An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2006

The politics of identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1995, is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His publications include “Assertion and Conditionals” (1985), “In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture” (1992), “The Ethics of Identity” (2005), and, most recently, “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” (2006).

I am never quite sure what people mean when they talk about ‘identity politics.’ Usually, though, they bring it up to complain about someone else. One’s own political preoccupations are just, well, politics. Identity politics is what other people do.

Here’s one example: When someone in France suggested gay marriage was a good idea, many French people complained that this was just another instance of American-style identity politics. (In France, as you know, ‘American-style’ is en effet a synonym for ‘bad.’) ‘Why should les gays insist on special treatment?’ So the French legislature created the Pacte Civil de Solidarité (PACS), whose point is exactly that marriage is open to any two citizens. ‘Much better,’ those people said. ‘Sexuality has nothing to do with the government.’ You might wonder how someone who said that could think that civil marriage should not be open to gays. Isn’t that straight identity politics?

In short, I think that what Sir John Harrington so sagely said of treason is largely true of identity politics: it never seems to prosper only because it has largely won the political stage. But I think there is a way of explaining why identity matters. ‘Identity’ may not be the best word for bringing together the roles gender, class, race, nationality, and so on play in our lives, but it is the one we use. One problem with ‘identity’: it can suggest that everyone of a certain identity is in some strong sense idem, i.e., the same, when, in fact, most groups are internally quite heterogeneous, partly because each of us has many identities. The right response to this problem is just to be aware of the risk.

But another difficulty with social identity is that the very diversity of that list can leave you wondering whether all these identities have anything interesting in common. What did it mean when I added ‘and so on’ just now to a list that ran from gender to nationality?1 Well, you can only answer that sort of question by proposing a theory of identity.

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  • 1I’m reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’s famous example of a list he claimed to have found in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia. It begins: “(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, . . . ” and ends with “(n) those that resemble flies from a distance.” What would it mean to add ‘and so on’ here?
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