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By Why Is This Happening?

There’s a reason we keep revisiting identity on WITHpod. From Brittney Cooper to Alex Wagner to Michael Tesler to Amy Chua and on, it’s a topic worth circling back to because it’s one of the most fundamental axes of conflict in our society today. Identities themselves are as old as we as a species are, but the concept of identity is relatively recent.

Our ideas of identities are shifting and changing the more we learn about others. And sometimes, it can take full on social movements, protests, riots and bloodshed for new identities to become part of the conversation. Why is that? What do we mean when we say something is an "identity," or talk about "identity politics"? We take a step back with Kwame Anthony Appiah to examine the origins of the identities we use to define ourselves — and why it might be time to rethink our ideas of who we are.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: The task is to make a world that works for everybody. And that means everybody has to be willing to give something up. It's true. However, and this is a point that, you know, Frederick Douglas made in the 19th century, mostly these things don't get conceded without a fight.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, listener, I don't know when you will be listening to this, so I always try not to peg these intros too tightly to the news of the week. We want these to endure forever, we want them to be found by the future alien civilization that comes and conquers and inhabits our desiccated earth after we rendered the planet uninhabitable, the subject of our last WITHpod.

CHRIS HAYES: But if you are listening to this, this week, there was a big contretemps in Washington over comments made by Ilhan Omar, freshman Representative from Minnesota, one of two Muslim women who serve in the United States Congress, the first two Muslim women. Also a refugee from Somalia by way of Kenya, about Israel and sort of the forces that lobby on behalf of the U.S./Israel relationship and the allegiance they demand, in her words, and those comments were criticized for playing into anti-Semitic myths about dual loyalty and Jewish control. Which have been longstanding through millennia, really, for members of the Jewish diaspora in various countries and civilizations throughout time.

CHRIS HAYES: And then there was a big debate about the backlash to her and how disproportionate it seemed. And one of the things I kept noticing, it was just, there are these kinds of issues that will come in through the news. The last one that was like this was the, again, if you're reading ... If you're listening in the future, you're going to be like, "What are you talking about?"

CHRIS HAYES: But the last one of these was these was the Covington Catholic school boys, those were the Catholic school boys in MAGA hats who are on the National Mall, and then a Native American elder was there for a protest, banging on a drum, and there was an encounter. There were also black Israelites thrown in, it was really ... And, that also had all kinds of controversy and people weighing in and all different directions.

CHRIS HAYES: And what was sort of similar about both of those controversies, not in what the actual substance is, which I'm talking around for a purpose here, is the way that they just grabbed something visceral and deep in people, that made them want to talk about it and fight about it. Like there's all kinds of political issues that ... Things that happened in the news.

CHRIS HAYES: And then there's the certain things that you see, and you see it when you do my job, which is to process the news every day, along with our staff, you know, reading Twitter, reading the internet, going through our notes. There are these stories that just like ... They blow up, they get people's cheeks flushed, they have people arguing in bars and over the dinner table. Not all stories are like that, but some stories are.

CHRIS HAYES: And the ones that are, I'm thinking about the 2008 Democratic primary, which is now a distant memory, but oh my god, the fights that people were having about Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama. And about the obstacles that a black man was facing and that a white woman was facing and the visceral sense that people had about unfairness and obstacles and bigotry was so intense. And, all of this by way of saying that the stuff that gets us that way, is stuff that revolves around identity. Those are the fights we have, and the country's in the midst of a kind of prolonged fight about its identity. Who we are, how we think of ourselves, how we identify, and that's where the stuff of culture and politics come crashing down together. It's where the most basic ways we form ourselves in relation to the social world come into play. It gets to the deepest part of our human humanness, our core, our psyche, our social existence, is who we are, how we think of ourselves, how other people see and perceive us, the ways in which how we manifest in the world limit what we can do. If we manifest in certain ways, whether through gender, race, ethnicity.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton exchange words during a debate in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 21, 2008.Deborah Cannon / AP

CHRIS HAYES: And, underneath all that is this concept that we kind of take for granted, which is identity. We've talked about identity a lot on the show and we've talked about how it's amorphous in a porous concept and how it's constructed, how it changes over time, how it's boundaries are enforced or not enforced at different times.

CHRIS HAYES: Today we have, I think, one of the best conversations we've had on this topic and the reason I think it's so good is the person who wrote about it is one of the most brilliant philosophers in the English-speaking world. He's an intellectual hero of mine. He's a just brilliant and beautiful moral thinker. He's a brilliant and beautiful writer. He writes with clarity, erudition and wit. His name is Kwame Anthony Appiah. He is the author of a new book called "The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity." Which is a book length treatment on what exactly do we mean by that word? The word that is the first word in the phrase identity politics. The word that hangs over a lot of our political clashes. Like what actually is the category? What is the category? What are the sub components of the category? And how do we make those categories? And how do we unmake those categories?

CHRIS HAYES: Part of the reason that his thinking about this is so textured and challenging is that he, again, is one of the foremost philosophers in the English language that exists in the world, and also is a man of many identities who, as you will hear, has a sort of incredibly unique life story. One foot in one world, one foot in another, has traveled through very ... Totally different circles. I guess, the one way to summarize is that he's a black gay man who speaks the Queen's English. I think is one way that he describes himself, at one point in his book.

CHRIS HAYES: And, what he does, and this is, I think, probably the second time we've done a WITHpod that was really fundamentally one about philosophy. The first one I think was with David Roberts where he talked about epistemology. He just does this basic thing that you do in philosophy that I loved doing when I was an undergraduate and I love encountering now as a reader, is to take a concept, identity, and just start playing with it, troubling it, poking it. What is it? What do we mean? What does the word mean? And how do we make sense of it? And this is a book-length investigation into that and as he shakes it, more and more truths fall out. More and more insight fallout. You go deeper and deeper into seeing the world in a different way. It is a great, tremendous honor and joy to be able to talk to Kwame Anthony Appiah.

