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Lies, ‘Practical’ Essentialism and the Contradictions of Meritocracy: An Interview with Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah Part I

                                                                                                         Image (c) NYU

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah is a much-feted, interdisciplinary public intellectual. Initially coming to prominence in the field of philosophy and ethics, he has held positions in several of the Ivy league universities in his adopted home of the US. He’s currently professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University and has a regular column, The Ethicist, in The New York Times.

Born in London to a Ghanaian father and English mother, Appiah divided his childhood between the former Gold Coast and the UK. His father was a relative of the Asante king and his maternal grandfather was the Chancellor of Exchequer under Clement Attlee’s transformative post-war Labour government.

Prof. Appiah’s acclaimed 2018 book, The Lies that Bind, examines – and problematises – some of the many intersecting strands of which individual and collective identities are apparently formed, within the context of ever fraught socio-political relations.

In June 2024, Prof. Appiah gave the inaugural speech for the Ties That Bind Us lecture series, organised by several research groups at the faculty of arts and humanities at Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB) as part of the university’s public programme, in collaboration with Pépite Blues Afro-bookshop. caught up with Prof. Appiah ahead of his address. In Part I of a two-part interview, he discusses his academic journey from medical student to sought-after public thinker, the deceptions of meritocracy, building solidarity, why he wouldn’t define himself as Afropean, and the situations in which he believes being essentialist can be the pragmatic option.

AP: What was it that motivated you to make the switch from studying medical sciences to philosophy? There seems to have been a digression by way of theology and religious thought

KAA: I was sick a lot when I was a child and I liked my doctor, which gave me the idea to become one when I was about eight. My parents were happy with that. By early high school, I was part of a group of evangelical Christians, although we were not right wing. We read a lot of theology – which is hard to do without getting interested in philosophy – but it didn’t occur to me to stop my plans of being a doctor. However, when I arrived at university I really didn’t enjoy medical sciences. Everything was wrong with it. You had to get up early to go to the labs and it was taught in a very stultifying way. Pretty early on I asked my university if I could switch. The philosophy don gave me some books to read over the summer and said that if I enjoyed it, I could. And so I did. It was the right thing to do. You shouldn’t spend time on things that don’t really interest you.

AP: A sliding doors moment. What would have happened if you continued medicine?

KAA: I suppose I could have ended up being a doctor in Ghana, where medics are more useful than in England. It just seemed like [philosophy] was the right choice. At some point, I went back to Cambridge to do a PhD. Once again, it wasn’t a life decision in the sense that I thought I’d be a philosopher. While I’d been an undergrad, I made friends with an African-American who’s now my best friend. He went back to Yale – where he was working in the English faculty– and invited me to visit. I’d never been to the US at that point. I had a great time.

The African-American studies department had just started a master’s programme and so I sat in on some of the courses. I wrote a dissertation on African-American history which got me a fellowship at my college in Cambridge. As that was finishing, Yale advertised a job in African-American Studies and Philosophy. I applied for it successfully. That was the point where I realised that I would be an academic. At Yale, I had the chance to work with very clever people beyond the discipline of Philosophy; professors of Sociology, History, Political Science, English and Art History. It kept me broad and that was great because philosophers can be very turned in on themselves.

AP: It’s good that you kept your horizons open.

KAA: I tell my students that it’s not good to have too settled an idea of what you’re going to do. You should see what the best options are as they come along.

AP: You’re giving an inaugural lecture for the VUB/CLIC Research Group’s Ties that Bind Us series. Closely connected to CLIC is the MERLIT research programme. This takes a critical analysis approach to meritocracy as a concept, exploring how it emerges in Anglophone literatures and cultures over time, including African and diaspora contexts. You also have been rightly critical of the fallacies of meritocracy and the inequalities and stratification it engenders. However, in The Lies that Bind, it appears you do not see the overhaul of hierarchies altogether as a worthy endeavour. Or do you simply think it’s unrealistic?

KAA: I’m not opposed to hierarchies as such. It’s suitable for teachers to be in charge of classrooms as opposed to students. It’s suitable for generals to be in charge of armies and not privates. We need political leaders whom we elect but then we should defer to them in reasonable ways. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with hierarchies. Of course, the traditional hierarchies have been the wrong kind. They’ve been on the basis of birth. My main objection to that is that there are better ways of putting people in positions of responsibility. Now, there are many activities where you don’t need hierarchy and so in those contexts, it’s inappropriate and wrong.

The meritocratic idea is that you pick the people who have demonstrated that they are best able to do the job. There are nevertheless some things wrong with actual meritocracy. First, a lot of even meritocratic ways of assigning status, assign too much of it. It’s already a privilege to have that kind of authority and status so you don’t have to add more. The judge is entitled to my respect in the courtroom but I don’t have to kowtow to her on the street. I think these hierarchies should be narrowly tailored; domain, talent and qualification-specific.

The other thing is, in the contemporary world, access to the signs of merit is not fairly distributed. If you’re going to have unequal positions, you have to justify departures from inequality. I agree with the basic egalitarian impulse of John Rawls’ liberalism here, in particular. The default should be equality.

What we’ve done in most countries – I can’t think of an exception, although the details are different – is to allow some class of persons to capture access to these special opportunities for their kids. Departures from inequality need to be justified as fair and if the system is skewed, then it’s not fair. A properly constructed meritocracy will have task-specific hierarchies and we would honour people who do good things.

AP: Do you mean morally good?

