Recap: Author and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah at Vanderbilt’s Annual Lawson Lecture


Udit Malik

On September 29th, Vanderbilt University held the 13th Annual Lawson Lecture, featuring guest speaker Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah. Named after Reverend James Lawson, a non-violent activist who was expelled from Vanderbilt during the Civil Rights Movement and invited back to the university in 2006, the Lawson Lecture focuses on issues of diversity and inclusion. 

Drawing on his expertise as a professor of law and philosophy at NYU, and as the acclaimed author of “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, ” Dr. Appiah gave a lecture titled “Identity at home and in the wider world” to an enthusiastic crowd in Langford Auditorium.

Dr. Appiah began his talk with an introduction to his identity, discussing how being a brown-skinned man with a British accent has led to strangers asking him curious questions about his ethnicity. Dr. Appiah synthesized his theory of identity into three central tenets. First, every identity is associated with labels, and people need some notions about why and to whom the labels should be applied. Secondly, identity shapes our thoughts and behavior, helping us feel solidarity with a social group. Thirdly, identity affects how others treat us, and defines hierarchies of status and class.

He then talked about human prejudices, which stem from humans being more likely to accept generic sentences as true if they involves a reason for worry, citing the vicious cycle of belief that Islam and terrorism are connected. Switching to the issue of class segregation, he insisted that the vast majority of humanity is not exceptional at anything, but must realize that treating this apparent mediocrity as a reason for dejection would be ethically erroneous. Identities are affected by capacities, circumstances, and challenges unique to us, and the goal, therefore, should be striving for personal perfection instead of objective perfection.

Dr. Appiah also addressed the impact of political identity, and how partisanship now precedes ideology, giving the example of a lifelong Republican who held an anti-Russia stance, but was recently seen holding a sign which read “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.” Appiah argued that party identification isn’t an opinion anymore, but an identity, to the extent that even in a progressive society where interracial marriages are becoming normal even in conservative households, around 30-60% of adults today strongly prefer marrying someone in their political party. A recent survey he cited failed to predict people’s ideologies by asking how they felt about issues affecting America; instead, their opinions on political identities (like liberals and conservatives) fared much more effective.

He ended the lecture with a clip from the British comedy-drama series Skins, where Anwar, a Muslim teenager, is scared of introducing his gay friend, Maxxie, to his father. Anwar’s father, however, puts his beliefs aside to invite Maxxie for dinner, admitting that he doesn’t understand many things but trusts his God to explain them to him someday. Dr. Appiah insisted that conversation, thus, can generate commitments of togetherness that transcend even serious disagreements. This “contact hypothesis,” according to Appiah, can reduce prejudices by a large extent if opposing groups come together to pursue activities with a shared goal in conditions of mutual dependency.

In the open Q&A session, Dr. Appiah responded to queries about the possibility of living without identity, and reconciling individuality with collectivism. He talked about the role of identity groups in social organization which connects us to strangers simply through a shared construct like nationality, gender etc. He presented two choices to make an identity distinctive: to reject it completely, or modulate it with dimensions like things we choose to pursue. One student, controversially, spoke about his strong religious beliefs and called out homosexuality as a sin. Dr. Appiah gave a calm, collected response about respecting beliefs and being compassionate, which ended the evening with a standing ovation from the student body.