Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Putting people into boxes: Amartya Sen on identity and choice

An excerpt from the prologue to Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny

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.


  1. good article!

    Just to stress a point. groups and identities aren't always wrong. sometimes you need to belong to a group to bargain for your rights from the state and society. a lone gay person might not achieve anything but when he becomes a member of "community" the state has to take notice...

    the point is not to take individualism too far and denigrate all kinds of identities but to ensure that people remain free to choose whatever identities suits them for their own self-fulfillment.

    and also I agree with the view that children should not be forced to follow their parent's religion. Richard Dawkins severely criticises this culture in his documentary, the root of all evil. he calles it "child abuse".

  2. I agree fully with you and Amartya Sen. However, in spite of being aware of the pitfalls of limiting one's worldview by one's acquired identity I have not been able to discard my Bengali & Indian identity (exactly in that order). I am deeply pained when Saurav Ganguly is dropped for petty reasons (and I remember all the bengali cricketers of the past who had suffered similar fate, from Kartick Bose to Gopal bose) but I cannot exhibit my pain in public and private lest I be grouped with jingoistic bengalis who are running amok on this issue. On one extreme the question is does one need an identity at all and on the other extreme the question is whether one can exist as a being without any identitity(ies). Tough questions to which I have faltered while seeking an answer. So life continues by trial and error.

  3. okay found this quote from Dawkins:

    I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I'm not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That's unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.

    Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London's leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

    What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question -- without even noticing how bizarre it is -- that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

  4. Shoummo from mexico...
    don't want to get into the ganguly-baiting business but you have given a good example where identities are misused. why should a regional identity come into picture at all when a player is selected or dropped? and why should you feel sad when a player who has not been performing well is dropped just because he is from the same region as you are? I think it is just irrational and primitive tribalism.

    the only place identities work is when it confers poeple some benefits in rational sense. for example in a democaracy like India if minorities like, gays, muslims, atheists etc don't group together they will be denied their rights and will be oppressed.

  5. Alok - why I feel bad? Ranji champions - UP - adequately represented at least in the test series. Ranji runners up Bengal - can be considered to be a fluke appearance and so no representation (thats my Indian identity speaking). But then I find the name of Ajit Agarkar in the team. I invite one Indian to stand up and justify his inclusion (his recall and no comebacks does not seem to end). and this has happened again and again in the past I will rattle a few names from memory Suru Nayak, Ghulam Parker, Lalchand Rajput, sudhir nayak, ramnath parker ... its a long list. Gopal bose in his days was a better opener than Ramnath Parker or sudhir nayak and subroto guha/barun burman were better pacers than abid ali/madan lal/karsan ghavri.

    But hang on, its my narrow regional regional identity speaking, I bow down in reverence to mother India.

  6. shoummo:

    you obviously know far more cricketing history than I do. I am hearing all those names for the first time in my life.

    a case can be made perhaps for the fact that Ganguly was unfairly dropped. perhaps Jai and his journalist friends can do an investigation and enlighten us if the selection board was influenced by some kind of anti-bengali racism. may be they were.

    the most common view however, that i have formed after my limited reading, is that Ganguly was dropped because of his poor performance and an unhealthy anti-sporting attitude. perhaps truth is something else. but it doesn't help at all if emotional reactions of a touchy bunch of people be taken into consideration for making decisions of these kinds. if there is an evidence for bias, let there be light as they say. Again i want to make it clear that I don't mean to attack anybody in person or any community.

    also agarkar's example doesn't work and neither do examples from the past. can you name a *batsman* in the *current* indian team who should be dropped to make place for ganguly?

  7. alok, I want to be a good Indian and I do not want to argue Ganguly's case. I only want to know the overwhelming reasons for agarkar's selection.

  8. I am a strong believer in a biological explanation for human consciousness and the soul.
    I think all human reactions and behaviour can be explained by the animal theory. Perhaps a lot of the misery would be avoided if we accept that we are more animal than divine in origin. However I dont see that happening soon. Religion and god are very powerful and seductive influences.
    Dawkins has unfortunately turned very rabid and is destroying his sterling theories, in my opinion.

