Oscar Wilde made the enigmatic claim, "Most people are other people." This may sound like of one of his more out-rageous conundrums, but in this case Wilde defended his view with considerable cogency: "Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation." We are indeed influenced to an amazing extent by people with whom we identify. Actively promoted sectarian hatreds can spread like wildfire, as we have seen recently in Kosovo, Bosnia, Timor, Israel, Palestine, Sudan, and many other places in the world. With suitable instigation, a fostered sense of identity with one group of people can be made into a powerful weapon to brutalize another.
Indeed, many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity. The art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations, and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have. The result can be homespun elemental violence, or globally artful violence and terrorism.
In fact, a major source of potential conflict in the contemporary world is the presumption that people can be uniquely categorized based on religion or culture. The implicit belief in the overarching power of a singular classification can make the world thoroughly inflammable. A uniquely divisive view goes not only against the old-fashioned belief that al human beings are much the same but also against the less discussed but much more plausible understanding that we are diversely different. The world is frequently taken to be a collection of religions (or of "civilizations" or "cultures"), ignoring the other identities that people have and value, involving class, gender, profession, language, science, morals, and politics. This unique divisiveness is much more confrontational than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that shape the world in which we actually live. The reductionism of high theory can make contribution, often inadvertently, to the violence of low politics.
Also, global attempts to overcome such violence are often handicapped by a similar conceptual disarray, with the acceptance explicitly or by implication-of a unique identity forestalling many of the obvious avenues of resistance. As a consequence, religion-based violence might end up being challenged not through the strengthening of civil society (obvious as that course is), but through the deployment of different religious leaders of apparently "moderate" persuasion who are charged with vanquishing the extremists in an intrareligious battle, possibly through suitably redefining the demands of the religion involved. When interpersonal relations are seen in singular intergroup terms, as "amity" or "dialogue" among civilizations or religious ethnicities, paying no attention to other groups to which the same persons also belong (involving economic, social, political, or other cultural connections), then much of importance in human life is altogether lost, and individuals are put into little boxes.
The appalling effects of the miniaturization of people is the subject matter of this book. They call for a reexamination and reassessment of some well-established subjects, such as economic globalization, political multiculturalism, historical Postcolonialism, social ethnicity, religious fundamentalism, and global terrorism. The prospects of peace in the contemporary world may well lie in the recognition of the plurality of our affiliations and in the use of reasoning as common inhabitants of a wide world, rather than making us into inmates rigidly incarcerated in little containers. What we need, above all, is a clear-headed understanding of the importance of the freedom that we can have in determining our priorities. And, related to that understanding, we need an appropriate recognition of the role and efficacy of reasoned public voice-within nations and across the world.
The book began with six lectures I gave on identity at Boston University between November 2001 and April 2002, in response to a kind invitation from Professor David Fromkin of the Pardee Center. The center is dedicated to the study of the future, and the chosen title of the series of lectures was "The Future of Identity." However, with a little help from T. S. Eliot, I was able to convince myself that "Time present and time past, / Are both perhaps present in time future." By the time the book was done, it was as much concerned with the role of identity in historical and contemporary situations as with prognostications of hereafter.
In fact, two years before those Boston talks, in November 1998, I had given a public lecture at Oxford University on the role of reasoning in the choice of identity, under the title "Reason before Identity." Although the organization of the thoroughly formal "Romanes Lecture," delivered regularly at Oxford University (William Gladstone had given the first one in 1892; Tony Blair delivered the one in 1999), resulted in my being marched out of the hall (in a procession led by university authorities in fancy dress) as soon as the last sentence of the lecture had been aired (before any listener could ask any question), I did eventually get some helpful comments later on because of a little pamphlet that was made out of the lecture. I have used the Romanes Lecture in writing this book and have drawn on my old text and also on the insights from the comments I received.
Indeed, I have benefited greatly from comments and suggestions after several other public lectures I give on an array o related subjects (with some connection with identity) including, among others, the 2000 Annual Lecture at the British Academy, a special lecture at the College de France (hosted by Pierre Bourdieu), the Ishizaka Lectures in Tokyo, a public lecture at St. Paul's Cathedral, the Phya Prichanusat Memorial Lecture at Vajiravudh College in Bangkok, the Dorab Tata Lectures in Bombay and Delhi, the Eric Williams Lecture at the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tabago, the Gilbert Murray Lecture of OXFAM, the Hitch-cock Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, the Penrose Lecture at the American Philosophical Society, and the 2005 B. P. Lecture at the British Museum. I have also had helpful discussions following the presentations I have tried out over the last seven years, in different parts of the world: at Amherst College, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Columbia University in New York, Dhaka University, Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, Koc University in Istanbul, Mt. Holyoke College, New York University, Pavia University, Pierre Mendes France University in Grenoble, Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, Rit-sumeikan University in Kyoto, Rovira Virgili University in Tarragona, Santa Clara University, Scripps College at Claremont, St. Paul's University, Technical University of Lisbon, Tokyo University, Toronto University, University of California at Santa Cruz, and Villanova University, in addition, of course, to Harvard University, these discussions have greatly helped me to work toward a better understanding of the problems involved.