CHRIS HAYES: You were born in England?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I was born in England because my Ghanaian father was a law student, at the time, but I have three sisters who were all born in Ghana because we went home to Ghana when I was one and a bit.

CHRIS HAYES: And your father came to England to study and met your mom?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. He came to England to study law and ... But mostly what he was doing for much of the time he was in England was campaigning for Ghanaian independence. And, by the time he met my mother, he was representing Kwame Nkrumah who was to be the first prime minister and president of Ghana. And he met her because she worked for an organization called Racial Unity, whose object was to look after, basically, students of color from around, what was then, the British Empire in London. And he was president of the West African Students Union, so they met that way.

CHRIS HAYES: That's an amazing story.

CHRIS HAYES: And your mother is English? And quite.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Quite English, yes.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean in the-

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: She's very English. In fact, the other day somebody sent me a link to something on, on YouTube of my parents being interviewed in the 1950s, I think.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: You know, obviously you don't think of your mother as having an accent, but I hadn't ... My mother died a while ago and I haven't sort of listened to her for a while. And the thing that most struck me about this conversation, apart from the fact that they were saying remarkably progressive things for people in the 1950s, or '60s, was that my mother sounded exactly like the queen. She had that very upper class. I hadn't ... I had sort of forgotten that she had a very upper class accent.

CHRIS HAYES: And her people, you write in the book about how they had basically been in the town they were in for 800 years?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. In that area. I mean, she was born within, I dunno, 20, 30 miles of one of her 12th-century ancestors, let's put it that way.

CHRIS HAYES: That's really wild.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I mean, of course people, I mean some people, traveled out a little bit in various directions, and my father's family had probably been in Kumasi, where he grew up, for several hundred years at that point. So they were from people who were sort of solidly at one place and then suddenly-

CHRIS HAYES: Radicals.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: They marry people from thousands of miles apart.

CHRIS HAYES: And move back to Ghana, which is where your childhood was?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: My childhood was in Ghana, my mother moved to Ghana and that was her home until she died.

CHRIS HAYES: And then you come back to the U.K. for your prep school, is that right?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. It was a bit of politics here. My father, having represented Nkrumah, then joined the opposition in Parliament.

CHRIS HAYES: That must have been something.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. I mean they stopped being friends, at that point. And so much did they stop being friends that my father ended up as a political prisoner, and in fact, he was one of the first amnesty prisoners of conscience, because Amnesty International was founded the year my father was locked up by the president. And the first amnesty mission was to Ghana.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: But as a result of that, because I was pretty ill at the time, my mother packed me off to my English grandmother just to so that she could focus on being a prisoner's wife, as it were.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait a second. Your father joined ... He joins the opposition.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: He is imprisoned.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: For joining the opposition.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Well, no, he's imprisoned ... A lot of, I mean Nkrumah became gradually more, let's say tyrannical, and so he wasn't the only person in prison-

CHRIS HAYES: Right, sure.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Lots of people were in prison, but he was one of the most senior people in prison because he was from a member of the Parliament on the opposition side.

CHRIS HAYES: Do you remember when they took him?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I don't remember when they took him. I remember his, sort of, not being there. He wasn't charged with anything and he wasn't really guilty of anything. I remember when the secret police came, the security police came, my mother insisted that they look between the pages of every book in the house, cause she said she wanted the president to know that we had no incriminating documents. And we had the biggest library probably in our town. So eventually, the secret police were saying, please can we just go now? And she said, "No, no." And she gave them tea and cookies and said, "Come on, you've got to keep searching."

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: But I had been pretty ill. And when the queen of England first visited Ghana after independence, having been the head of state, she was now foreign head of state, they came to my hometown. And as I said, I was pretty ill at the time, so I was in hospital and she and the president came by my bed. And so, she said something to me and I probably said, "I'm fine, thank you." Even though it was quite sick.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: And then she moved on, and as she was moving off, the duke of Edinburgh turns around and said to me, "Do give my regards to your mother." Because he met my mother, and they're trained to know about British subjects wherever they are. And maybe he'd seen a picture on my bedside table.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Now at that point, the president knew that the queen had just spoken to the son of a political prisoner. So the president was a bit annoyed, and my doctor was fired and various things happened. And at that point, it seemed a good idea to get me out of the way, just to stop the president worrying about me.

CHRIS HAYES: What ... How sick were you? What were you sick with?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I had something that's not so serious now, unless you have HIV/AIDS, I had toxoplasmosis, which is a disease anybody can get, you can get it from cats.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: At that point it wasn't very well understood. So it took them a long time to diagnose it. Once it was diagnosed, it's actually quite easy to treat.

CHRIS HAYES: So how old were you at this point?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So I was about eight-

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, that is a lot for an eight-year-old.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yeah, I mean it was more for my mother, because-

CHRIS HAYES: Sure.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: She knew what was going on and I was, you know, she was very good at keeping our lives ... Astonishingly good, really, at keeping our lives sort of normal. So I was sent to this school in England, which I hadn't been supposed to be going to, because it was near my grandma's house. And, it was actually, it was a sort of caricature of an English prep school. The headmaster was a man called Reverend Hanky. So you can imagine what eight year old boys did with that.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: And on one occasion, he had given us a stern warning in the big sort of ... It was a wonderful sort of Elizabethan house, you know-

CHRIS HAYES: I'm imagining Hogwarts.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yeah, this is basically how it works. With a lake and, you know, it was very beautiful, but not a very good school. And the headmaster told us that we were not to be running around in this room, this sort of combination room where we were supposed to hang out.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: And he came in the week after and I was sitting on the chest of my friend who I'm afraid was called “Piggy Hog’s Flesh,” but there you are. And, I was tickling him, doing the Chinese torture or whatever it's called. And he summoned us to his study and he took Piggy in first, and Piggy got four whacks with a bamboo cane on his, presumably, naked behind. I couldn't see, I was outside.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So I thought, okay, that's what's going to happen. I went in, bent over, pulled down my things. I got three whacks and the headmaster said, "I told you you shouldn't rag," which is what he called the activity we had been engaged in, "But, if you are going to rag, Appiah, you should be on top."

