, Yale and Cornell. He has also been a Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University since 2014. He has delivered multiple talks on diverse topics (such as identity and religion) to various institutions across the globe and has published widely in African-American literary and cultural studies. In 1992, he won an award for his book In My Father’s House in which he explores the role of African and African-American intellectuals in determining and shaping African cultural life.

The question of identity is one that generates widespread confusion and conflict, and, as the BBC Radio’s Reith Lecturer 2017, Appiah chose to tackle this complex question in his ‘Mistaken Identities’ series through four separate talks – Creed, Country, Colour, Culture. Each talk lasts about a half hour with 20-25 minutes devoted to interaction with the audience. All four lectures are given in a different country, and are all brilliantly tailored to their audience.

Some people might have been brought up in one single place and have never lived in another city or country, while others may have multiple nationalities, have been born in one country and brought up in another, and feel a cultural belonging to one or all of them. Take me for example: I was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, raised in London, attended a French school from elementary to high school; I have three nationalities – French, Senegalese, and Beninese – and feel predominantly French, Senegalese, and Beninese, but also English.

The first talk entitled “Creed” was delivered at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where Appiah mostly talked about the feeling of belonging to a “Creed”, which he defines as a community of belonging, in which the individuals share the same values, beliefs and practices. In his talk, he spoke specifically about religious identity. He establishes that in religion, one tends to place a greater value on the importance of beliefs rather than on the importance of practice. To him, neither can function without the other. He elaborates and comes to the general conclusion that “religion is not solely a matter of beliefs,” but that every religion is tridimensional made up of practice, community, and beliefs. He also explains that “sacred texts require interpretation” and that the correct attitude to adopt is one, not of disbelief, but, rather, one of open mindedness, one of hunger for challenges and for new ideas and ideals.

The second talk – “Country” – was delivered at the fourth oldest university of the English-speaking world, Glasgow University, Scotland, in which Appiah reflected on the meaning of belonging to a nation. He posed such questions as: What factors come into play when enquiring about whether or not an individual belongs to a nation? He starts of with the historically common idea that a group of individuals are bound together to form a nation by an ancient common spirit. This is an idea which inspired racial bias and the fear of the other, especially the idea that you might only belong to a nation if your whole ancestry points back to that same country. He uses this thesis to pose his antithesis, in which he argues that what forms a nation is a set of shared beliefs. He says that “what binds citizens together is a commitment to sharing the life of a modern state [a diversified state, that is], united by its institutions, procedures and precepts.” The idea that every individual must look the same, speak the same way, and be “pure__” is a mistaken one, one which leads to the marginalisation of certain members of society, an uprising hatred towards the other, and in many historical cases may lead to war. Examples of this might include Nazi Germany, and even civil-wars like The Rwandan Genocide. An interesting series of scientific genealogy shows that nobody is a “pure race”, that everybody is a mix of different genetic backgrounds, and genetic differences do not align with the racial categories we have created. Therefore, a nation cannot be defined by a group of people seemingly belonging to an ancient and mythical group, but rather by their shared beliefs and ideals.

The third lecture – “Colour” – was delivered in Accra, Ghana, in front of the British Council. He starts off with the story of 18th century Germano-African Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer, Professor of Philosophy; it quickly becomes apparent that his thesis relates to “a world free of racial fixations”. The  location as well as the audience of the talk seem to have been ingeniously chosen. Until 1957, Ghana was called the ‘Gold Coast’ and was under the colonisation of the British. Today, Ghana is an independent country and a member of the Commonwealth. This talk was extremely powerful in that the issues it addresses, and the chosen audience, incorporate formidable symbolism. This symbolism which draws a parallel with the common theme of the lectures as well as the thesis of the talk: ideas as well as stereotypes and prejudice, have blinded nations from across the world (and unfortunately continue to do so), dividing and marginalising parts of the society, thought  to be inferior in class, in genetic ability (intellectual capacity for example) and nature, thus creating societies that can be easily manipulated. Lastly, he concludes his talk with an  idea that sums up his line of thought quite beautifully: “[In what ways] are limits of individual human capability set by genetic inheritance ?” Not by race, he says, for “race is something we make, not something that makes us”.

Finally, in this fourth and final Reith lecture -”Culture” – Appiah argues that the idea of “Western civilisation and culture” is a mistaken one and that we should disregard it, taking a step back to really reflect on its roots and meaning. The lecture was given at New York University in New York City. He cites examples such as that of the European claim of a rich culture filled with knowledge of the arts and sciences built on the foundation of a classical Greco-Roman heritage, which was actually re-transmitted to Europe from Islamic scholarship in the Middle Ages. This quote from his talk seems to sum up the general idea quite well: “The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European”.  He says that what draws people together is the customs we are used to (dress and greeting for example). He says that intellectuals like himself tend to believe that “the things [they] care about are the most important”.  Any individual can incorporate some of the values that are considered to belong to  one culture. What is important is to “understand and absorb” them.  Values are not static, they are fluid. Cultures are not defined by a core unchanging essence, but rather are constantly created and re-created through exchange, negotiation, and evolution. Values such as liberty and tolerance are only ours if we care about them, “they are choices to make”.

I highly encourage everyone to listen to these lectures. It is an incredibly interesting series, with very engaging  debates and reflections on notions relating to human identity. He tailors each  talk  to the  country he delivers his lectures in by using examples that are relatable to the general public (his public as well as anyone listening to his lecture on the BBC Radio 4 website).

I think it is a true privilege to have such an amazing figure come and deliver a talk here at NYU Florence through the LPD.

Here is a link to his Lectures on BBC Radio 4:

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