For very useful comments and suggestions I am indebted to Bina Agarwal, George Akerlof, Sabina Alkire, Sudhir Anand, Anthony Appiah, Homi Bhabha, Akeel Bilgrami, Sugata Bose, Lincoln Chen, Martha Chen, Meghnad Desai, Antara Dev Sen, Henry Finder, David Fromkin, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Francis Fukuyama, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Rounaq Jahan, Asma Jahangir, Devaki Jain, Ayesha Jalal, Ananya Kabir, Pratik Kanjilal, Sunil Khilnani, Alan Kirman, Seiichi Kondo, Sebastiano Maffetone, Jugnu Mohsin, Martha Nussbaum, Kenzaburo Oe, Siddiq Osmani, Robert Putnam, Mozaffar Qizilbash, Richard Parker, Kumar Rana, Ingrid Robeyns, Emma Rothschild, Carol Rovane, Zainab Salbi, Michael Sandel, Indrani Sen, Najam Sethi, Rehman Sobhan, Alfred Stepan, Kotaro Suzumura, Miriam Teschl, Shashi Tharoor, and Leon Wieseltier. My understanding of Mahatma Gandhi's ideas on identity has been immensely helped by my discussions with his grandson, Gopal Gandhi, writer and now the governor of West Bengal.
Robert Weil and Roby Harrington, my editors at Norton, have been immensely helpful with many important suggestions, and I have also benefited from discussions with Lynn Nesbit. Amy Robins has done a superb job of copyediting my less-than-neat man-uscript, and Tom Mayer has been wonderful in coordinating everything.
Aside from the supportive academic atmosphere at Harvard University where I teach, I have also benefited from the facilities at Trinity College, Cambridge, particularly during the summer months. The Centre for History and Economics at Kings' College, Cambridge, has helped me by providing a remarkably efficient research base; and I am most grateful to Inga Huld Markan for taking care of many research-related problems. Ananya Kabir's work at the center on related themes has also been of great use to me. For excellent research assistance, I am grateful to David Mericle and Rosie Vaughan. For meeting the material costs of my research activities, I am very grateful for joint support from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation.
Finally, I must also acknowledge the benefit I have received from wide-ranging discussions, involving participants from many different countries, at the World Civilization Forum, arranged by the Japanese Government in Tokyo in July 2005, which I was privileged to chair. I have also benefited from the 2004 discussions of Glocus et Locus in Turin, Led by Piero Bassetti, and the 2005 Symi Symposium held in July in Heraklion, Crete, on the related theme of global democracy, led by George Papandreou.
Even though the current public interest and engagement in issues of global violence are the results of terribly tragic and disturbing events, it is good that these matters are receiving wide-spread attention. Since I try to argue as strongly as I can for a wider use of our voice in the working of the global civil society (to be distinguished from military initiatives and strategic activities of governments and their alliances), I am encouraged by these inter-active developments. I suppose that makes me an optimist, but much will depend on how we rise to the challenge that we face.
From the Jacket
The world may be more riven by murderous violence than ever before, yet Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues in this sweeping philosophical work that the brutalities are driven as much by confusion as by inescapable hatred.
It was at the age of eleven that Amartya Sen first encountered murder. The Hindu-Muslim riots, which suddenly erupted in the 1940s in India, were led by instigators on both sides. Most of the victims - both Hindus and Muslims - in those riots were poor labourers of the same class. But nothing other than religious identity was allowed to count in the murderous world of singular classification.
Sen argues in his new book that conflict and violence are sustained today, no less than in the past, by the illusion of a unique identity. Indeed, the world is increasingly taken to be divided between religions (or 'cultures' or 'civilizations'), ignoring the relevance of other ways in which people see themselves through class, gender, profession, language, literature, science, music, morals or politics, and denying the real possibilities of reasoned choices. When good relations among different human beings are identified in this way, human beings are deeply miniaturized and deposited into little boxes.
Here Sen overturns such stereotypes as 'the monolithic Middle East' or 'the Western Mind'. Through his penetrating investigation of multiculturalism, fundamentalism, terrorism and globalization, he brings out the need for a clear-headed understanding of human freedom and a constructive public voice in global civil society. The world, Sen shows, can be made to move towards peace as firmly as it has recently spiraled towards war.
Amartya Sen's books include On Economic Inequality, Development as Freedom, and The Argumentative Indian. He won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. He is Lamont University Professor at Harvard and formerly Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, England. His books have been translated into more than thirty languages.
Your email address will not be published *
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend