Lies that bind

A Book Review

American politics are again splintering over race. Donald Trump uses racist code. Lawmakers snipe at each other over identity groupings. Democratic presidential candidates support discredited 1970s-era busing policies.

Things seem to be flying apart.

But perhaps it’s the opposite. Maybe this is a final gasp of identity politics. Instead of being pushed to the poles, perhaps we’re moving to the center, where our differences can become less important.

In “The Lies that Bind,” Kwame Anthony Appiah encourages us to “rethink identity.” For example, he says it’s impossible for an individual to speak for an entire group. “Our identities are multiple and can interact in complicated ways,” he notes.

Modern genetics backs that up. Go back just a few thousand years, and we’re all related to each other. We share more than we’re divided by.

Of course, it’s human nature to want to belong to larger groups. An experiment showed boys at camp dividing themselves into competing groups. “The boys didn’t develop opposing identities because they had different norms; they developed different norms because they had opposing identities,” Appiah writes.

So the current American approach seems sensible: We accept the unchangeable and allow people to group themselves (First Amendment), yet we legally ban discrimination. This seems to be working.

Appiah concludes that identity can be defined as an activity (verb), not as a thing (noun). And activities can change. Not quickly enough for some. But things are moving in a positive direction.

Let’s meet in the middle.

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