Human identity in an age of uncertainty

November 2016

This year’s Reith lecturer, Kwame Antony Appiah, reflected on shared identity and the common issues that distort our understanding of one another in a way that seems more relevant than ever in today’s uncertain world. Speaking at the British Council in Ghana, as well as in London, Glasgow and New York, he has addressed Creed, Country, Colour and Culture as determinants – or fallacies – in our understanding of identity.

This year’s Reith lectures were delivered by Kwame Anthony Appiah: philosopher, polymath and man of many world cultures. One of the lectures was given at the British Council in Accra, the capital of Ghana, the land of Appiah’s birth and of his father’s family. His mother, on the other hand, came from England, the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps. Having studied and taught across the world, Appiah is extraordinarily well placed to reflect on identity and values. His lectures, entitled Mistaken Identities, deal with four areas of fallacy in the consideration of identity: Creed, Country, Colour and Culture. Appiah was not just speaking at the British Council. He was looking at some of the core questions that concern the British Council and other organisations around the world who are in the business of international cultural relations and who strive the keep the global conversation going during good times and bad. 

Mistaken Identities

First he addressed religion, stressing the very modern way in which creed – what we believe – has been elevated over practice – what we do – and community – who we do it with. For much of human history this triad has shaped religion fairly equally. What Appiah does is to reinterpret very effectively the centrality of belief to identity: “religion is not,” he says, “in the first instance a matter of belief.” It is a matter of belonging, in many dimensions, and “abstract beliefs mean very little if you lack a direct relationship to traditions of practice, conventions of interpretation, and communities of worship.” He sets about what he calls ‘scriptural determinism,’ the uncritical supposition that religious texts have single, non-negotiable and timeless meanings; and its modern offspring, the exclusivity of statements like: “those people [are] not really Muslims or really Buddhists or Christians.” He stresses the interactivity of religious texts and their readers, the open-ness and constantly changing meaning that “is not a bug but a feature.” Religion is a part of culture, a bundle of behaviours full of plastic meaning, but not exclusive. He talks of his own father, a Methodist cathedral elder, who cheerfully poured libations of whisky to his ancestors, and quotes with approval Philo of Alexandria as saying, “to be loyal to your god, you need not revile the gods of others.”

The idea of national sovereignty remains a profound source of legitimacy, however obscure and unstable our definition of a people

Appiah’s second lecture takes nationalism, and deconstructs the sheer artificiality of the modern categories that we take for granted. Using Italo Svevo, the German-Italian-Triestine polyglot Jew as his token, he examines the fragility and the johnnie-come-lately novelty of the concept of the nation, creation as it is of nineteenth century Romantics. He shows Hegel’s contention that “A people without state-formation … has no real history” to be an odd piece of category-blindness. For most of human history people and state have coincided poorly, if at all, and even the aggressively pursued commonalty of language is in many states, including France, a very recent achievement. Nevertheless, he suggests that “the idea of national sovereignty remains a profound source of legitimacy, however obscure and unstable our definition of a people,” and the agility with which statesmen shift their principles – from supporting Kosovan to condemning Crimean secession for example – he compares to “cricket teams switching sides at the end of an innings.” Gently, he looks at the way nations are made, commenting beautifully that “for my father … national consciousness wasn’t a mineral to be excavated, like bauxite; it was a fabric to be woven, like kente.” The implications of his analysis point at the fragility of the sense of nationhood in liberal democracies which must undergo what Renan called “the daily plebiscite” of national existence.

In Accra the lecture concerns Colour. Once again Appiah takes a category and demonstrates its artificiality, using as his touchstone a fascinating figure, Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer, a boy from the late seventeenth century Gold Coast who became a protégé of Leibniz and a eventually a brilliant professor at the universities of Halle and Jena, before returning to Africa in old age. Amo straddled the invention of race, beginning his European career when it was far from the first category of understanding difference; and ending it just as notions of biological difference began to take hold, replacing older, biblical understandings of humanity based on Adam and Noah. Slavery was clearly a powerful motor to revisionism in this area: “People have slandered Negroes,” in the words of the Abbé Grégoire, “first in order to have the right to enslave them, and then to justify themselves for having enslaved them.” The ‘racial fixation,’ the bizarre supposition that race is the determinant of all that is essential and formative in people, has long survived the science that underpinned it. Appiah shows how it became important and how it has survived in different forms and under different labels, to continue shaping malign political debate in more than one country – as well as demonstrating what nonsense it is.

Culture: Greatest of Bugbears

The last lecture is on culture, greatest of all bugbears. Starting from the very different definitions of culture framed by Matthew Arnold and Henry Christy, the one prescriptive and high-handedly asserting its own pedigree of all that is best in human history and thought; the other descriptive, wry and (mostly) un-judgemental, he explores ideas of ‘Western culture,’ and indeed ‘the West.’ He sees both as being defined in all their different incarnations by the dynamic of conflict which gives rise to binary understandings of the world – Europe, Christendom, the West. These binary understandings are self-focussed distortions of history, ignoring the extraordinary and omnivorous cross-fertilisation of cultural and intellectual traditions that have shaped our world. He dismisses the idea of strong cultural continuity through time, stressing how in effect each generation re-invents itself and its culture: culture is all-embracing and hungry, a personal library that contains many items that each of us hasn’t borrowed as well as many that we have. He ends by addressing the need for constant curation of culture and values; “Values aren’t birthright: you need to keep caring about them.” In fact they only exist because we do – and on that fragile thread we all hang.

Each generation inherits the label from an earlier one; and in each generation the label comes with a legacy. But as the legacies are lost or exchanged for other treasures, the labels keep moving on.

 

These four incisive takes on identity, try with success to detach us from the platitudes of difference, playing down the inevitability of inheritance, and stressing the active role each person plays in defining and sustaining collective identities. As such they, offer both hope and food for thought for anyone concerned with the relationship between peoples of different countries, cultures, colours, and creeds. 

 “As time rolls on, each generation inherits the label from an earlier one; and in each generation the label comes with a legacy. But as the legacies are lost or exchanged for other treasures, the labels keep moving on.”

 

 Martin Rose, Insight Guest Editor, British Council

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s lectures are available from the BBC as podcasts: Creed, Colour, Country and Culture.