Civilisational or religious partitioning of the world population yields a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group…This can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups – we belong to all of them. The same person can be, without any contradiction: an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theatre lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk (preferably in English). Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them can be taken to be the person’s only identity or singular membership category.The essential plurality of human beings, and how the undermining of this plurality lies behind most of the world’s conflicts, are the central themes of this new book, which brings together nine of Sen’s lectures on these topics. Human beings, he points out, tend to be primarily defined in terms of their religious or civilisational identities, ignoring the numerous other factors that combine to make a person what he or she is. This results in the miniaturization of people and paves the ground for those with vested interests (rabble-rousing religious leaders, for instance) to foment tensions between groups – to encourage people to see themselves and others purely in terms of a singular identity.
In times of duress, such singular classification can have murderous effects, as we all well know. The essays in this book will strike a chord with anyone who has witnessed how even the best-intentioned people can, through an insidious brainwashing process, be made to see members of another community/religion/state/country as irreconcilably different from themselves, and hence a threat to their own worldview. From here, it’s a short step to the complete dehumanization of the Other – and it’s precisely on such ground that tragedies like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, the 1947 Partition riots and Gujarat 2002 have occurred. The Nazi guards and “Doctor Deaths” at the concentration camps could do what they did because they were no longer able to see the Jews as sentient human beings who were similar to themselves in many ways, regardless of differences in race.
Sen reminds us (though he doesn’t say it in so many words) that the world’s worst, most destructive conflicts occur between groups, not between individuals. Most of us don’t need to step outside our own neighborhoods (or even houses) to see the truth of this. In my own house my grandmother (still haunted by memories of friends and family being brutally killed in Partition riots) speaks of the Muslim community in general with loathing, even says things like “All this is happening only because there are so many Muslims in the world” (after the bomb blasts in London) – but she never seems even slightly awkward when interacting with Muslim friends/acquaintances who visit the house.
As he often does to great effect, Sen draws on personal experience to make his point. He reserves for the book’s very last chapter the story of his own first exposure to murder: as a child, during communal riots in 1944, he saw a wounded Muslim named Kader Mia staggering through the gates, asking for help. The man, a day laborer, had been knifed on his way to a nearby house where he was working, in a Hindu-majority colony; he died shortly afterwards.
The 11-year-old future Nobel Laureate was perplexed by the idea that a man could be murdered by people who probably didn’t know anything about him except for this crucial, all-subsuming fact: that he was a member of a particular community – hence the Enemy. “For a bewildered child, the violence of identity was extraordinarily hard to grasp,” he writes. “It is not particularly easy even for a still bewildered elderly adult.”
Sen also insists on a distinction between multiculturalism (the actual integration and mingling of different cultures) and what he calls plural mono-culturalism (the phenomenon of different cultures/communities existing in the same place – say Britain – but never interacting at all, simply “passing each other like ships in the night”).
The vocal defence of multiculturalism that we frequently hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for plural monoculturalism. If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempt by her guardians to stop her from doing this (a common occurrence) is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures sequestered.In this context, he discusses the importance of young people being given freedom to choose between various identities, and to assign priorities to the various groups they belong to – and it’s here that the book enters slightly controversial waters. I imagine Sen’s reservations about the increase in faith-based schools in Britain will raise a few hackles.
[This] reflects a particular vision of Britain as a federation of communities, rather than as a collectivity of human beings living in Britain, with diverse differences, of which religious and community-based distinctions constitute only one part. It is unfair to children who have not yet had much opportunity of reasoning and choice to be put into rigid boxes and told: “That is your identity and this is all you’re going to get.”People who are very religious (even if they are lucky enough to have so far escaped a situation where they are required to turn fanatical) will also feel queasy about some of the content. Sen is critical of the frequent employment of “moderate” religious voices to counter “extreme” religious voices – e.g. governments calling on moderate Muslim leaders to criticize violent acts in the name of Islam. The effect of this religion-centered political approach, he believes, has been to strengthen the voice of religious authorities, and to give them disproportionate power in contexts that should fall outside the ambit of religion.
But then, what’s a book by Amartya Sen if it doesn’t cause a few murmurs?
Since Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny is a collection of discrete essays/speeches that have only been touched up in a minor way, there are quite a few repetitions in the text (as there were in Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, published last year). However, in my view the points that are repeated are the sort that need to be stressed anyway. I have to say though, I can’t share Sen's optimism about the possibility of attitudinal changes - I think too many people are too deeply attached to religion and community for there to be a meaningful change in the direction of tolerance in the foreseeable future.