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So it was a completely-

CHRIS HAYES: He deducted one.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes, for my having-

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, my word.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So, it was just ... They had to find me somewhere, it was a school close to my grandmother, so they found me somewhere quickly. I only spent a little bit of time there, and in fact the school collapsed, so I had to find somewhere else.

CHRIS HAYES: So tell me how you thought of yourself and your otherness, or Englishness, in being an eight year old black boy in this environment.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So it's hard to remember exactly how you thought about these things. You know, your concepts change and it's hard to sort of inhabit that concepts that you had at the time. But, I can tell some things from what I did. Looking back, I can sort of see it as a little bit from the outside.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So one thing was my grandmother, obviously I went home ... I went to her house for weekends from time to time. And the two people who came with me, regularly, we're a Kuwaiti boy and an East Kenyan Indian boy. So basically, the two other brown boys in the school. So I guess we must have sort of found each other.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: My grandmother was, I discovered after she died, some letters she'd written, she had been very fierce with these people that we were not to be ... My sisters later and I, that we were not to suffer for not being white. So, you know, she was the widow when English cabinet minister, she-

CHRIS HAYES: So, she had laid down the law?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: She had laid down the law, yes.

CHRIS HAYES: To not think about-

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yeah. So I don't remember anything like that ever happening to me. And that the school that I went to next, which was a very good school and which they'd found for me, because I had more time. You know, I became the Head Boy, I became the sort of the top people. And I had a terrific time there. I don't ... As I say, I don't remember, there probably were episodes, but you have to ... I mean, the way I think about it is we came from such an enormously privileged background on both sides. I mean, my mother's father was a member of Parliament, my father was a member of Parliament in two different countries. My uncle by marriage, and my great uncle by marriage, were both kings of Asante, which is the town we live in, the part of the country we lived in. My great-grandfather was the first socialist leader of the House of Lords.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So we came from very privileged backgrounds. And I think that's one of the advantages of class privilege. You just don't-

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: People look down on you, you don't understand what they're doing, because you know perfectly well, that you are their superior.

CHRIS HAYES: It literally doesn't even register.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: It doesn't, it's water off a duck's back.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So I mean, the first time I remember anyone using the N-word to me, and it may not have been the first time, but the first time I remember, my sisters and I were walking together in Brighton. And I must have been, this was ... I was a graduate student, so this was, you know, in my mid-twenties. And again, you know, it stuck in my mind because I thought, "Well, you know, what is he? What's the point of that?" He wasn't threatening us physically, he was just insulting us, and it didn't seem much worth worrying about.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a perfect segue into the central thesis of this book, which I think is an exceptional, extraordinary and important book.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: It's just written with tremendous clarity, and brings tremendous clarity, to a very tangled set of concepts. Which, you're describing an experience, precisely, along those lines. Which is that your status and identity are these complicated, multifaceted things. They shift over time, they shift in context, they shift within yourself. They shift in the nature of relationships. Different parts can be brought forth at certain times.

CHRIS HAYES: And what you're describing is a universe in which a kind of class identity, essentially superseded a racial identity, in this very elite circle such that it created ... I've sat here with people in that microphone, black women who went to a gifted school in the South, a gifted program in the South surrounded by white girls, in which that was the front and center experience of identity every single day.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Right?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: And yet what you're describing is speaking the Queen's English and coming from this background that you had a very experience of all this just because of the nature of how these things interact.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. I think that's, as you said, my sisters and I sort of come at this as a not very common angle.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: But the point is a completely general one.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Everybody has many identities and they interact in these very complicated ways. And sometimes one identity can secure you things that many people with whom you share some other identity can't get. And the reverse, of course.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: You can be a professor and that's a kind of status and have a certain kind of standing, but in certain places, if you're black, that gets you nothing.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: In terms of just ordinary everyday respect. Across the street from us, when we were children, there was a house, and in that house lived various people, including one of my favorite elementary school teachers. There was a family there and the guy had more than one wife, which wasn't too unusual in Ghana in those days. And he had many children, one of the ... And they-

CHRIS HAYES: Those two seem, often, related.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: They're often related, yes. Yes. I don't know if he knew how many children he had, he seemed rather vague about that. But, so one of them was a young man who didn't finish high school and who helped my mother and my sister look after my father when he was dying, which took a long time because he had a brain tumor and he was a wonderful, wonderful, sweet, very, very nice man. When my father died, my mother said, what can we do for you? And he said, I'd like a ticket. And so he took a ticket somewhere.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Well roll on the tape. He's now the first, I think the first Ghanaian to become a Japanese citizen. He's married to a Japanese woman, he has at least one Ghanaian and Japanese child, he speaks Japanese. You have to become a citizen in Japan, you have to pass tests to prove that you're Japanese written and spoken is of a pretty high quality. I haven't seen him very much and I haven't seen him for a long while, but I love thinking about who on earth do they think he is? Who does he think he is? What is his daughter going to think she is in a country that's not terribly good at dealing with people who aren't a 100 percent Japanese? And yet, you know, whenever I have seen him, he seems, he's perfectly at ease in his own skin. He's doing fine and so on.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: And he has brothers and sisters who are, I think he has one in New York, but they're all over the place. And then there are some who just stayed in Kumasi, never left and are still probably within a mile of where they were brought up.

