Tuesday, October 18, 2016

For World Socialism

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says race and nationality are social inventions being used to cause deadly divisions.

“Whether it’s these current stories of essential Britishness, stories of times of essential Hinduness in India, or tales of a pure Islamic state, they are all profoundly unfaithful to historic fact,” he says. “Nationality, religion, both have always been fluid and evolving, that’s how they have survived.”

Society still largely operates under the misapprehension that race (largely defined by skin colour) has some basis in biology. There is a perpetuating idea that black-skinned or white-skinned people across the world share a similar set of genes that set the two races apart, even across continents. In short, it’s what Appiah calls “total twaddle”.

“The way that we talk about race today is just incoherent,” he says. “The thing about race is that it is a form of identity that is meant to apply across the world, everybody is supposed to have one – you’re black or you’re white or you’re Asian – and it’s supposed to be significant for you, whoever and wherever you are. But biologically that’s nonsense.” He further explains, “If you try to say what the whiteness of a white person or the blackness of a black person actually means in scientific terms, there’s almost nothing you can say that is true or even remotely plausible. Yet socially, we use these things all the time as if there’s a solidity to them.”

It’s not new information, but for Appiah it is essential to voice it. Appiah is at pains to point out that, while society has made race and colour a significant part of how we identify ourselves, particularly in places such as the UK and US, it is an invented idea to which we cling irrationally.

Appiah explores the notion that two black-skinned people may share similar genes for skin colour, but a white-skinned person and a black-skinned person may share a similar gene that makes them brilliant at playing the piano. So why, he asks, have we decided that one is the core of our identity and the other is a lesser trait?

“How race works is actually pretty local and specific; what it means to be black in New York is completely different from what it means to be black in Accra, or even in London,” he explains. “And yet people believe it means roughly the same thing everywhere. Race does nothing for us. I do think that in the long run if everybody grasped the facts about the relevant biology and the social facts, they’d have to treat race in a different way and stop using it to define each.”

At a time when the world continues to divide itself along racial lines and where, in the US, “being put in that black box means you tend to get treated worse and are more likely to get shot by a police officer”, getting people to understand race as a social invention could, in Appiah’s view, save lives.

He is adamant that identity is not “just a philosopher’s fuss” and that the world bears the scars of endless crusades fought to protect it. “Mistakes about race were at the heart of the Rwandan genocide; the invasion of Iraq in 2001 was shaped by American nationalism and chauvinism about Muslims; nationality is clearly stopping us doing our part in dealing with things such as the refugee crisis, because we feel like it will threaten our own identity,” says Appiah. “This crisis that we are facing now is rooted in these moral and intellectual confusions about identity. And it is very costly to keep making these mistakes.”

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