Sen and Sensibility

July 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

identityIdentity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Sen, Amartya)

“Most people are other people.”
Oscar Wilde

Amartya Sen identifies himself as “an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a non-believer in an afterlife (and in case the question is asked, a non-believer in a ‘before-life’ as well).” Although he is too modest to mention it, he has also belonged, since 1998, to the cozy club of Nobel Laureates. In 2010, New Statesman included him in its list of ‘World’s 50 Most Influential People Who Matter’. I cannot speak for the world, but he’d certainly fit into my list of influential people who matter to me. I’ve read several of Sen’s books, and they have constantly informed my views on poverty, inequality, human development and freedom. His domain of expertise straddles the crucial area that marks the overlap of social justice, economic growth and political freedom, the intellectual real estate that lies at the crossroads between open societies, developing economies and failed states. Sen has always been more than an economist for me: he is a historian, an aesthete and a humanist, at home with political sensitivities and emotional needs of the common people.

Identity and Violence is an important book, written in 2006 against the backdrop of a world that Sen saw as becoming increasingly polarized by identity conflicts, primarily along religious or supposedly ‘civilizational’ lines – Israel-Palestine, Hutus-Tutsis in Rwanda, Hindus-Muslims in India, terrorism in London, riots in France, the West in Iraq and Afghanistan. A certain narrative was being drawn up insidiously in certain circles, a narrative that I have had parroted to me as well: that it is surely no coincidence that one side of every conflict in the world is Muslim. While the repudiation of that narrative is the main focus of Sen’s book, it fits in nicely with the last two books reviewed in these pages (here and here) – the identity conflicts of our times are not restricted to the religious dimension.

Sen’s basic insight is that identity has numerous attributes. It is grave injustice to a person to pick exactly one of her identities as the unique or most important determinant of her character, opinions, behavior or actions; as if she has no freedom of choice in the matter, as if a female, Sudanese, middle-class journalist who is a middle-aged mother of two and who drives a Ford car, has more in common, in every situation and on every conceivable issue, with a teenaged Saudi prince in Riyadh, rather than with other women, other journalists, other mothers, other middle-class people, other Ford owners or other black people elsewhere. This, by itself, is probably just an untrue irritant (for instance, in the stereotypical ‘all accountants are boring’, or ‘all Indians are tech support’). It is subsequently, when that ‘sole’ identity is redefined in a belligerent form, (as in, ‘Pakistanis are terrorists’,  ‘mini-skirted women are sluts’, or ‘the Dukkar Kolhatis are inveterate criminals‘) that the nastiness really sets in.

The evils of identity stereotyping...Vienna Ghetto, by Yevgeny Khaldei, 1945 (courtesy the excellent blog

The evils of identity stereotyping…Vienna Ghetto, by Yevgeny Khaldei, 1945 (courtesy the excellent blog

Sen also points out that sustained stereotyping on the part of others has a profoundly negative influence on the self-image of the impacted person, who usually reacts by defining herself, defiantly, in exactly the same terms as her tormentors do. “It would be a long-run victory of Nazism,” says Sen, perceptively, “if the barbarities of the 1930s eliminated forever a Jewish person’s freedom and ability to invoke any identity other than his or her Jewishness.” Similar is the obsession of erstwhile European colonies with the West. Their own cultural identities have been subsumed under a defensiveness, a compulsion to be either ‘as good as the West’, or ‘against the West’, but certainly to be ‘different from the West’.

What, then, is the right approach to the identity problem? Not, says Sen, the misguided, but well-meaning one that defines “good relations among different human beingsprimarily in terms of ‘amity among civilizations’ or ‘dialogue between religious groups’, or ‘friendly relations between different communities’”. To focus on group dialogue and détente is again to force a particular group identity down the throats of the individuals of that group.

In defending against the gross and nasty generalization that members of the Islamic civilization have a belligerent culture it is common enough to argue that they actually share a culture of peace and goodwill. But this simply replaces one stereotype with another, and furthermore, it involves accepting an implicit presumption that people who happen to be Muslim by religion would basically be similar in other ways as well

Democratic governments often err in their eagerness to preserve the peace, says Sen. They treat their nation as a “collection of sequestered segments, with citizens being assigned fixed places in predetermined segments”, and attempt to pander to the well-being of each segment. These segments could be religious (as in the case of Tony Blair inviting mullahs to advise him on Muslim needs), or caste-based reservations in India, or an assumption that a common world language would automatically lead to communal harmony. This leads to the hardening of the very differences that the government wishes to avoid; people who are in the minority along that one axis begin see themselves as perpetual minorities, instead of seeing themselves as part of the majority in several other dimensions. Why not, says Sen, ‘focus on the freedom of individual reasoning and decision-making, while celebrating cultural diversity to the extent that it is freely chosen’? Sen believes that ‘the best way to build the future of a country’ is see it as a ‘conglomeration of citizens, rather than a collectivity of religious ethnicities.’ Sen stops there, but I’d go further. The best way to build the future of the world is to see it as a conglomeration of human beings, rather than a collectivity of nationalities.

I have a reasonable idea about what the politicians would say in response. They would probably accuse Sen of naivety and irrelevance, of not being in touch with political reality. As an itinerant academic who has spent his life on university campuses across three continents, it is unlikely that he would be seen as an insider by the powers that be in any of the countries he calls home. New Stateman’s accolade notwithstanding, I doubt that Amartya Sen’s advice cuts much mustard in the corridors of power today, but it is our collective loss that this is the case.

Erich Auerbach once quoted Hugo of Saint Victor (in his Didascalicon) as saying, “the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” I have a corollary in mind. I call it the three stages of identity crisis for people who have moved around a lot in their lives. In the first stage, you retain your original identity; you are conflicted at every turn. In the second, you learn to love every country you have lived in; you are confused about your identity. In the final stage, you are a foreigner in every land; you see each country objectively, judgment unclouded by nationalist fervour. You are at peace with the world. You do not belong, except to humankind. My point is broadly the same as Auerbach’s. The more you are able to leave your identity behind, the more easily are you able to judge it, and the whole world as well, ‘with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision’. And so it is with Sen: it is his universal status as outsider that makes him an expert on identity.


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