CHRIS HAYES: This book is called "The Lies that Bind," but it's about the concept of identity. So maybe it's useful to start with a really crucial distinction that I've been carrying with me since I read the book. And we can go through each in succession. So one is identities, which are, you argue and I find persuasive, as old as humans. And then there's the concept of identity.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is itself quite recent.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: So let's talk about the first. What do we mean when we're talking? What are human identities? What are they?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Okay. I think there are just, there's sort of three things that are there in every identity. There's a label.

CHRIS HAYES: So man, woman.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Man, woman, Ashanti, not Ashanti.

CHRIS HAYES: Lutheran.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Jew, gentile, Catholic, Protestant, and so on. And notice that in all of those cases there's usually a set of them and people get parceled out among the members of that set. Sometimes it's just two, like man, woman, though nowadays we're thinking that maybe man, woman is too simple for thinking about gender, that maybe we need to have more than two. So you need the label.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Then you need two things. You need the label to mean something to the people who have it. So they have to think sometimes, I'm a woman so I should something or other. And then it has to mean something to somebody else. That was what makes them social.

CHRIS HAYES: So they have a subjective reality because you go through your life thinking, I'm a Jew, I should keep kosher.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: And they have a social reality when people make assumptions about you or draw conclusions about you because of your membership.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I mean there's two dimensions of the ways people treat you. One is the one you've just identified, which is a kind of the sort of stereotyping dimension. If you're this, I expect you to be like that. There's also a kind of normative dimension that is, if you're this, I expect you to do that. It's not just Jews who expect Jews to keep kosher. It's gentiles who, knowing a little bit about Jews, think that Jews should keep kosher.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: And also there's things about how sometimes, at least, there's things about how the other should treat you. Particularly in the case of gender. When I respond to someone as a man, their being a man or a woman gives me reasons to sort of respond to them in a certain way, just as it gives me expectations about how they'll respond to me. So that structure, those three things, the labels, the subjective meaning and the sort of objective force of them because people give these things life in social life, that's there, you just read "The Iliad" or read the "Torah," read the historical books of the "Bible," the "Book of Kings." They're just endless names of kinds of people.

CHRIS HAYES: Constantly.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Constantly, yes.

CHRIS HAYES: And you encounter them. I mean, it's a funny thing. It's a thing that you do very well here because you're so sort of astonishingly erudite about the world, but when you read world literature, you're constantly encountering some label that through the course of say the novel, right, like a Cossack, it's very clear to these people in the book I'm reading that Cossack really means something quite distinct, right? I'm thinking mostly of the hat toward or the, I don't quite get it, but they know.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: They know.

CHRIS HAYES: And the longer you read, the more it's like, okay, I think I'm getting what the category of Cossack is.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: And you know, the point you make is there's just an almost nearly uncountable, an uncountable amount of these categories, these identities that are meaningful throughout history from the very first moment we have humans.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. Yes. Especially in historical time. That is the time where we have written records and then sort of archeological records. We're already beginning to be city people. Though the first city of a million people isn't until about the time of Christ and it's Rome, but still there are cities of tens of thousands long before that. But for most of our history, our pre-history, we're living in these little bands. And in the little bands, you're 120, 200, 250 people, you know everybody, you've known them all your life, you know lots and lots of things about them. Identities maybe, of course you have identities, you have gender. Probably also you have some differentiation in terms of hunters, people who are good at hunting and people who are good at, people who are good at talking to the gods and so on. But once you get to towns and cities, you've got to have identities, because every day you're meeting people you don't know. And you've got to have something to organize your responses to them.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So I think when history begins, when we become urban and so on-

CHRIS HAYES: When we move when we move outside, essentially kinship relationships, out past the 120, whatever that sort of bounded number is that we can kind of keep in our heads.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: And yet what we take with us is the same psychology we had when we were 120.

CHRIS HAYES: Of course.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I would say, one of the great marvels to me, one of the great contingencies I think of our evolution is that we evolved with a set of psychological materials for identity making that work not just for 250 but turns out that you can do this with 1.5 billion.

CHRIS HAYES: It's the craziest thing, right? I mean the global Ummah of the faith of Islam is-

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Billions of people.

CHRIS HAYES: Billions of people.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Indians are more than, going to be two billion eventually.

CHRIS HAYES: And this is something that I, that you encounter a lot. If you go abroad out to dinner with some friends, right? Friends in Argentina and you're three glasses of wine in and, what do Americans think about us? It's like, dude, there's 340 million of them.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. Right, right. Which doesn't mean you aren't going to answer the question.

CHRIS HAYES: Of course. And then you say, but here's Americans think.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So I think one of the things about the stereotypes is that they vary in how wrong they are.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: But the point about "The Lies That Bind" is they're always wrong about something. And often they're by wrong about something really important. So we've been learning from trans people recently how wrong we are about how gender fits on them. And we've had to think about how to reshape the way the rest of us think in order to fit them adequately in to social life so that the social life isn't a terrible burden for them.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: That's something that the lesbian and gay movement did starting with Stonewall, which anniversary we're celebrating this year, and it's something that the women's movement did starting in the 19th century.

CHRIS HAYES: But this is the thing that is the most, to me, the most elemental paradox of identity. And the thing that we trip up on in the modern conversation in political, which is that it is both real and a fiction.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: It's both of those things always at the same time. It is constructed in the sense of it is not some thing out there in the world in some sense of physics, right? But because it's constructed doesn't mean it's not real in the lived experience.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: No.

CHRIS HAYES: You have an incredible way of saying this and I'm going to have you read this actually. The doctor, my brother's crazy. He thinks he's a chicken joke.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So let me offer this stipulation as we set out. However much identity bedevils us, we cannot do without it. You'll recall the old joke, a man goes to see a psychiatrist. He says, doctor, my brother's crazy. He thinks he's a chicken. The psychiatrist says, well why didn't you bring him in? And the fellow replies, oh I would, but we need them out there laying the eggs. Social identities may be founded in error, but they give us contours, comedy, values, a sense of purpose and meaning. We need those eggs.

