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Kwame Anthony Appiah Examines Our Multiple Identities

 September 13, 2019  Michael Bettencourt

Noted Scholar and Ethicist Believes We Should All Be Citizens of the World

On Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, Kwame Anthony Appiah, the noted scholar, teacher and ethicist for the New York Times Magazine, spoke to an audience of close to 200 students, faculty and staff about “Managing Our Multiple Identities,” a subject he explores in his most recent book, The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity, and which, in one manner or another, he has studied throughout his entire professional career.

The presentation was sponsored by the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs (Dr. Ronnie Perelis, director) and the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program (Dr. Cynthia Wachtell, director).

Appiah began laying out his theory of human identity by speaking about himself, the child of a British mother and a Ghanaian father, a brown-skinned man with what he described as a “vaguely British accent” who is happily married to his husband. Just as his identity is shaped by this mix of gender, creed, country, color, class and culture, so is the identity of everyone in the audience.

And these elements of identity do not stay still. At one point in a person’s life, one element may be in ascendance, but as time passes, others may become more prominent. In addition, the meaning assigned to these elements changes as well: “All these dimensions of identity are contestable,” he noted, “always up for dispute.”

Thus, a person’s identity, the sense of who he or she is in the world, is not a settled matter but one always available to change and reform.

Kwame Anthony Appiah at lectern

But why, Appiah mused, does any of this matter? Because our survival as a species depends upon a deeper and better understanding of ourselves.

As he says in The Lies that Bind, “Much of our contemporary thinking about identity is shaped by pictures that are in various ways unhelpful or just plain wrong.” These legacies of thinking took their modern shape in the nineteenth century, and “it is high time to subject them to the best thinking of the twenty-first.” Appiah believes that “much of what is dangerous about [these legacies] has to do with the way religion, nation, race, class, and culture can be the enemies of human solidarity,” the “horsemen of a score of apocalypses from apartheid to genocide. We need to reform them because, at their best, they make it possible for groups, large and small, to do things together.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah speaks with Stern College students
Kwame Anthony Appiah speaks with Stern College students

In the end, he stated, the challenge to the human species at this particular moment in its history of division, partisanship, distrust and violence is to find a middle way that encourages us to secure for everyone “the rights enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while caring for our own tribes and their common projects.”

For Appiah, this middle way is called “cosmopolitanism,” which he defines as “a spirit of global citizenship” predicated on a common humanity. “We live with over 7 billion humans on a small, warming planet. The cosmopolitan impulse that draws on our common humanity is no longer a luxury; it has become a necessity. If you want to protect the world, it helps to see yourself as a citizen of the world.”

He ended by quoting the words of Publius Terentius Afer, stated over two millennia ago: “I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.” “Now there’s an identity,” Appiah said with a smile, “that can bind us all.”

 

(l-r): Cynthia Wachtell, Kwame Appiah, Selma Botman, Ronnie Perelis
(l-r): Cynthia Wachtell, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Selma Botman, Ronnie Perelis

Noam Stillman at YU

Prof. Stillman with Prof. Ronnie Perelis and Prof. Richard Hidary
Prof. Stillman with Students at SCW
Prof. Stillman with Students at SCW

This past week the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program in International Relations hosted the world-renowned scholar Norman Noam Stillman to Stern College. Prof. Stillman drew on his decades of research into the Jews of the Islamic World to discuss the complex socio-economic and geo-political forces that set the stage for the unique culture that the Sephardim developed in the medieval period. He discussed the interconnectedness of the wider Islamic world, the free-flowing trade networks and their impact on Jewish society. He also brought a meta-historical approach to the topic by exploring the ways that the history of Medieval Spain often gets romanticized by modern scholars and lay people alike. He argued that this romanticization obscures the real brilliance of the culture and the complex realities of life during the medieval period . Stillman also analyzed the way this past is utilized for ideological polemics about contemporary culture and politics.

Prof. Stillman’s talk was part of the Diasporas project at the Schneier Program