  9. Alok: thanks for that Dawkins quote. And yes, that example of the photograph from the Independent really is disturbing. I agree that many of the world's great evils come from adults passing their biases and prejudices on to children. But then, given that human beings all do have biases and prejudices, what's the practical solution? Letting the kids grow up in a bubble and allowing them to rejoin society once they're 18?

    Shoummo: there's some truth in that cricket discussion. I don't know if you're being serious when you say "its my narrow regional regional identity speaking, I bow down in reverence to mother India" - but I don't think you should feel too guilty about being a parochial Bengali. And personally I don't understand the logic of shrugging off a Bengali identity but clinging steadfastly to an Indian one. But won't get into that now - have done the anti-patriotism rant in the cricket odyssey post I put up yesterday.

    S: "Dawkins has unfortunately turned very rabid..."

    Doesn't that mean he's "more animal than divine"? :)

  10. Jabberwock,

    Poor Alok. He got blinsided by Shummo's deflection. :-)

    Sudhir Naik was splendid during the 1974 series in England when India was whitewashed. Sadly, a trip to Marks and Spencer was his undoing.

    Barun Barman et al were not even *close* to Abdul Ismail, the Mumbai pacer who was sadly, never taken into the Indian team despite his staggering Ranji average.

    The toughest cricketer to come out of Bengal in those days was not a Bengali. He did manage to take more than 100 wickets for India, after making his debut when he was 32 years old. His autobio has interesting insights into why Bengal players did not make it to the Indian team.

    Shummo's criticism against Rajput is unjustified. [Suru Nayak, Parkar, I will concede] Rajput was excellent in Ranjis, Duleeps and the like. Moreover, his technique was sound.

    First class batting average:
    Gopal Bose - 30.91.
    Sudhir Naik: 35.29.
    Lalchand Rajput: 49.30.

    Barun Burman - First class bowling average: 29.36 [54 matches, 154 wickets]

    Abdul Ismail - First class bowling average: 18.04 (75 matches, 244 wickets).

    I rest my case. I've heard the same complaints by Tamilians before. When it comes to regionalism & cricket, Bengali and Tamil cricket fans make for interesting debating friends. :-)

  11. quizman, i raised certain issues and blindsiding alok was not my intention.Sudhir Nayak or no Sudhir Nayak, Gopal Bose was one the most fabulous openers of his time and could have played tests (at least one) if we take into account the desperation and frequency with which Gavaskar's opening partners were changed from series to series . It is also fairly obvious that Suru Nayak, Ghulam Parker and many more were passengers who had come aboard on the 'quota' ticket.I am sure Barun Burman could have paired with Abdul Ismail much better than Madan lal could with ghavri or Abid Ali with Solkar (at least the pair could have been tried). Subroto Guha swung the leather at a time when that breed did not exist in the Indian firmament. These are vignettes from the past anyway. As a quizzing Indian my question (still unanswered) to mother India is a justification for inclusion of Ajit Agarkar in team India.

  12. The marketers have another take on Identity and Choice. They've distilled it down to demographics, psychographics, et al, to catgorise and label into groups and then analyse the consumer behaviour of one group, as distinct from another. Helps tremendously to make money off brands like, for instance, Coke vs Pepsi and Colgate vs Close-up...

    Then there's Nancy Mitford's take on "Hons" or "People like us".

    Finally, you only have to look at teenagers everywhere to see "belonging" and "cool" played out over and over. Sometimes very unfortunately for all concerned.

  13. Jai: Interesting. It sounds like Sen's argument is a little off though - it's not civilisation or partitioning per se that leads to communalism - I suspect a large part of this is cultural orientation as well - something along the lines of Hofstede's Individualism (I'm generally leery of Hofstede's research - it's hilarious to me that research done twenty years ago on IBM employees can define international culture today - but he does have a point, I think).

    It's not just how many (or how few) groups you happen to be part of - it's also how individualistic / collectivist you are and therefore how much of your identity is tied up in groups vs. being individual. How strongly you define yourself as a member of a group has a lot to do with whether you draw your definition of who you are in terms of membership in groups - how much you think in terms of how you're like everyone else vs. how you're different from everyone else. And where you fall on that continuum is, I suspect, rooted deep in your cultural history. To the extent that religions themselves evolve to reflect environmental realities - some religions will tend to emphasise the surrender of the self to the larger whole, others will emphasise the importance of individual action. And that will play a large role in determining how seriously you take the groups you belong to - how much of your identity you tie up in them.

