Monday, November 7, 2011

Amartya Sen's Controversial look at "Identity and Violence"

With the pressures of a demanding grad school program, my personal writing as been minimal, and I've missed that but still have an outlet in classes with personal reflections on literature, contexts, case studies, etc... that I can and want to share.  One of the classes I'm taking is a fascinating dive into identity with all its philosophical, biological, scientific, sociological and political implications in the field of peacebuilding/conflict transformation.  My approach to Sen's book was at times one of "devil's advocate" in this review, hoping to raise questions as much as give my opinion.  

                  In an issue as subjective and wide-ranging as identity and identity as a factor in violent conflict, there is necessarily a wide variety of possible opinions and insights.   Amartya Sen's book Identity and Violence takes an overarching view of identity as related to many areas including culture, religion, economics and politics.  This overarching viewpoint was necessary in that one of the areas where Sen excelled was in constantly illustrating that the singularity of identity, an idea which will be expanded upon below, is one of - if not the - main causes of violence.  There was an emphasis on questioning in order to eliminate what Kenneth Hoover would refer to as "identity foreclosure" both in ourselves and in how we see or recognize the concept of the other (Hoover, Marcia, & Parris, 1997).  In this, Sen was able to use easy-to-read language to prompt further investigation into his ideas. 
                Sen does not leave the reader with a multitude of answers, but perhaps that is as it should be.  By acknowledging the reductionist approach to identity, Sen by nature of his thesis cannot give pre-determined solutions.  Instead, Sen serves as a guide in a process of continued questioning.  This review will focus on a couple of the main problems that Sen emphasizes in how we view the world and the people around us, some potential problems in Sen's argument itself,  and the patterns of thought we can adopt to work at further understanding of identity's connection to violence.  Like identity, Conflict Transformation is in a state of flux, and we must maintain the mental resources of critical thinking to evolve along with an ever-changing world. 

Singularity in Identity

                In peacebuilding, we are constantly looking for ways to reduce "otherness" in viewing people in favor of seeing and emphasizing our similarities and where we can find a place to begin dialogue.  Sen's argument is that the very idea of the other is only possible by focusing our attention on one or at most very few traits in an individual.  This concept could also extend to societies and nations.  There is a hesitation to say it could include culture, because the idea of culture is one area that Sen claims is hard to define.  Culture upon closer examination seems to break down in various ways.   An example would be trying to pinpoint the cultural location of the origin of a particular mathematical concept.  If we go back far enough in history, and break the concept into small enough pieces, we would see that various people in different times, places and situations contributed insights that continued to expand in an evolutionary way. 
                In this particular volume, Sen uses the contemporary modality of West/Anti-West interaction for his illustrations.  Specifically, he focuses on "the West as related to Islam", thus immediately assuming the common identity framework used in current U.S. and British foreign policy dialogue.  As Sen illustrates, that dialogue is limited and divisive.  Both sides have chosen one label to place on the other, excluding the endless options that exist for identifying ourselves in a complex and pluralistic world.  All of the influences that have flowed East to West, West to East and back again are pushed aside in looking at this one way of seeing people.   And worse, this limitation is done by choice.  Environment always plays a factor in our decisions, but using religion as (in this case) a divisive element is not by nature deterministic nor is it necessary for it to be geographically oriented.  It is a decision that is consciously made and therefore it is a decision that can be consciously changed. 
                Sen makes great use of Samuel Huntington's idea of The Clash of Civilizations, which was also the title of a Huntington essay, to show how easy it is to compartmentalize people which then leads to conflict as we differentiate ourselves.  Huntington assumes a division from the beginning in order to make his argument.  By dividing the world into separate "civilizations", something very hard to do in and of itself, Huntington has created the conditions for conflict rather than devising a paradigm incorporating solutions to conflict.  Civilization is another term that is not easily definable upon close examination.  Where the influence of one idea ends and another begins is - at best - a vague or even non-existent boundary. 
                On the other hand, the problem with criticizing arguments like Huntington's is that the criticism can fall back on itself.  Sen's point is that Huntington has focused on one aspect of human identity, and by doing so has created a way for people to differentiate themselves.  Rather than illustrate where we need to focus our efforts, Sen would argue, Huntington has instead created the very need for a conflict transformation rather than its solution by inventing divisions through singularity in identity.  But isn't Sen doing the same thing by pointing to Huntington's thesis as a divisive element?  An interesting question arises which has been partly responsible for the controversy surrounding Huntington, and could be stated as follows:  "Is it possible to analyze a potential conflict without in some way creating a division between peoples in the very nature of the explanation?".  By pointing to what is perceived as the problem, we have brought attention to something that - if not already the problem - could become the problemThis could apply to Sen, or anyone, just as much as it could to Huntington. 
                Here is one example of some of the traps that those discussing identity could fall into.  It seems that there is a very fine line between viewing the traits we claim contribute to healthy diversity and/or viewing those same traits as something contributing to conflict.  As Conflict Transformation practitioners, it is necessary to emphasize the positivity in the way we view the various backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, politics, etc... of people vs. the negativity
                It could be argued that this statement is the key to understanding what Sen is trying to say.  His entire book seems to emphasize the attitude with which we approach the pluralistic nature of the world around us as much as it does the singularity in focusing on one or a only a few significant factors in identity. 

