Gabriel Crouse reflects on the relevance of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s work for South Africa today
You have more “identities” than you might think
Who thinks what today? That is an interesting question. And yet there is limited interest in this country about what thinking goes on beyond the spitoon we used to call a rainbow nation. For years I have visited SA university campuses and found little interest in what strikes me as the best in contemporary philosophical thought. For example, NYU professor Kwame Anthony Appiah’s name is barely known and his work almost not at all.
This is odd, given that while our humanities departments pretend to care about nothing more than the celebration of “African excellence”, Appiah is probably the most respected African philosopher in the anglosphere. Appiah would not worry about that much; he wrestles with the very idea of adoring “African excellence”, which is perhaps why he gets the cold shoulder in the first place.
Appiah has just released a new book about our media’s favourite topic – social identities.The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity got massive coverage in the US, but Exclusive Books hasn’t heard of it. It is available on kindle. It reads like a laidback conversation with a unique, genial sage.
Part of what makes The Lies so readable is its interstitched biographies. Among the human subjects covered are the institutional architects of anthropoply and the UK welfare state respectively, and the first black doctor of philosophy (in Wittenberg in 1734). The most charming biography is Appiah’s own, told largely through the story of his family. Appiah is what we might classify as “coloured”, of English noble and Asante royal descent (with great game changers on both sides); he worships his ancestors; he is gay and married; he is a US citizen and compatriot who loves and lives in New York City. His narrative demonstrates that it doesn’t just take a country to make a rainbow; individuals are rainbows, too.
That’s just a flavour of the narratives which Appiah blends with history, etymological curios, great jokes (mostly Jewish), and sublime poems. Appiah is, foremost, an original thinker, a professional philosopher, and this review will not emulate his convivial, eclectic style. Instead, it will try to distil six key arguments with specific application to an SA audience.
Classification of identity
Appiah implies that “intersectionality” is misunderstood especially by those who use the term most passionately here. I have spoken to several SA students and professors who say that intersectionality entails, for example, that non-Muslims are forbidden from taking legitimate positions on anything in the Muslim world, from the hijab to honour killings. As a slogan, I’m told, intersectionality instructs one to stick in your lane.
But, as Appiah tells it, the original and best version of the intersectionality theory goes another way. First, it recognizes how pointless it is to pick a lane and suppose that that will get you very far. To speak of the “black” experience is mindlessly reductionist since there are rich blacks and poor ones; Christians and Jews and gurus; straights and queers; young and old; conservatives and revolutionaries; professors and police; US citizens and Russians and Ghanaians and more. These lanes intersect with the black “one” at different places in different ways.
Appiah argues that these intersections show that speaking “as a man” or “as a white person”, or as any of these one-way identities, is fraught with absurdity. This is not a call to abandon the conception of social identities, but to reinterpret and refine them, to navigate the traffic on a map with fewer one-way signs. What follows are the major identities to rethink, except for gender and sexual identities around which the concept of “intersectionality” was born.
Creed – Identities
Religion is deeply misunderstood. Appiah argues that religions are not sets of beliefs fixed by sacred texts. The nature of language means even those chapters that look straightforward (lists of what not to do, or what to eat) patently require interpretation and so open themselves to reinterpretation.
Those who punt the idea that religious texts are unambiguously fixed are fundamentalists, like ISIS, and also “metafundamentalists”, like many in the “new atheist movement”. The former insist that one must take on board all that is found in a religious text without reinterpretation, while the latter insist on taking nothing – but they agree it is an all-or-nothing choice with no interpretive room for manoeuvre, and in that they share a deep mistake.
Appiah argues further that religion is primarily a doing-thing, defined by where and how one worships, marries, mourns, and feels vibes. As such, there is conceptual room for atheist-Jews, atheist-Hindus, and atheist-Christians, to name a few. Appiah demonstrates that many such people do exist and the game of who’s-who turns out quite a charm.
Colour – Identities
Race is a fixation. Appiah notes that race could not exist as a biological concept long before the 19th century since the prerequisite biology (humans as products of evolution, relevant conceptions of organic heredity traits) did not exist in scholarship before then. One clue is that the word "biology" was only invented around 1800. If there was history before race, there can be history after race, too.
Racism was then punted by mistaken scientists. But Appiah emphasises the habit of literary critics (and, by implication, opinionistas) to punt racism hard, too, by supposing that “each race has a specific genius, a spirit that shows up in its literature”. In ordinary life, the “racial fixation” showed up in thoughts like this: “Each of us not only belonged to a race, we expressed its nature. The result was that each member of the group was typical: representative, that is, of his or her type.”
The use of the past tense might make it seem as if Appiah thinks this practice is over, but he does not. While the racial fixation was born partly from scientistic nonsense and political expediency (just like astrology), the habit of thinking that individuals are typical of their race persists and ramifies across the globe today.
