Gay, black and white, English, British and Ghanaian are just some of the descriptors that might be applied to Kwame Appiah, and go some way to making him an able guide to the vexed question of identity... Though the book sometimes feels as if delivered from the pulpit (perhaps reflecting its beginnings in Appiah’s Reith lectures in 2016), it is an elegant, philosophical and intimate discourse on identity across such categories as creed, colour, class, culture and country.
But if you are going to read only one book on identity this year, Appiah’s is the one. Not just for the vivid autobiographical details (at university, he couldn’t understand a northern accent, but the northerner could understand him since Appiah sounded “like the radio”). And not just for his lovely images (he describes the beard growth of Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, founder of cultural anthropology, as morphing “from a lustrous Garibaldi to a vast, silvery cumulonimbus that would have made Gandalf jealous”)....
Writing with graceful informality and often citing his own experiences, he argues that all of them embody a single error – that of “supposing that at the core of each identity there is some deep similarity that binds people of that identity together.
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. . . I am sympathetic to Appiah’s claim that unambiguous identities are illusions. But when they are widely accepted, illusions become social facts – and they can be very powerful. He tells us that some of the 20th century’s worst crimes “were perpetrated in the name of one people against another with the aim of securing a homogeneous nation”. No doubt this is so, but it is enormously oversimplified.
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Appiah announces at the start that he “won’t offer an explanation of why identity talk has exploded in my lifetime – a fascinating question, but one for intellectual and social historians”. But if anti-essentialism can’t help explain the present, what is the point of writing a book about it now?
Appiah does occasionally get stuck in, and to good effect... Had the book contained a little bit more in this vein, it might have constituted a more potent response to these toxic times... This volume has thematic unity going for it, but in other respects it is hamstrung... These pieces chug along at a leisurely trundle and only rarely move up from second gear. They may well have made for edifying listening but, collated here in book form, they are less than the sum of their parts. The Lies That Bind is a wise and erudite introduction to this most vexed of subjects, and Appiah’s core message - that “culture is messy and muddled, not pristine and pure” - is truly timely. But there will be better, more incisive books written about culture and identity this year.