CHRIS HAYES: It's right, because it's a collective delusion, but it's a very central and important and useful one.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes, we need to learn to live with these notions. We need to manage the fact that they’re sometimes super idealized and sometimes just crudely wrong, but we can't do without them. In the little world that I live in, which is the world of academic philosophy, I became famous for declaring that races weren't real. That was a mistake. I shouldn't have said it that way, because what I should've said is they're not real in the way people think they're real. But they're as real as anything in social life, there's nothing realer than the difference between the experience of going through security if you look one way and going through security, if you look another way.

CHRIS HAYES: You're not imagining that.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: You're not imaging that. One of the great sort of forms of discomfort that people are put through on the base of identities is being kind of gaslighted about sexism and racism and homophobia, means that you are exaggerating and so on. And of course it's possible to exaggerate these things. But in general, I'm inclined to take people at their word when they say these things have happened to them. It struck me with the sort of rise of Me Too.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I remember the first time one of my sisters told me why she didn't get into carriages on the London Underground where there was only just one guy. She said, because there's a fairly high probability that he'll do something offensive. And I thought, I've been using London Underground longer than you have, and it never occurred to me not to get into a carriage because there was this one person in there. I could've just disbelieved her. I suppose I could have said she was-

CHRIS HAYES: You're out of your mind.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: You're out of your mind. Can't be true. I don't know any men like that, I could have said. But I know and love my sister well enough that I didn't say that. I learned from it.

CHRIS HAYES: And that's where we get to, I want to go back to gender identity, because that's a place where we are at the frontier of a change. You take some time in the book and I think your work draws on some of the work by Anna Fausto-Sterling who wrote an incredible book called "Sexing the Body" that I would recommend anyone, which is really about the fact that-

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Me, too.

CHRIS HAYES: Biological sex is far more complicated than man and woman. And in fact there are lots, out of a hundred birds, there are quite a few that do not have a very clear, crystal clear biological sex. And in fact, what society does in the medical profession is surgically intervene to make them fit into the two categories. So this idea that, oh, in some deep biological platonic sense there is man, there is woman, that is what, no, that's actually a fiction itself. But we're at a point where gender identity is fluid and we're reshaping it. And so how do you think about this sort of moment in which the categories are changing underneath people's feet?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So I said it just now that we've been trying to listen to trans people for example. And I mean the gender system is being changed by lots of things, not just trans people, but we've be listening more recently more to them and we've been hearing how it seems and of course one of the things we hear is it, it doesn't seem the same to all of them. It's complicated matter to figure out how to adjust the system so that it fits as many people as possible. But one of the things I think it's important to point out is that the gender system is meant for everybody. So that in adjusting it for trans people, we have to remember that it has to fit everybody else still as well.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So some of us have to sort of accept some reshaping of, I have to accept, which I'm perfectly happy to do, that there are some men now who started out with female sex organs and they've become men. That turns out not to be very difficult for me to accept, but maybe it's hard for some people and we need to bring them along because is it's everybody's gender system.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: On the other hand, I don't think the people who are unhappy with the change can simply declare, “We're holding onto the system as it is. We think it's the correct system. You can't change anything.” Social life is about negotiation and identities are about negotiation. You have to figure out how to make them work for everybody.

CHRIS HAYES: But that that sounds much more like a philosophy seminar than the world. I mean with the way they work for everybody is that the cops tried to come arrest everyone in Stonewall.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: The people inside there riot, a bunch of them get dragged away and then there's 30, 40 years of blood, sweat, tears and protests and social action and organizing to basically force your way into the conversation.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. I mean that is how it often happens. If we were better, we wouldn't need to make it that way. And maybe some preparation, some thinking about these things of the sort that I try to do in the book can help people see that the task is to make a world that works for everybody and that means everybody has to be willing to give something up. It's true, however, and this is a point that Frederick Douglas made in the 19th century, mostly these things don't get conceded without a fight. So you have to at some point just say, this is what we need for us, for our lives to work. And you have to get people to listen and it can take riots and social movements and protests to get that done.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I hope that we don't always have to do it that way. I hope that sometimes we can just listen and hear and talk to one another and accept.

CHRIS HAYES: There are a number of identities you look at in the book. Talk about the emergence of identity as an actual coherent concept when we talk about say identity politics or “I identify as X.”

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. As far as I can tell, and Google makes it possible to look into things like this in a way that was very hard in the past. Almost nobody used the word identity in that sense before the Second World War. And you can sort of help people to see why it might be hard to get there, even though we're now so used to it, that it was hard for us to see that it might be hard, by thinking about the fact that it does apply to race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, class, and that those might naturally be thought of as different kinds of things, which they are.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: But the thought of them as having something important in common, that's the identity thought. The identity thought is that all those things and then some more-

CHRIS HAYES: Are parts of a category.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Are parts of a category and putting them together is the interesting move.

CHRIS HAYES: And in some ways a supercategory, right? Because necessarily each identity itself is a category marker.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So yes, Lutheran marks a category of people and a category of beliefs and practices. Gay marks in a category of people in a category of sort of social meaning and so the idea that all of those different things, which again we're talking about a lot of very different things from untouchable to U.S. Marine-

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: To philosopher, lawyer, novelist, Yankees fan. I mean all of these things have some of this structure, so that you can say, okay, so we're so used to thinking of them together. Why do we think of them? What do they?

CHRIS HAYES: Yes.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So they have those things in common that we've already talked about. But another thing they have in common, it's not sort of definitive of them, but it's an important fact about them, is that they play a role in the way we build our lives. So sometimes we make important decisions out of our being a Lutheran or an American, or a Marine or a novelist. And it seems satisfactory to us to say, because this is what I am, I have a persuasive reason to do that. So since the one big thing that every human being is doing is making a life, identities are central to the one big thing that everybody's doing.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: And the point I was making earlier about how identities are a social possession, they're one of the great gifts that we give to the new generation. We give them a vocabulary of identities, with which then young people begin to make their lives. And one of the things that young people do in every generation is make up new ones. They make up new ones.

