Caste, creed and community
May 11th 2006
From The Economist
AMARTYA SEN is just the person to write about the politics of identity and its dangers. Identity is a tricky idea, and in the wrong hands tricky ideas can be put to wicked mischief. The guiding thought of this wise, impassioned essay is that ethnic, religious and other such labels are often treacherous, especially when someone else is labelling you at your expense. Mr Sen's target is less group loyalty itself than political and religious leaders who manipulate group claims for their own ends.
When Mr Sen says that identities are rarely simple, he himself is a walking example. Hindu by background, he is secular in outlook. Though Indian, he has worked mainly at British or American universities. He was born in 1933 in Bengal, whose eastern half has since changed nationality twice: in 1947, it became part of Pakistan and in 1971 it split off as Bangladesh, both times amid terrible communal violence. Professionally Mr Sen is also hard to pigeonhole. A Nobel-prize-winning economist, he believes in the free market but also that inequality is a problem. In argument, he credits his opponents with their best next moves, like a chess player. Yet his indignation, when he wants, can be savage.
“Identity and Violence”, the latest in Norton's “Issues of Our Time” series, edited by Henry Louis Gates, opens with a concession. A standard complaint from partisans of community values or faith-based politics is that liberal individualists like Mr Sen overprize personal freedom: loyalties, that is, govern lives more than reason and choice do. So Mr Sen here repeats what he has spent much of his career saying: the rational fool of theoretical economics—the self-interested calculator with no attachments but to his or her immediate well-being—is a myth. Human allegiances—to family, friends, colleagues, city, nation, faith, knowledge, ideals, you name it—are real and essential to people's lives.
That done, Mr Sen turns to the attack. Allegiances, first, routinely jostle each other: family against work, work against ideals, ideals against community, and so on. You cannot successfully bundle them into smooth packages with a single all-purpose label, Muslim or Western, without sacrificing something of yourself that matters. Other people, by contrast, may well do that to you against your will. They may, to use Mr Sen's term, “singularise” you. Such coercive labelling is a first step towards discrimination or worse.
Next Mr Sen challenges three particular claims about attachments of caste, creed or community: that they are imposed—by birth, or however—rather than chosen; that they dominate other affiliations; and that they alone give individuals an “identity”—a sense of who they are. Together those claims add up to denying choice about the kind of person you wish to be. Mr Sen calls that denial “the illusion of destiny”. You could equally well call it the refusal of personal responsibility. Mr Sen is vague at times about just who is making such claims. Yet he is wholly compelling in his conclusion that no liberal-minded person, left or right, can accept them. If nothing else, he has drawn a line.
Much of “Identity and Violence” focuses on the Islamic world, although Mr Sen warns readers that lumping together such diverse societies by religion is already a false step: highlighting religion ignores other elements in Muslim tradition, especially science. More generally, talk of civilisations in conflict underplays diversity within traditions and interactions between them. The chapter “West and Anti-West” explores a destructive cycle of mutual stereotyping. Too few Westerners, Mr Sen complains, recognise democracy in non-Western traditions of consultation and public debate. Too many non-Westerners treat democracy and personal liberty as flawed Western idols.
Does Mr Sen see the world too much as he is: lucid, fair-minded and at ease with complexity? Perhaps he does underplay how far simplification and prejudice are willingly embraced rather than imposed. Yet whatever their source, Mr Sen knows perfectly well the harm us-and-them stereotypes can cause. When he was a boy of 11, a Muslim day-labourer ran, bleeding, into the family garden. Hindu rioters had knifed him on his way to find food for a hungry family cut off by the violence. The man died in the ambulance. “Identity and Violence” is a moving, powerful essay about the mischief of bad ideas.