2016-12-19

Book Review: "Identity and Violence" by Amartya Sen

I've recently been able to read the book Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen. It's a relatively shorter book, taking me ~3 hours to finish. The author focuses broadly on how personal identity is neither singular nor static, but is multifaceted, context-dependent, and dynamically evolving over time based on the choices people make. He further argues that a lot of sectarian strife (whatever identity the sect may encompass) occurs because people can be led to make one facet of their identity encompass their entire identity and to then act in destructive ways based on that. Additionally, he provides numerous examples of how facets that tend to be associated with individual cultures (whether ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other), with such shoehorning leading to detrimental stereotyping and unsupportable cultural fatalism, have in fact emerged over many such cultures across continents at various points in time, sometimes independently, while other times due to cultural contact and diffusion. With this, he suggests that a lot of the well-meaning efforts to integrate religious minorities into Western society, as well as efforts to reconcile religious or ethnic factions that have been at war in other countries, are misguided due to their single-minded focus on the same sorts of categorization that have led to such conflicts in the first place, and that instead, such efforts should appeal to the broad variety of identities that people hold dear to them and that make them feel whole.

Overall, I generally agree with the thrust of this book (further justifying the notion that Amartya Sen seems to capture my lay ideas about economics and society in a systematic and scholarly manner), and the numerous historical examples of cultural interaction, cultural diffusion, and the development of ideas such as democratic political participation and the protection of human rights across continents and across time periods of course jibes with things that I've learned in history classes in school and elsewhere. The book is a pretty solid read (despite a couple of minor typos that can easily be overlooked), and it brings forth many interesting ideas. I'm glad that I read it recently, given that issues of privilege, identity politics, and communal violence have been in the news lately; I would perhaps like to think that the author may have articulated ideas of privilege and "intersectionality" before those terms came into vogue in the last few years for people interested in social justice, but something the book makes clear is that these ideas of intersectionality, if not the particular jargon, are probably much older than just a few decades. Despite all of that, I do feel like there may be a few things missing in the discussion, and my question about those issues come after the jump.

The biggest issue I have with the book, as it stands, regards its treatment of globalization in recent years. I do appreciate that the author provides many examples of the positive effects of globalization in centuries past and in the last few decades worldwide with respect to scientific and technological advances, especially as they relate to various facets of identity. He also provides some quick facts about how economic and social living standards have drastically increased through the world through market-based reforms, and how these need to be coupled to investments in social and economic developments carried out by governments and other organizations in order to answer the criticisms put forth by opponents of globalization (especially for those who oppose the economic dislocations caused by globalization in Western countries but not necessarily the particular social or technological changes that happen to be uncoupled from such economic changes), but that whole section about economic arguments for globalization doesn't really touch on issues of identity much, so it seems oddly out of place. It is worth noting that this book was published over a year before the 2008 recession and the changes that led first to fiscal austerity and then nationalist movements throughout Western countries, yet I still feel that given that the author does take note of the remarkably similar language used by opponents of globalization then as now, his analysis of the reaction to globalization seems incomplete and seems to overlook explanations of context that he provides.

For example, the author seems to suggest (in a manner suggesting that readers would laugh at the irony, which seems unduly condescending toward people who have these legitimate grievances with respect to globalization) that nationalism as a reaction to globalization is itself a product of globalization just because it is happening across the globe. Is that really true though? I'll admit that the Internet has certainly made communication and learning about similar movements across the globe much easier, and different nationalist movements across Western countries have at various points expressed sympathy for each others' causes and used each other as role models for furthering their own causes and protests. Yet, is it possible that such a uniform reaction is just a general reaction to a feeling of powerlessness and that people in power are far away and unaccountable? Moreover, could examples of the parallel emergence of nationalism and protectionism across various countries be found throughout history, in which the farther back in time one looks, the less likely it is that certain nationalist movements were spurred by other contemporaneous movements far away (due to the much slower spread of news and possible suppression of such reactions, even when compared to the slow speed of news in general and in relation to news about the ruling elites that must reach the masses)? (I ask this question in the first place because I don't know enough world history to answer it.)

Continuing with this thread, couldn't nationalism as a reaction to globalization be seen in the context of other forms of identity lacking adequate outlets of expression due to their muting from farther-away social/economic/political forces, thereby forcing the expression of nationalist sentiment to occur in the context of (and therefore visibly as the negative of) globalism as an idea? The author does a lot to show how identities are dynamic, context-dependent, and depend on the existence of free choice among various alternatives to different facets of identity, yet I feel like he unduly denigrates opponents of globalization and proponents of nationalism without considering this as a serious possibility.

Turning now to issues of identity, why are people susceptible to this sort of division based on singular identity in the first place? This issue is never made particularly clear in the book.

Is the reason for treating religion as one of many facets of identity just because most major religions are so broad (historically too) and have so many factions that pretty much any other facet of identity can be interpreted as consistent with the core values of a religion? In either case, this reasoning isn't fully fleshed out in the book. Moreover, isn't this overall approach just another form of reductionism (though of a somewhat different sort), lumping people of different religious beliefs together and then separating their other social and political beliefs for convenience, ignoring the historical and contextual developments of various social and political beliefs alongside various religious beliefs through time, and ignoring the idea that because so many people tie these beliefs together in (what they believe to be) a coherent worldview, others who try to have social or political views contrary to the teachings of their (more specific, not broader) religious communities could face social/economic/political repercussions (or even retribution) of some sort? I know that this book is based on the idea that true multiculturalism and multicultural understanding can only arise when expressions of various facets of identity and culture can be made freely without hindrance of certain possible choices (the feasibility set), but this is a normative statement, and I feel like the positive (observed) aspect of it is not addressed as fully as I'd like.

Going further, for some people, facets of identity like ethnicity, religion, and language are much more intertwined and and essentially inseparable (as can often be the case, given that experiences and exposure to other combinations thereof may be more limited), compared to what the author suggests. Wouldn't that multifaceted unification of separate aspects of identity make it easier, rather than harder, to rope people into doing bad things by providing targeted messaging that activates a sense of being wronged in all 3 areas (in this example) in specific aid of 1 such area?

Shifting gears slightly, it may well be possible to be scientifically-minded yet fall for hoaxes or unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, but while in isolation each could be taken as a separate facet of identity, how is it possible to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory worldviews? This isn't like religion which is so broad that it can be interpreted in any way. That said, the answer could be just that the person doesn't see broader analytical/critical/scientific thinking (only professional scientific practice) as a strong enough marker of identity to seriously question hoaxes or unsubstantiated conspiracy theories; in particular, this could answer that question, because this book is not generally about normatively making people reconcile facets of identity that conflict with each other in the hopes of making people have coherent philosophies of life, but instead positively describing what tends to happen.

Finally, is it really possible to counteract feelings of being wronged according to one aspect of identity simply by positively messaging about other aspects of identity - for example, by not just getting Muslim religious leaders, but also high-profile Muslim figures in other fields, involved when discussing the particular case of fighting back against radicalization of Muslims? For this particular example, I understand and agree with the notion that bringing in only religious leaders is reductive and ultimately unproductive, but isn't there a risk that this could just ring hollow and backfire, causing people to retrench into notions of singular identity (as it may have done for working-class folks who didn't really see the fruits of unity, low unemployment, wage growth, and higher productivity in the Brexit vote and in the recent US elections)?

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