  14. Shummo,

    Re: Agarkar, you may want to visit on Usenet. There are pro and anti Agarkar posts going back (almost) a decade. :-)

  15. Shummo, Quizman: Which school did you guys go to?

    first class bowling average of barun burman??!!!! holy s@#$!!!

  16. Falstaff: I think hosftede's classification of an entire culture as individualist/collectivist is too broad a classification to be really useful. there are violent identity based clashes in all cultures, even in the west which is individualistic. oppresion of blacks or gays for example.

    Jai: I agree that is not a very practical solution to bring up children in a bubble. But parents can encourage children to think on their own and evaluate opinions based on evidence rather than just because someone tells them to believe something.

    In his essay collection The Devil's Chaplain Dawkins has an excellent letter to his ten year old daughter explaining these things. Let me see if I can find it.

  17. Alok: Oh, I agree. But I'm not arguing for Hofstede at all - I'm simply saying that individualism vs collectivism is an important factor in going from multiple identities to prejudice. People who are more collectivist (in the sense that they define their identity in terms of the groups they belong to) are more likely to take rigid stands and be willing to take violent action against other groups - simply because the presence of the other group is a more salient threat to the self for them. Once we accept that, we can then begin to study what determines how individualist / collective a person is: race, religion, nationality, gender and other demographic factors would almost certainly play a role in determining that. Hofstede is clearly wrong to assume that culture within a nation is homogenous, but that doesn't mean his dimensions aren't useful analytic categories to think about the problem of communalism and group conflict.

  18. Ramnath Parkar was an outstanding fielder - Gopal was crappy even by the standards of Bengal in those days and he didn't really have the technical ability to last against quick bowling - played everything on the up and was exposed in Sri Lanka in the one tour he played. (He also ran SMG and AW out on that tour and understandably the Maratha lobby was pissed off).

    Abid was a very, very decent lower order bat and an outstanding close catcher as well as being a nice skiddy medium pacer.

    Barun and Subroto were absolute rubbish in the field and neither could bat for toffee.

    By the time Ghavri came along (he debuted in the third test of the 1974-75 series versus the WI and I watched him contribute 26 down the order in a matchwinning century stand with GRV), Guha and Burman were mere trundlers.

    Incidentally KG played for a Guju princely state and not Mumbai so, what are you cribbing about?

    Ghavri was a decent batsman and an outstanding chucker of left arm spin as well as the best selective new ball chucker I've ever seen. He won a couple of matches for India with his pioneering action.

    Ambar Roy (marginally earlier) would have been a better example if you wanted to find Bongs from the 1960-70s who could have made it to the Indian team.

    I'm surprised you left out Subroto Banerjee who played for Bihar and looked the part as a decent seamer and lower order batsman in the 1991 WC when he got a few chances.

    Speaking personally, I think instead of delving into history, you should start cribbing about the overlooking of Abdul Nechim Ahmad - he is at least as decent a quick bowling prospect as anybody in the country.


  19. Hey this post of yours is doing the rounds of a forward! cool Huh! Or may be you are used to fame :)

    There was a nice interview on CNN IBN I think with Amartya Sen.. on the same book and related issues.. hope u got a chance to see it...

  20. nice post...there's some pretty incisive stuff in there (the book and post both!) ref ur last bit, read something similar, in an express op-ed btw abt how muslim-hating is perfectly natch, in gujarat..we have such a looong way to go!
    (ps hv linked to ur blog coz is a compulsive read!)

  21. Hey guys... wake up.... There is no such thing as "Team India". It is actually "Team BCCI". BCCI is a private entity that is using the nationalistic value of the word "India".... India does not have its own cricket team.

  22. This discussion reminds me of the priest's homily last Sunday when he generalized, "of the 1000 channels in cable, 500 of them are good, the other half is evil". I was sitting there and I murmured to myself "ok"... History, Discovery, Nat Geo and 497 other channels are evil... Oops, we don't even have 100 channels in our subscription.