KAA: Not necessarily. If you care about tennis, you’ll admire Serena Williams. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense if you don’t care who’s better or worse at it. It’s certainly true that if people are doing morally superior or politically important things, that can be supported by honouring them. Not to crawl before them but to treat them with signs of respect. That is natural and useful. One of the things that incentivises people to do well is the fact they’ll be recognised and respected for it. There are these two great economies; money and esteem. They’re both important and useful for mobilising people to do good things. They’re both currently used in ways that motivate people to do bad things, so we need to pay attention.

AP: In the biography on your website, there’s a strong sense of pride in yours and your family’s wanderlust. How does the dispersed nature of your familial ties impact your notion of home?

KAA: I have an enormously privileged background. Both my mother and father’s families chose to be very open to us. Not every English family is like that with a brown relative. And of course, they were also very privileged, ruling class people. I thought of the house my parents built in Kumasi as home until I was at university, even though I attended school in England. My grandmother’s house in England was also home, in the sense that I could go there any time I chose and she was welcoming. [In that period], if you’d asked me where my home was, I’d have said Kumasi but I felt at home in my grandmother’s place completely. She was wonderful. I think my mother’s home was definitely her house in Kumasi. She was British but she spoke and wrote Twi and was much loved and very close to lots of people.

If you ask me where my home is now, I’d be a bit divided. I have an apartment in New York and a farm in New Jersey. If I had to give one up, it would be the farm. I think New York is my home and I plan to die there and work there until then [laughs]. It’s where most of my professional life now is. My husband is there and he also grew up in New York state. I don’t feel deracinated because none of my relatives still live in Ghana anymore. New York is a place that makes it easy for those born elsewhere to ‘come home’. You can become a New Yorker.

I think people can have all kinds of relationship to home. It’s not that I don’t understand people who don’t feel at home anywhere. There’s no reason to tie yourself to a geography. There are lots of other things to attach yourself to. You could attach yourself to a family that is distributed. That’s what a lot of Diasporic life is like; African, Chinese, Jewish…people are associated with many places.

I do feel at home in the US. I could have ended up in parts of America where I’d feel like a foreigner forever. [But New York] is a place full of people who came from somewhere else and they’re allowed to say it’s their city. This is different from much of Europe. The natives feel territorial and that they have a right to be there because their ancestors were. That might be a myth. There have always been waves of migration in and around Europe. The idea of being français-e de souche, for example; the real French, German etc. If anyone has that standing in the US it would be the Native Americans, and so everybody else has to admit they’re not that.

AP: You say that ‘most identities involve a form of practical essentialism’. Would you say there are instances where essentialism can be positive, even necessary, to identity formation or otherwise?

KAA: That’s why I wrote a book called The Lies that Bind! One of those lies is a certain kind of essentialism; imagining that all the ‘X’s are the same and they’re different from all the ‘Y’s. However, especially with larger ethno-racial identities, there’s enormous heterogeneity within them. For practical purposes, maybe some essentialism is okay. Put it this way: if people are able to organise some common activity around an idea and that’s a simplification of reality, it’s a bit silly of you to come and say ‘Oh, it’s more complicated than that’. They don’t need the complications to do what they’re doing.

Let’s say there are African-Americans building a church in Ghana. All they need to be is black for that purpose. They don’t need some complicated theory of blackness. You’re just annoying and pedantic if you fuss about that. If somebody claims something is untrue, it’s always appropriate to ask ‘does it matter in this context?’. I’m really committed to that. In practice, what matters is the message people get.

Now, the difficulty with the essentialism of many identities is that if you think you have many things in common already, you might not do the work to build solidarity. You might just assume ‘we’re all black, so it’s fine’. That’s not going to work because solidarity always has to be built. There are all these essentialising ideas about diverse Africans. If the issue is how we vote in the UN, then maybe all that matters is that we are Africans and we’re all on one continent with shared ecological interests.

On the one hand, if you’re intellectual, you want to get it right but for practical purposes, you just want to get it right enough. It’s only when the simplification is getting in the way that we need to point it out.

AP: In light of this and given your own culturally fluid background, what are your feelings about self-identifiers such as Afro-European or Afropean? The latter has its detractors, for instance

KAA: I haven’t thought about that term ‘Afropean’, in particular. It wasn’t one that was around when I was growing up. It wouldn’t help me very much…People used to describe my sisters and I as mixed-race. I don’t mind that but I don’t think it was an identity for us. I honestly never found European a terrifically useful identity category for me, either. Britain is an island off the west of the European continent and it’s always had its differences. One could say the same going north or south or west in Europe.

Again, this is the anti-essentialist point. There’s nothing that guarantees a European will be a Christian or scientifically-minded… There are all these things people think of as European that lots of Europeans don’t subscribe to. In any case, maybe it’s possible for white British people to be accepted as European but if you’re Black British, it’s too long a conversation to say to a German, ‘well, I’m really European like you’. I thought of myself as Anglo-Ghanaian but there are also lots of problems with that. It’s a label I would use to indicate that I have these two roots to my identity. I don’t think you could understand me being Ghanaian if you didn’t realise I was partly English and vice versa.

I’m English in a different way from a lot of people and I’m Ghanaian in a different way from a lot of people. It wasn’t as if I was out in the world looking for Anglo-Ghanaians to engage in solidarity with. On a whole, my African solidarity has been through family. That means Nigeria, Namibia and Ghana as that’s where my extended family is. I don’t feel fully engaged with either Ghana or England anymore.

Read Part II

An abridged version of this interview also appears on the MERLIT website. 

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