Kwame Anthony Appiah

Anthony Appiah Lecture on Identity at Villa La Pietra

Anthony Appiah presented a calm, unassuming figure as he stood in front of those gathered at Villa La Pietra Monday to deliver his talk on identity. Appiah began by breaking down our idea of identity into three categories: Nationality, Race and Culture. Appiah examined  the idea of nationality as a form of identity, looking at the concept of the nation and what it represents. Soon, it became clear that even our idea of what a nation should be is primarily a social construct, so fluid and arbitrary that a concrete definition of identity based on nationality is essentially impossible. Appiah looked at some important interpretations of what a state is through history: it has often been founded on the idea of a group of people with a shared sense of ancestry who care about that ancestry, people who share a genetic heritage. However, if we look at the sort of nation that that definition connotes, it is one known as a Romantic State, something along the lines of Benito Mussolini’s ideal Italy. A Romantic State would be one where people share a single consciousness and have no disagreements. To refute this idea, Appiah looked at many nations in Africa, such as Ghana, where despite not having a shared ancestry, (Ghana is composed of many different tribes), a national consciousness is forming nonetheless, as a product of the people of Ghana living together and working together to govern their nation–for evidence of the emergence of this national consciousness, Appiah cites the example of how people from Ghana have adopted kente cloth as the national cloth despite the fact that it is only truly native to one or two of the tribes that make up Ghana. Appiah ended his discussion on nationality by highlighting the importance of the Liberal State: a state where the people may not share the same ideas and same will, but do have a willingness to compromise with one another, to find a middle ground in an effort to move forward. Appiah pointed out that, because there is no definite national essence, a nation represents a medley of cultures and identities, meaning that we need a state where different people are capable of coming together and finding common ground.

Appiah then went on to look at the second main category of identity: race. In discussing race, Appiah once again looked at it as a product of society. The idea of race, according to Appiah, has been created as a tool and justification of oppression. Europeans justified their enslavement of Africans by defining themselves as different based on their race, and creating a hierarchy according to which the black race was inferior to the white race. This inferiority was then used as a justification for the treatment of Africans as subhuman during slavery. However, science and genetics have shown that race does not exist in and of itself. Race is socially constructed, it is a fluid concept. How does one define black and white? Where is the line between races drawn? There are people defined as white who are of darker skin than others defined as black. Ultimately, Appiah sees the idea of race as another fluid concept upon which the identity is hard to base.

Appiah then went on to tackle the third category upon which identity is defined: culture. Once again, however, the idea of culture is a difficult and ultimately impossible idea to pin down. For an example, Appiah debunked the concept of “Western Culture.” Appiah examined those thinkers and ideas which have been considered fundamental and unique to the West and pointed out that they were, in fact, accessible to any human being around the world. Furthermore, there are discrepancies within many cultures we define as unique and uniform. Appiah remembered a time he visited Botswana, a country with which Appiah, of Ghanaian descent, should have shared many values and beliefs as a member of “African Culture.” However, Appiah found that many of his beliefs, such as the idea of a woman as being the head of the family, came into direct conflict with many of the beliefs held by the locals in Botswana. Thus, culture is also too fluid and intangible a concept for us to be able to derive a concrete identity out of it.

Thus, having in a sense debunked the three main pillars of the modern conception of identity, Appiah concluded by discussing his own idea of identity: humanity. Identity is too often used as a way to marginalize and separate humanity, it is too often used as a tool of not only oppression, but also isolation. So perhaps it would be best to reject these categories, and instead define ourselves only as what we are sure we are: human.

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