Are the lies that bind us also undoing bonds that tie us?

Wednesday March 18 2020
Appiah book

Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity. PHOTO | COURTESY


The 21st century was supposed to be the moment when globalisation would finally deliver humanity to the global village, a time when we would all belong to one big world family. Instead, discontentment with globalisation seems to be spreading all over the world unabated. Borders that were thought to have been erased are being redrawn and in some cases closed. Racism is alive and spreading. Ethnic chauvinism is a staple of political differences in many parts of the world. Religious fundamentalism — of all shapes — shadows millions of people globally. And class differences have so widened that as the world apparently grows richer, the poor get poorer. Why?

Because, as Kwame Anthony Appiah argues in his book, The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity (Profile Books, 2018), humanity is so obsessed with creed, country, colour, class and culture at the expense of what else they have in common or how it could live with these ideas as part of their everyday identity. But why is identity — whatever it means — such a contested, convoluted and confusing subject? What exactly does someone mean when they say, “I am a man, I am a Christian, I am a Kenyan, I am a Suba, I am middle class” etc, when in fact these same characteristics are so elastic and their meanings affected by so many other circumstances or dynamics as not to have a fixed and stable meaning? The fact that identity can and does shift all the time explains why Appiah calls its elements ‘lies’ rather than ‘ties’ that bind us.

Consider the question of tribe, nation, political affiliation, religious belief or even the so-called culture in this country. Think about how Kenyans will swear by their tribe. If one says that he is called ‘Onyango’, many Kenyans will by default ‘assume’ that the speaker is Luo. Yet this person could easily be from counties where the Kisii, Marachi, Suba, Samia, Maragoli, Nyala, Teso, etc are the majority and hardly knows a word or Luo, and has no ancestral connection to the Luo. But even if we were to confirm who the person is by ‘tribe’ — as the government of Kenya has insisted over the years — we would still have to deal with the other ‘identities’ that the person carries. What religious group does he affiliate with; what is his level of education; what is his income; and what are his political leanings?

These identity tags, as Appiah demonstrates in The Lies that Bind, could simply be claims, claims that need constant questioning and rethinking. Why is it important to worry about these identities though? Because often they depend on mere labels, and like the tags on goods in the shops, they can be moved or removed and replaced with others, which also implies that they can be used for good as well as evil. Indeed, too many social problems today arise partly from identity tagging. Think of reported cases of many young Kenyans who are arrested, jailed or sometimes simply shot dead because they are thought to be thugs. How so? Because they are unemployed, were found loitering or ‘hanging out’ at a corner of the neighbourhood and run away when approached by the police.

The struggle with and over identity is a global one, however.

Cosmopolitans have always believed that identity differences or similarities can be harnessed to benefit many. They see more good in the tags that individuals carry than the bad in them. Yet they, too, are being overwhelmed by nationalists, separatists, fundamentalists, conservatives etc. There are just too many political parties, religious institutions, social groupings, even governments today which harass, oppress or victimise others simply because of differences — real or imagined. The anti-refugee or anti-migrants feelings and groups in Europe, Asia and America or the religious fundamentalists who preach the elimination of ‘non-believers’ today are not different from those who believed in the past that Africans were lesser human beings or that women were inferior to men.

Many individuals and groups today will invoke exceptionalism to differentiate themselves from others. They will spread innuendo and stereotypes that tag others as belonging to inferior tribe or race, poorer regions, weaker or wrong sex, questionable faith or wrong political convention. Thus, by playing on the identities of tribe or race, class, sex, religion, or nation, these individuals or groups tar others’ very being, making them vulnerable to derision, bullying, physical attack and injury or even killing.

What can individuals and communities do about the (ab) use of identities? This is what Appiah says, “ … the labels we adhere to, the labels that adhere, willy-nilly, to us, work through and in spite of the mistakes that we make about them ….” He notes further that “ … our largest cultural identities can free us only if we recognise that we have to make their meanings together and for ourselves. You do not get to be Western without choosing your way among myriad options, just as you do not get to be Christian or Buddhist, American or Ghanaian, gay or straight, even a man or a woman, without recognising that each of these identities can be lived in more than one way.” Indeed, what a country such as Kenyan needs is to emphasise the plurality of identities.

Thus, instead of waiting for warnings from the National Cohesion and Integration Commission about dire consequences for utterances which demean others, what about more public debate on what our tribes mean in the broader context of the nation? What about making this discussion as open as possible about why socio-economic differences have persisted in Kenya since the colonial era; what to do about the perennial violence at election times and how to hold democratic and peaceful politics; how to address the resistance to gender and ethnic equity despite the law of the land demanding them; and the route to a more tolerant, inclusive and identity-sensitive society?

In the end Appiah advises that it is the job of all human beings to defend the “cosmopolitan impulse that draws on our common humanity” as it “is no longer a luxury; it has become a necessity”. Why? Because, in his opinion, social identities “can make a wider world intelligible, alive and urgent. They can expand our horizons to communities larger than the ones we personally inhabit. And our lives must make sense at the largest of all scales as well. We are denizens of an age in which our actions, in the realm of ideology as in the realm of technology, increasingly have global effects.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]