“One reason race continues to play a central role in international politics,” Appiah concludes, “is the politics of racial solidarity that [W.E.B.] Du Bois helped to inaugurate in the black world, in cofounding the tradition of Pan-Africanism.” Appiah has long worried about the use of “soul” to designate a shared essence among black people (more sweetly heard in talk of “soul food”, “soul music”, and less sweetly in “soul politics”). This term and idea derived from Du Bois. Appiah found that Du Bois got it from the German volksgeist (the race-soul notion the Nazis took all the way to the gas chamber). Appiah, one of Du Bois’s leading biographers, has been careful to show that Du Bois’s work should not simply be dismissed on this basis, and that it was useful in timeless and timely ways.
He makes the case to act similarly towards Immanuel Kant and Matthew Arnold, blatant racists who also happened to do a lot of good work. (Appiah is, among other things, a Kant scholar). While South Africans hardly use the word “soul” for blackness, pan-Africanism and race solidarity are certainly on the rise. There is a major uptick in South Africa despite our role in the African Union (mainly being the protection of war criminals and the private, daily acts of xenophobic violence at home).
The point is to keep the baby, toss the filth. Decent Christians who eschew the nasty bits in Leviticus and hold onto the best of Jesus Christ's allegories have no monopoly on this selective trick. The Wits campus is strewn with the names of pan-Africanists, and we don’t have to rename the buildings or ignore those thinkers to suppose that pan-Africanism and black race essentialism keep racism alive. And we don’t need race solidarity to stop xenophobia or pan-Africanism to stop Omar Al-Bashir from visiting.
Race essentialism is carried through other races, too, as Appiah is quick to recall, and getting over the fixation will take local and global effort. Like Helen Zille, Appiah turns to Singapore for an example of how to overcome national race trauma, practically if not ideally, through state coercion. He points out that Singapore’s state housing projects force people of different races to be neighbours and that the racially "Chinese" majority are quick to hound each other out of office and into court for even the slightest whiff of anti-minority racism. It is possible and it works, but from here in SA it reads like news from another planet. Here, “cutting the throat of whiteness” is the kind of line that the ANC votes with, not against.
What clearly dismays Appiah is that while the biological backing for racism has shrivelled, racism itself has not. The biological thesis created the shape; now other mental stuff fills the void. Let me demonstrate how his theory applies here. “Original sin” is a biblical dogma (with an originally misogynist twist) according to which a past infraction makes every individual the type of thing she is by virtue of automatic inheritance – guilty (and, for women, tempters by fate).
Here, the biblical metaphor is repurposed to do what biology cannot even pretend to do; “give content to colour”, one colour-type in particular. It implies content for another colour as well. Those two little words, “original sin”, glide right over the conflicts and struggles before Dias’ arrival, transmogrifying people of a colour-type into angels. And those two evocative little words come straight from the highest office in our nation.
What Appiah might not have known when writing this book is the new threat that SA poses as a source of global white solidarity. If white farmers are expropriated without compensation they will become useful martyrs for white essentialists from Vladivostok to Nevada. If EWC is defeated - on the liberal grounds of justice as fairness and the pragmatic grounds that EWC will immiserate a majority black country - this potential engine of emboldened white nationalism can be stopped. EWC must be stopped because it will be unfair and it will hurt millions of impoverished citizens. It has a global significance, too.
Country – Identities
“Today, in what we like to think of as a postimperial age, no political tenet commands more audible assent than that of national sovereignty,” notes Appiah. “‘We’ aren’t to be ruled by others, captive to a foreign occupation; ‘we’ must be allowed to rule ourselves.” This truth, universally acknowledged, turns out to characterize a myth that Appiah debunks. The myth lies in who "we" are.
The idea of national self-determination is often grounded in race nationalism, in the thought that “we” are defined by common ancestry, real or imagined. But there is hardly a nation on earth whose citizens can even be imagined to share common ancestry. So what to do?
One solution is to redraw borders and Appiah points out a recent hypocrisy in this regard. When Kosovo was invented as a nation-state in 2010, the EU, UK and UN applauded the redrawing of borders on the basis of “self-determination” – against Putin and the Serbs who huffed in opposition about the principle of fixed borders to stabilize international relations.
Then, when the Russian border was redrawn to include Crimea, those same groups swapped their principles like “cricket teams switching sides at the end of an inning”. Which “we” gets the nod of legitimacy is less principled than one might hope, ultimately coming down to the Romance of power.
Appiah calls race nationalism “Romantic” nationalism since political authority shifted from “divine”-right monarchies (in multi-race empires) to race-based representatives after a period of intense urbanization that also gave rise of the Romantic aesthetic, first in Europe. Key to this was the celebration of folk heroes and nostalgia for bucolic dreams where princes and princesses and peasants lived out magical idylls. Elite urbanites then turned art into horror by desperately harking back to folklore with increasingly mechanical thumps in search of authenticity, newspaper fame and social cache amid the winds of industrial chaos.
“The Romantic state rallies its citizens with a stirring cry: ‘One people!’ The liberal state’s true anthem is: ‘We can work it out’”, says Appiah. The latter puts less fire in the belly, especially when “we” refers to people with different ancestors and, as Denis Beckett often says in regard to South Africa, different nursery rhymes from their formative years.
