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Making Sense of Identity

How can we live together in a pluralistic society in a time when fractures along ethnic, religious, or outcast groups are intensified? How can a coherent Left be crafted from a diverse variety of groups focusing attention on their own issue at the expense of a universal project all can share? Since the 9/11 attacks, aggressive and vengeful energies have been released into the global community’s capillaries. This has given rise to inflamed viewpoints and actions on the geopolitical landscape, and some thinkers have begun to postulate an emergent “war of civilizations.” Surveying the global landscape, the United States and its fewer and fewer allies are mired in war and its devastating aftermath in the Middle East.

In the liberal democracies, Islamist cells have been found nesting within, plotting harm against their fellow and sister citizens. Less dramatically, some Canadian communities have not permitted girls wearing hijabs to play soccer, while others are extremely reluctant to permit women wearing burkas to teach their children. People are fearful, suspicious, and uneasy. What do we need to be thinking about and getting clear on, to create an open, tolerant, and critically engaged society? We can try to untangle the way identity is understood in our world, as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested, much of contemporary politics is animated by the struggle to be heard and recognized by valued others.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning social scientist, unravels some of the conceptual pitfalls of thinking about identity and civilizational conflict in his book, Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny (2006). My focus is on two chapters, “Making sense of identity,” and “Civilizational confinement.” Sen begins his discussion of identity by referring to V.S. Naipaul’s worry about losing his connection to his Indian past and affiliation after visiting Martinique. This observation launches Sen into an extended discourse on the robust plurality of our identities. We are not limited, or defined, by any single affiliation. We always must make choices about which identity is important to us, and which of our many loyalties is salient when we are making decisions in particular contexts. Sen has little time for those economist colleagues who define human beings as “single-minded self-loving human beings” (p. 20).

He thinks this formulation is too abstract and does not take account of the fact that a person’s sense of identity (let us say religious beliefs and practices) could “go against narrowly self-interested conduct” (p. 23). As Sen puts it, “The same person can, for example, be a British citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stockbroker, a non-vegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologist, and one who believes that God created Darwin to test the gullible” (p. 24). Sen argues, essentially, that our identities are not simply discovered, and once discovered (or uncovered), remain the essential source of all decision-making. This essentialism eliminates choice, because it is we who decided what our “relevant identities” are, and weight the “relative importance of these different identities” (ibid.).

Choice, then, must be viewed in a context-specific way. Your nationality or professional affiliation does not determine your decision to act. Sen cites the case of his wife’s father—an Italian philosopher, academic, democrat, socialist—who chose to abandon his profession to resist the fascist during the Mussolini era. Many other examples could be drawn upon to support this important idea. While our affiliations certainly influence and constrain our thinking and acting, persons retain the critical capacity to make judgments about whether they will act to promote the interests of their own group—their ethnic group, for example. Thus, it is not surprising that Sen is critical of communitarian ways of thinking that give priority to the community-based identity. There are several problems with communitarianism.

For one thing, the assumption that your community and culture determine your identity locks you indefinitely in a world not of your choosing. Your “self” is a mere extension of the community. Your “rationality” is formed inside the culture and cannot be universalized. If this form of reasoning is linked to an anti-Western sensibility, we then observe the strange sight of Western leftists affirming various kinds of superstitions and anti-rational practices in non-Western cultures. For another, while one acknowledges that “cultural attitudes and beliefs may influence my reasoning, they cannot invariably determine it fully” (p. 34). Sen states: “We are not as imprisoned in our installed locations and affiliations as the advocates of the discovery view of identity seem to presume” (p. 36). All of us experience disparate pulls and tugs on our sense of who we are.

In “Civilizational confinement,” Sen plunges into the maelstrom of contemporary distemper. Today, it seems to many, the intricate complexities of the interplay of civilizations in the global era have been, after 9/11, been reduced to a hostile war of civilizations, in particular the clash between the West and Islamic civilizations. To examine this topic would require enormous reading and analysis. Our purpose here is to gain a few analytical tools to help us sort out some guidelines for our thinking and practice. For Sen, the idea of a “clash of civilizations” contains two distinct difficulties: one, the viability of classifying people to a bounded “civilization,” and, two, the idea that these alleged civilizational totalities are necessarily hostile to one another. Can we, therefore, understand people “pre-eminently in terms of the distinct civilizations to which they belong?” (p. 42). And how valid is it to then label  civilizations according to religious identity?

Sen uses his opposition to the idea of a “singular identity” to criticize the civilizational hypothesis associated with Samuel Huntingdon. He thinks that civilizations cannot be comprehended as singularities because they are simply never homogenous or permanent identities. He challenges the claim that one can see India as a “Hindu civilization” when it has 45 million Muslims, Sikhs are a major presence, and India used to be the “Buddhist kingdom.” Both India and Pakistan even have dual-codes (one set of laws for Muslims and another for Hindus, and so on). India is famously heterogeneous! Sen thinks that Huntingdon’s characterization plays into the hands of Hindu sectarian politics. Those who act politically to impose a particular religious identity on pluralist societies often release hatred and anger into the society.

Advocates of civilizational conflict often simply assume that “Western values” are unique and privileged in our world. But Sen reminds us of some of the dangers of thinking of the West as a big basket category, as something essential with deep roots into the mystical past, that is, the “West” is “essentially tolerant” or “politically liberal” (p. 50). As others have argued before him, Sen points out that western science flowered from many sources outside itself. It is also common for defenders of the West against the rest to assume that democracy essentially belongs to them. And then they assume it is the West’s moral obligation to impose democracy on everyone else. But does democracy belong to the West? If democracy means more than ballots and voting and is more fundamentally about public forms of conversation, then the West cannot claim ownership. Indeed, the great Buddhist leader, Ashoka, championed tolerance in the third century BC. Moreover, “public debate and reasoning” flourished in ancient civilizations, particularly those influenced by the Buddhist enlightenment. Sen also cites examples from Muslim countries. He offers this axiom: “The western world has no proprietary right over democratic ideas” (p. 55).

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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