CHRIS HAYES: Gamer.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Gamer, golf, nerd, which of course can be an affirmative, once you've got it, you can think of it as an affirmative positive thing to be.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, and nerd gets to something in microcosm that is the next step I think in building out this sort of framework, which is the intersection with status and hierarchy, right? So one of the things that drives me a little crazy, and I've talked about this one on podcast before, is when people analyze American politics through tribalism, because that's just like, well, there's these people on this side and these people on this side. And they won't listen to each other.

CHRIS HAYES: But in fact, and you can't see this because it's a podcast, but both my hands are on the same plane. But in fact, all of this intersects with hierarchy and power, which is what makes it also tricky and thorny and so contested of course. So if you think about all of this as tribes, which is that everyone's sort of on this even plane and they're fighting with each other or not listening, you miss what's so important about all this. Because certain identities come with social meaning, but also crucially social status.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: To be Brahmin is something very different than to be Dalit. Right?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: In fact, that's constituent of the identity.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: How do you think about those two things intersecting?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So I think it's important to see the role of these hierarchical structures in all the ones we've talked about. I mean, religious identities come with a distinction between us and the infidels or us and the gentiles is not a sort of happy, hands together, invisibly the same level. And of course these hierarchies are often contested. So one of the things that Dalits in India are doing now is saying, hey, no, we are not inferior to you.

CHRIS HAYES: And in fact the status itself was abandoned in the Indian constitution at the birth of independence, etc.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Though that hasn't had as much impact as one would have liked.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a remarkable case study in Indian endurance, right. You could literally make it illegal. And the social significance and social structures endure.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Of course the analog in the United States is clear that we've had anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of race and gender for a long time. I don't think anybody seriously thinks that that means we didn't have discrimination, which is not to say that the laws aren't important and we shouldn't pursue them. It's just to say there's other work to be done. There's cultural work beyond the work of passing laws. In the United States, of course we have this somewhat, to me, bizarre fiction that we don't really have a class system. Now there are ways in which American social status hierarchies are different from the ways they are in other places. And we don't have a hereditary aristocracy, which is great, and we don't have caste, but we do have forms of status, hierarchies of status that are associated with the difference between people along a number of dimensions: money, education, and connections, roughly. So, what sociologists would call financial capital, social capital for connections, and cultural capital for education. And these are interconnected, but they're not the same thing. And so, you can be ... As many of my graduate students will tell you, you can have no financial capital and lots of cultural capital. You can have lots of social capital and be not very well-educated because you're a badly educated member of some Brahmin family — some American Brahmin family, not an Indian Brahmin family. And so on.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So, they're not the same thing. But they sort of travel together and if you're at the bottom of all of them, you're in the worst place in our society, and in European societies and most societies. It's a very interesting challenge to think about how to do something about that. And you have to be careful, because if you say certain things, people will just take no notice because it sounds like you're pretending that facts aren't facts. You're pretending that there isn't a difference between someone who's finished high school only and someone who's got two PhDs. Which there is.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: But what there isn't — what the difference there isn't between those two is that the one with two PhDs is entitled respect and the one with ... isn't entitled respect. That's not true. I mean, it's not normatively true. It's a mistake to think that. So how can we create a society where we genuinely respect everybody? That's what it would be for us to be a democracy. Socially a democracy, not politically a democracy. But socially a democracy. It would be, for us, genuinely not to be pretending, not to be condescending, not to be faking it when we recognize that everybody, whatever their level of education and whatever their level of income and whatever their level of connections, is entitled to a certain kind of basic respect.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: That also is a relatively new thought in human history. It's a little bit older than the thought about identity, but it's not much older. And the first time it's really articulated globally is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a post-Second World War document, too, which grounds the idea that everybody has rights in the idea that everybody has dignity. Everybody. That's a very, very radical thought. It's a radical and important thought, and it's one that it's hard to figure out how to give it real social meaning. Because all the time, of course ...

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So, you're guiding your children. You think, it would be better if they did finish high school and go onto college. How can you do that without teaching them that people who don't go on to college are inferior people? It's a challenge to both value certain things like money and education and connections, while not disrespecting the people who, for various reasons, are not lucky enough to have jumped into the world in the places where those things are being generously distributed.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: And so, it's a challenge around class, but it's a challenge around all these things. It's a challenge around race. Because, in our society, racial identities, on average, go with cultural things. And one of the things that happens to cultural things that are associated with people of color, and in particular with black people, is that things that are distinctive of them risk being looked down upon just because they're associated with them. And so, ways of speaking, i.e. Black English. Which is a funny term, because there's lots of different kinds of English in America and there's lots of different kinds of "Englishes" in African America. But, anyway, speaking in a way that's recognizably black can be stigmatized even though-

CHRIS HAYES: Literally, just a study I saw today about the effect it has on courtroom proceedings and on pleas and on transcriptions in courts. I mean, big, big, genuine effects.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. And the stenographer literally don't…They write down the opposite exactly of what someone meant to say. Why does that happen? It's because the whole system is organized in a way that, as it were, doesn't care about those people. It wants them to-

CHRIS HAYES: Does not imbue them with dignity.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: No. Now, every society, every literate society has to develop forms of the language that are the language of literate people. This is not an argument for abandoning the role of standard English as a pedagogical thing, as a thing we do in schools, or as a thing that we grade and correct in colleges. But, I'm very conscious of this because in the society I grew up in, in Ghana, English wasn't anybody's language. It was the government language, because we'd been a British colony. But, my father's first language was Twi. There are 80 or so other languages in Ghana that are people's first languages. Twi is spoken by less than half the population, so English is the most commonly spoken language.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: But, that means that when you use English in the courts or in Parliament, you're not lifting up one segment of the population by using its language, right? If we insist on using, as they used to, for example, in the BBC in England, one dialect of English as the sort of the "official" English, we're lifting up those people. I mean, it's one of the things — if you haven't lived in England for a long time, and I haven't. I haven't lived in England for 40 years or something. But when I go back, one of the things that strikes me is how different the radio sounds from the way it used to sound. Because, now you hear people with accents from the north and Wales and Scotland and the East End of London. This government radio station isn't lifting up one way of speaking and saying, "Those are the real people. Those are the top people."

