Monday, 30th October 2017

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IN A BIND - Miniaturization of the self

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  • Published 28.04.06

Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny By Amartya Sen, Viking, Rs 295

Identity and Violence is a characteristically lucid, cogent and humane critique of the concept of identity and the violence it generates. The link between identity and violence is intimate and plays itself out at many levels. Collectively, identity is sustained by a series of exclusions: to have an identity is to be one thing rather than another. But the importance we give to identity can easily slip into the more contentious claim that the world must recognize and acknowledge our identity as we do. But this claim issues in a desire to make the world conform to our identity, to expunge it of all that complicates our identity or is alien to it. Identity is like a pitiless sovereign: it demands that its claims be primary. But inwardly directed, the claims of identity can mutilate the self: it can abridge its possibilities, it confines it to being something less than it can be, it can bind its possibilities by restricting change. The argument of this book can be expressed well in two sentences of Nietzsche. The first is that ?Love of just one thing is bad; even God.? And the second, ?Only a historical being can be defined.?

Identity, in Sen?s resonant phrase ?miniaturizes? the self; it excludes diversity by its emphasis on singularity, and change by its emphasis on fixity. And finally, Sen has a profound sense of Emerson?s claim that no society is as large as a single individual. To abridge choice, to tailor it to the demands of a collectivity is not only to limit one?s possibilities, it is also to abdicate the very idea of ourselves as a human agent, constantly making choices and judgments. To make the demands of a collective identity trump all else, is also to live vicariously. It is to give ourselves over to the illusion that our lives should be governed by the demands of moral claims that lie outside of us. Sen, of course, recognizes the role of identity in our lives, but these can be freely chosen, multiple, and above all subject to a concern for justice. Identity disables the claims of morality.

While Sen has a lot of incidental insights into the psychology of identity, often articulated wittily and poignantly, the real target of this book is intellectual constructions that valorize identity in different forms. The targets include, most obviously, writers like Samuel Huntington, whose thesis of ?the clash of civilizations? casts a long shadow upon this book. Sen is at pains to refute this thesis both normatively and empirically. Huntington?s fallacy, according to Sen, is to construct the world through simple categories that are dangerous because they are self-fulfilling prophecies. Empirically, the lines of conflict do not match the boundaries of civilizations: civilizations are not what Huntington claims they are, his claims belie the facts of interconnectedness, and intra-civilizational conflict is more powerful than inter-civilizational conflict. I am not entirely convinced that the last two claims are incompatible with Huntington?s argument, but Sen is right to wonder how categories classifying people acquire authority in the first place.

But the book is also a clear-eyed refutation of an assortment of seemingly more benign uses of identity politics, of the sort that you find in multiculturalists, advocates of inter-faith dialogue and alliance for civilizations. These claims share more with the clash of civilizations thesis: they assume that identities have clearly delineated boundaries, and Sen spends great efforts deconstructing a range of oppositions, between West and non-West, between Islam and the Rest.

Multiculturalists, while they speak the language of peace and often justice, do not often liberate individuals from the shackles of identity. Sen would rather, as his previous work suggests, speak of expanding the range of our effective freedoms, including the freedom to have many identities, to become something different or more than what we are. As always, Sen carries his learning lightly; but the accessibility of the argument should not belie the radicalness of the claims being presented.

There will be some quibble with Sen?s attempts to create a more usable past for a range of communities. But there are points at which Sen?s argument really leaves you wondering. First, we know, and Sen acknowledges, that the allure of identity often arises as a response to perceived injury: nationalism is a perfect example. We also know that there have rarely been forms of collective action that do not rest upon forms of identification that place exactly the sort of overriding demands on individuals that Sen describes.

Is it possible to imagine forms of politics that do not rest on such identifications? Is it simply enough to gesture at such possibilities? What are the conditions under which a politics can arise that does not run the risks inherent to identity? A second and related question: is Sen too much of an Enlightenment thinker to really be able to explain identity politics. The explanation, insofar as this book has one, is largely cognitive: it is something of an intellectual mistake that leads us down the path of identity politics; on this account clear argument and right education can do the job. In a chapter on ?Globalization and Voice?, there is also a hint that forms of exclusion and inequality need to be more urgently tackled. But is this all there is? At one level, the intellectual fallacies of the claims of identity politics are easy to unravel. At another level, this unravelling only deepens the mystery about why so many are in the grip of identity politics, why people even kill for classification. Perhaps in the end, Sen is too nice to be able to fully fathom the moral psychology and allure of identity politics. As the critics of Enlightenment had charged, the greatest theorists of freedom are not always the greatest readers of the vagaries and inconstancies of the human soul.