Defining "Culture"

                As an economist, Sen spends a good deal of time discussing the effects of globalization on culture, and what he means by culture.  It will be noticed that Sen makes a special point of attempting to name possible ways of looking at "cultural diversity" and what is it that we are truly trying to attain by having a culturally diverse society and world.  There are many ways that he goes about this, including the very definition - if there is one - of culture.
                Beginning with culture, one of the ways Sen attempts to shape the debate is around the ideas of cultural liberty vs. valuing cultural conservation (Sen, 2006, p. 113).  Here, he leaves us with two choices.  First, we can promote a society that encourages freedom of thought and allows the individual to make their own choices about what elements of their family, religious environment, nation, or any other ideology/thought pattern they wish to retain for themselves.  This is what is meant by cultural liberty, and it can be argued, is an important process for everyone to go through.  Nothing should ever be accepted externally, and one can only come to a realization of identity through the internal process of questioning. 
                This too is what many mean when they refer to self-discovery, and is where this reviewer disagrees with Sen's comment that there is no "self" to discover, that the self is simply a matter of choices we make.  It is true that the self is determined by choices, and Sen's point is noted that we have freedom of choice in shaping our lives.  However, the choices that any one individual will make will never exactly match another person's.  There is always the issue of context, and an individual context, by nature, is incapable of being repeated.  Where a particular person is in time, place, location, genetic/family heritage, gender, etc... is never exactly matched.  There is an individual there that is unlike anyone else, so in that sense, there is a self  to be discovered.  Further, this concept of self does not even begin to delve into the realm of the spiritual, where individuals have unique metaphysical connections and identities. 
                Where the reviewer would agree with Sen is when he makes the reference in the preface to the remark that "most people are other people" (credited to Oscar Wilde) (Sen, 2006, p. xv).  This is one concern raised by those who promote valuing cultural conservation.  Paradoxically, it is also a concern of some promoting cultural liberty.  What is meant by this?  Well, when people assume an identity fed to them externally, whether that be in the dominant messages received from the media, an admired person and/or leader, or any other source outside of themselves, they are not really questioning what it is that they themselves truly believe.  To take this argument even further, depending on how strong and how forceful those external messages become, it can be debated whether or not there is true cultural liberty and freedom of choice at all.  An extreme example could come from some of the Communistic totalitarian structures under Mao or Stalin.  A less forceful illustration would be the manipulative messages put forth by the media that influence every decision we make. 
                The other side to this argument, is that even in a society that proclaims and for the most part promotes what would generally be referred to as freedom of choice, those choices about "self" are still being made in a context of an ever-changing cultural environment, and further, an environment that is becoming ever more familiar with other parts of the world in our era of globalization.  So a particular culture is becoming ever more infused by influences from other "cultures".  As can be seen, the dividing lines between one culture and another very quickly begin to merge (and it is argued here that they have been vague throughout human history).  This is a concern for those who value cultural conservation, and therefore can become reactionary in attempting to preserve a perceived past that may no longer have the necessary conditions to preserve its existence, however it may be defined. 

Concluding Remarks

                It is the position of this reviewer that the intellectual aspects of globalization are indeed beneficial to all of humanity if we take the time to properly learn from the rich history of our world.  The economic effects can be debated as economics delves into the profit motive and all the implications  - most of all greed and exploitation - that that paradigm implies.  The key in that respect is to figure out better ways of including the have-nots in the area of basic human needs.  That needs to be the primary concern in the humanitarian work and global economics of our time, and we are badly missing the mark. But having access to the rich cultural heritage of places never before accessible (through technology such as the internet) can only mean increased choices for humanity, and the ability to tap into greater collaboration and larger ideas through the integration of so many individual identities.  The possibilities of mutual respect and by extension the reduction of violence through familiarity with diverse identities is greatly increased.  However, all must have access and that, again, must be the first priority.
                New forms of mobilization and democracy are also possible, and mutuality can further be increased by the expansion of dialogue through processes such as social networking and access to literature and the dominant ideas in different parts of the world.  All of this furthers understanding, and reduces violence by allowing our focus to expand in a pluralistic manner regarding identity as we learn more and more about those around us.  We can begin to see that those who share our planet do not have to be the other, but can be viewed as a different, yet beautiful expression of the common humanity that we all share. 

Hoover, K., Marcia, J., & Parris, K. (1997). The power of identity: politics in a new key. Chatham, nj:    Chatham House Publishers, Inc.
Sen, A. (2006). Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Pithom said...

This may well be my next purchase and new reading companion on the Tube...

Great review... has me pining for more. This is a topic that has very much consumed my own writing for a very long time, especially my Pithom works, including the Tablets of... and Tabula Conscientia. A lot of my poetry deals with this line of enquiry too. I've dealt with it purely metaphysically however, so some academia on the subject is certainly the way to go now.

I've been reading Race: The History of an Idea in the West, by Ivan Hannaford, and this has been a thoroughly enjoyable read. 'Identity and Violence' seems to be the most natural place to go now after reading it.


timradioboy said...

Thank you for reading and the feedback. I briefly glanced at some of your poetry, and much like you, I want to dive into all sides of what we mean by identity. I would also highly recommend Mary Clark's "In Seacrh of Human Nature" if you're looking at more academic approaches to the topic.

I am a Conflict Transformation/Peacebuilding grad student, and one of my main areas of study this semester is on identity and it's various relations to conflict in our world.

Pithom said...

I've just added "In Seacrh of Human Nature" to my Amazon wish-list, and about to read your review. Thanks.

Conflict Transformation/Peacebuilding sounds like an interesting subject. Good luck with your semester and the rest of the course. We all need it.

And thanks for checking out my poetry.