Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that:
“labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And morality and political prudence require us to try to make them work for us all.”
“As a rule, people do not live in monocultural, monoreligious, monolingual nation-states, and they never have.”
The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a section on classification. This lays the groundwork for all that is subsequently discussed.
“Identities […] can be said to have both a subjective dimension and an objective one: an identity cannot simply be imposed upon me, willy nilly, but neither is an identity simply up to me, a contrivance that I can shape however I please.”
The author writes of clannish tendencies and habits, of how children have manners drilled into them that enable them to fit in with their home society. The way they walk, talk and dress offers acceptance and safety. ‘Others’ may be regarded as threatening and suffer suppression.
“In many places in the world one ethnic or racial group regards its members as superior to others, and assumes the right to better treatment.”
What though is an identity? The section on creed discusses how the major religions developed, how their holy books were created, and how interpretation of texts changes over time. Like everything else that is important in human life they evolve. Fundamentalists defend practices they favour and try to force them on others.
“Heretics aren’t killed because they differ in arcane theological details; they’re killed because they reject, and threaten, the authority of their theocratic rulers.”
Religion, it is argued, is not so much about belief but rather practice and fellowship. It is a verb more than a noun.
If identity requires acceptance and a feeling of belonging, the section on country challenges what this could mean in terms of place. It explores how borders change over time and how citizens travel and settle elsewhere. A country of birth may cease to exist due to mergers and divisions. The language used to educate may then be changed alienating the next generation.
Colour also presents challenges of classification as so many, including the author, have forebears from multiple lands. Birthplace or family ties offer little in the way of answers to certain prejudices.
The discussion on class is also complex encompassing as it does financial, social and cultural capital. Education may offer a chance of mobility but resentments can fester when success is perceived as unearned.
“It is no accomplishment to have been born on the finish line.”
Appiah enjoyed a privileged upbringing with influential contacts in Britain and Ghana. Although recognising the advantages to wider society of a meritocracy, of fairness of opportunity, there is recognition of the difficulties in achieving this ideal.
“being able to give money to your children incentivises a parent”
Wealth acts as a gatekeeper to elite education and the opening of doors to certain respected careers.
The final section, on culture, explores what differing groups and individuals regard as of value and influence, and how sections of society try to claim ownership.
“we should resist using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture.”
Appiah accepts that intellectuals have a tendency to suppose that the things they care about are the most important things.
In talking of Western culture he argues that the division is not so much between nations as between Christianity and Islam. Despite the historic conflicts involving the two religions, there has been more sharing of knowledge and ideas over the centuries than may be credited.
The traits men use to distinguish themselves from others are shown to be self-serving and often contradictory. Identity offers the benefit of belonging, but with who can be difficult to define or agree.
Any Cop?: Appiah’s arguments are cogent – conversation starters rather than prescriptive. Despite the complexities of the subjects pondered, this is a digestible read.
“I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”