CHRIS HAYES: And that's — I mean, to sort of drive towards what the vision of a solution of this, right? The ways to deal with identities ... There's a bunch of different words you can use. Pluralism, multiculturalism, or the word that I think you use and you wrote a book with this title, cosmopolitanism. What is cosmopolitanism, of which you are probably the foremost promoter in American letters at this point. What does that mean to you in the context of this conversation?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I think as it relates to identities, what it means is, you accept and value the identities that you have once you've worked your way into them. I had to reshape masculinity a bit because I'm gay, and the way masculinity works in Ghana doesn't go with that. But it wasn't too hard. Once you've worked your way into it.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Each of us has these identities and we should think of ... especially the ones that are associated with culture, religious identities, the cultural dimension of our ethnic identities. We should think of those as valuable for us in a distinctive way. I was raised a Methodist, so Methodism for me is the form of Christianity I don't believe in. I'm a post-Methodist Christian. I'm not a post-Anglican Christian, I'm not a post-Catholic Christian, I'm a — and this means that the way I think about religious identity is very much shaped by a particular-

CHRIS HAYES: By not being a Methodist.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: By not being a Methodist. By understanding Methodism and having decided that that's not me. And not having elected to some other one. But Methodism has things to bring. And so does my Asante background and the things I learned through participating in my father's traditions and the language that goes with it. So does my British ancestry and the things I learned growing up in England.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: All of these are things that I have to bring. But, everybody has things to bring and I would like to live in a world where I can piggyback on the discoveries of the Catholics, despite having been raised a Methodist, and piggyback on the discoveries of Chinese traditions, not having Chinese ancestry. So, cosmopolitanism is the thought that human beings are different. It's not a bad thing that we're different. We don't want everybody to be the same. We have things to learn from one another across our differences, whether they're differences of class or race or nationality or religion or experience. We want to live in a world where nobody's put down because of any of these identities and nobody's lifted up above the others.

CHRIS HAYES: Just to push back on that, right? Because some peoples' identity is as a white supremacist.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, there are people that have identities that are bad, that we don't want to lift up.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. So, in this book, I didn't talk about that, but in a book I wrote a while ago called "The Ethics of Identity," which is ... it's more of a philosopher's book, I give as an example of an identity that we should want to see wither and fade, the Aryan identity, or the Aryan identity movement in the United States, which is a form of white supremacism.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So, there are forms of identity that are toxic in various ways. One way of being toxic is to be associated with a moral project that's wrong. So, the project of putting down blacks and Jews and gays and women is a immorally objectionable project, and an identity whose form is committed around that is just a bad — is a morally toxic identity. Morally toxic identities, there are two things that could happen with them. One is, we could try and just move the people along, move them into some other identity. Another thing we could do is reform them. So, there are elements of say, Catholic identity, which are also historically pretty hostile to gays and women. But there are modern Catholics who've reformed that so that they are nonsexist and non-homophobic.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: What you do, whether you say in the Aryan Nation, "Hey, guys, move on. Do something else," or whether you say to them-

CHRIS HAYES: I've just had a vision of the esteemed philosophy professor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, like in a room full of Aryan Nation people, just sort of in the Queen's English, saying, "All right, chaps. Let's move it along."

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: "Let's move it along." I'm not suggesting that I know how to do that in a conversational way, but I know that it's what needs doing.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, no. I don't disagree. But I guess, here's what I wanna say. When you're talking about Catholics, 'cause, you know, I was raised Catholic, it's like, there's no question-begging way to deal with the tension there. There just isn't.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: No. No, there are tensions.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the fundamental thing. I mean, we're trying to get to some pluralistic, equitable vision of a just society in which every person has dignity and in which various identities are respected, but it's like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don't fit.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. So there's constant need for negotiation and reform. And all I can say, as it were, about the sort of contribution that I think philosophy can make is to give people the tools for thinking about that. But then they have to do things like the social movements you've mentioned in order to make it all work. It isn't going to happen in the study. It's not gonna happen because somebody writes the right answer. It's going to happen because people work it out.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, I think the contribution of philosophy, and I think the contribution reading this book, is to cut against the ... One thing you're very clear about is we all have this impulse to essentialize. And when we're essentializing in-group, it's a kind of prideful essentializing. Like, there are certain things that like, Italians do, like the way they talk, or the way they cook, or the way they talk about food, that I kind of have this affection for. It's like, "Ah, that's so Italian." And I love it, and it's part of my culture. My mom is an Italian-American, that's very defining for her culture. I lived in Italy for six months. I feel connected to that.

CHRIS HAYES: But that's a kind of essentializing. It's largely harmless. But, in some ways, it's like this intellectual project. It's almost like a kind of mindfulness. I mean, it's almost sort of Buddhist, right? It's creating a kind of intellectual discipline in which you're reminding yourself that the emotional pride you have in essentializing, in an in-group setting, is not a accurate description of the real world, in which there's millions of Italians who do lots of different things. Some of whom don't cook very well at all.

