The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Color, Class, and Culture by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Liveright Publishing

Book Review by Dr Qamar-ul Huda

There is a resurgence of seeking meaning of identity. Amid globalization, mass migration, the emergence of new superpowers, the financial crisis of 2008, both right-wing movements in Europe and America, anti-immigration politics, religious-based violent extremism, technology disruption and the integration of artificial intelligence in daily life, scholars are questioning how identity is being defined and reimagined in a context of change.

New York University scholar of philosophy and law, Kwame Anthony Appiah tackles the evolving notions of identity in The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity in a fresh innovative manner. Known for his best-selling books, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Appiah has been widely praised for an astute ability to make philosophy accessible to the layperson.

Taking a broader philosophical, linguistic, cultural and historical view of identity, Appiah points out the ways in which individual and collective identities evolved in midst of global changes. How we understand identity, according to Appiah, is based on five types of identity markers: creed, country, color, class and culture.

He argues to be fixed on a nationalist pro-country identity is to ignore other remaining factors such as creed, color or culture factors comprising identity. Appiah wants readers to question how their identity was shaped, what circumstances formed it, which frameworks of thought were used to design the identity and acknowledge the fluidity of identity-making is a common experience.

For example, Appiah asserts war or conflict is an important factor in shaping identity. The war experience is incredibly traumatic that it shapes and redefines the individual’s identity. Even the interpretation of religion, or lack thereof, forces one to re-conceptualize the idea of community and its importance to identity.

Appiah is writing in a world of fellow ethicists, philosophers, political philosophers, and linguists fundamentally attached to a post-modern notion of identity, where multiple identities is the standard notion of ‘identity’ or specific traits are innate to particular groups. For example, in the pre-modern world feudal aristocrats believed they were superior to everyone else by virtue of their blood lineage, has this been replaced by privileged meritocrats who gained wealth in large part the result of privileged access to education and social networks.

Appiah’s The Lies that Bind is a timely thought-provoking exercise on reflection in midst of massive changes in the world. Readers will appreciate Appiah’s meticulous approach in rethinking the role of individual in a broader context.