“We” in the liberal state are just those swept together by earlier winds of change, committed to getting our act together. Despite its relative quiet, the liberal state’s anthem is fundamentally humane and far more practical. It is also the best alternative to the Romantic state with its abominable three-way choice of how to deal with those who aren’t in the “we” of “our” ancestral “people” but are in “our” country: repression, expulsion, genocide. To alienate or assimilate, that is our question, to hear “sounds” that “call to come together” within our own anthem or the roar that shakes all apart.
Culture – Identities
The very idea of “Western culture” is dangerously mistaken and should be largely abandoned, says Appiah. First the “West” is unhelpful since it is so difficult to know what it means. Are K-pop fans and Latino Catholics part of the “West”? Is jazz “Western”, or hip-hop, or gospel? And what about kwaito? Frequently our own constitution is called “Western”.
However you square those circles, Appiah’s cultural point is this: just as it is a mistake to think that religion is grounded in belief rather than practice, it is a mistake to think of culture as grounded in ownership rather than participation. Appiah hopes that reasonable people will “resist using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ as an indictment”.
People who complain about cultural appropriation “have allowed one modern regime of [intellectual] property to appropriate them”, probably the only sardonic thing he allows himself to say in the whole book. The key tenet “cultural appropriation” finger-waggers mistakenly absorb is that culture is a form of intellectual property that can be passively owned like cups or Krugerrands or patents gathering dust in a corporate basement. Culture is not like that.
Whatever culture is, it is not generically private or state property and so it is certainly not property one inherits, through common or uncommon ancestry. The “Western culture” storyline stretching from Plato to Nato is often told as a series of deeded wills, passed along through generations. White people inherited this “culture” merely by sharing ancestry with other whites. According to this story, “Western culture” belongs to white people even if they don’t know it or use it, whatever it is. This is another growing idea and it is lazy.
Not just because Aristotle came to Renaissance Europe through centuries of Arabian scholarship. It is lazy because this concept of “Western” culture absurdly renders culture an inert dead thing. This idea is toxic, too, in some guises devolving to a barely sophisticated form of racism; white supremacy.
If one wants to stand up for representative government; judicial robes and suits and ties; the supreme rule of law; executive high heels; capitalist efficiency; bikinis and jockstraps; title deeds and bank accounts; dry red wine; the free press; knives and forks; school sport; Impressionist oil paintings; the waltz; the can-can; the electric guitar; Miles Davis; Christmas carols; the pimp limp; Shakespeare; or laughing through clean straightened teeth, one can do so without invoking the “West”. It may take a little more effort to stand by these modes through personal participation, a little more knowledge and exercise, but that is exactly what brings culture to life.
Just as the great cultural achievements and everyday mores of others do not pass on like inert assets down the generations, Appiah notes that the idea of a cultural debt is bankrupt, too. The story of “Western” culture, here, is usually told as one according to which white people inherited guilt from dead white men by way of the "whiteness" genome across generations. “Original sin” again.
But just as there is no inherited ownership a white person automatically gets of Einstein’s relativity or Bach’s fugues or of how to take high tea; there is also no “white” congenitally inherited ownership of Leopold II or Carl Peters or of some way to walk through the Apartheid Museum. What the state inherits is, of course, another matter, since it has the responsibility of framing the conditions of consumption and production and freedom to choose through its monopoly on legitimate force.
Class – Identities
This is Appiah’s most difficult chapter since he argues both for more and for less class-consciousness and quite severely against "meritocracy". He argues, sounding like Milton Friedman, against a sense of “just desert” when it comes to employment and for affirmative action only when it contributes to ending prejudice. His most radical claim is against the all-out reduction to the value of “merit” on the formula “IQ + effort = merit”.
One’s disposition to work hard and one’s IQ, he claims, must at least partly be a matter of genes and so lie beyond the proper realm of moral responsibility. As such society would do well to remember that it is at least possible to overpraise hard workers and to dispraise the lethargic too harshly. More precisely it is possible to reduce people to a scale, such as money or status, and conclude that this is a scale of human “worth”. Actually no such scale of worth exists.
This is Appiah’s attack on the “work ethic” (an idea that has recently been called “Western” by Stanford historian Niall Ferguson, another mistake by a generally excellent thinker). In any event, congenitally lethargic people can also have decent, profoundly valuable lives, Appiah argues. I think that must be right; some of my favourite people can barely get through the day without smoking a joint or taking a wee nap. It is one of the joys of being a writer that one spends time with such people, including other writers.
Coda – Identity
You have more “identities” than you might think when you’re riled up by a political or cultural moment. In fact, so many identities intersect at the person you call “I” that their sum is inevitably unique. That brings us back to where the term “identity” started, each person with her own. You can stand, to borrow a phrase, at a slight angle to the universe and to some degree you must. Alternatively, the lies that bind choke, and we all fall together.
Gabriel Crouse is an Associate at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).