CHRIS HAYES: That discipline also, then, you have to, even more importantly, project outwards to all of the essentializing and stereotyping that you're just doing as a matter of course as you go through the world. And it's a difficult and exhausting intellectual project. The way that our brains work and the way that our conceptual architecture functions, is through this kind of categorization and stereotyping. And what you're talking about in the book is developing a kind of mental discipline that's a sort of social version of mindful meditation, to recognize that that's not real in the sort of essential sense.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. And so, in the context where our identities are giving us trouble, it's useful to have this place to step back to. It's fine, in many contexts, to go along with the sort of simplified version. There's nothing wrong, at an Italian Catholic wedding, with just going with the flow. And people who aren't of Italian origin or identity — this is the cosmopolitan point — will take pleasure in your doing them.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly, yes. I've been lucky enough to be at weddings of many different faith traditions, and it is a true gift and joy, an incredible gift to experience the wedding traditions of other cultures because wedding traditions are generally pretty awesome. You know, you're celebrating, you're finding new ways to celebrate and new foods to eat, new music to dance to. And it's also true of mourning traditions.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, I remember when I lost ... In high school, a friend of mine, a good friend of all of ours, died in a car crash my senior year. She was Jewish and it was my first experience sitting Shiva. We would go to her house every night to sit Shiva. And it was so powerful and so therapeutic. And I'm always grateful. It's a gift, right?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: It is a gift.

CHRIS HAYES: Because, in the absence ... in a pre-cosmopolitan world, I just would never have sat Shiva. And I wouldn't know that tradition and I wouldn't know how comforting it could be.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. It's one of the gifts of a cosmopolitan existence, that you get to see other ways of doing things and see the value in other ways of doing things, while not abandoning your own. I have been deeply moved, too, at Jewish funerals. Because my husband's Jewish and I've lost both my parents-in-law. But, my husband would say that he valued the experience of going to my parents' very, very different funerals in Ghana, where it's a completely different kind of thing, though there is something like sitting Shiva. There is the business of sitting with the family for several days and people coming and bringing food and so on.

CHRIS HAYES: Elemental.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. And I think that you value it, you are moved by the experience. You don't want to abandon the one that you grew up in, but eventually, choices have to be made. I have two sisters, one married to a Norwegian, one married to a Nigerian. I have three sisters, but my third sister isn't married. And of the ... let's say, take the three Norwegians. One's got an English partner, one's got a Russian partner, and one's got a Namibian partner. At some point, they're not going to be able to do all the traditions.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. That's right. Yes.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: They're gonna have to make choices.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. This is the thing you realize when you have kids, right? You start to make choices about what identities you're gonna pass onto them, which ones you aren't.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Right. If we had kids, I would certainly ... We do a Seder every year. I think a Seder is one of the world's great inventions.

CHRIS HAYES: Agreed.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: So, I would pass that on. Neither of us is very religious, so we wouldn't pass it on as a religious ceremony exactly, but we would pass it on as a tradition.

CHRIS HAYES: Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of law and philosophy at NYU. He's the author of "The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity," which is the book we were discussing today and I cannot recommend highly enough. Also author of "Cosmopolitanism," among many other books. He is one of the foremost philosophers working today and it's been a great honor and privilege to have you.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: It's been great talking to you.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Kwame Anthony Appiah. He is the author of "The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity." He's also a professor of philosophy and law at NYU.

CHRIS HAYES: If you liked this episode, there's a number of conversations we have that relate to it in certain ways. We had a conversation with Michael Tesler that was about how people's identities are driving their political affiliations. I had a conversation about what identity means with Alex Wagner, who wrote a book about her own kind of coming-of-age story in wrestling out her own identity. Also, a conversation with Brittney Cooper about how she thinks about identity as a black woman. And Ezra Klein and I had a conversation about sort of polarization and identity. And then Amy Chua, who sort of wrote a anti-identity politics book, and I had a conversation about identity.

CHRIS HAYES: So this is, I think in some ways, it's the central axis of political conflict in America. I mean, basically all of politics at this moment is basically like, fights over identity while climate change looms over us. That's basically the Tweet-length version of what's happening in America.

CHRIS HAYES: As always, we love to hear your feedback. We've been getting such great feedback. You know, last week really was an experiment, the David Wallace-Wells. I'm gonna tell you a funny story here, which is that we published it and you know, we were thinking about how we were gonna intro it and, if you haven't listened to it, I intro it with an incredibly dire warning from our editor, Brendan McDonald, about just how dark it is. And I was very curious to check the traffic numbers to see, "Okay, did that work? Are people listening?" And we had migrated from one traffic portal to another. And so when I checked, it was in the morning it published. It had like five percent of what it should've had and I was like, "Oh my God. Oh my God. We chased everyone away. This was a disaster. It didn't work."

CHRIS HAYES: But it turns out that's not the case, we just migrated traffic portals. In fact, you guys have been downloading and listening, which we appreciate. And you have also been tweeting amazingly hilarious GIFs about how it's made you feel, some of which I've retweeted. You can check my Twitter account, @chrislhayes. You've been sending us great emails. It's really been great to see because I do think that discussion's one of the most important, maybe the most important, discussion that we've had and served, for me, as a kind of wake up call, and I think, for a lot of you.

CHRIS HAYES: So, always send us your feedback if you like or don't like something. I mean, you know, obviously, we like the ones where you like things better, but both. You can Tweet us the hashtag WITHpod. You can email us, WITHpod@gmail.com.

Related links:

"The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity," by Kwame Anthony Appiah

"Sexing the Body," by Anne Fausto-Sterling

"Speaking Black Dialect in Courtrooms Can Have Striking Consequences," by John Eligon

"Cosmopolitanism," by Kwame Anthony Appiah

"As If," by Kwame Anthony Appiah

"Ethics of Identity," by Kwame Enthony Appiah

Related WITHpod listening:

The Personal is Political with Brittney Cooper (May 15)

Political Tribalism with Amy Chua (June 12)

Futureface with Alex Wagner (July 17)

White Identity Politics with Michael Tesler (Oct 30)

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.