Taking people out of the boxes


IDENTITY AND VIOLENCE: The Illusion of Destiny, by Amartya Sen. Allen Lane, 2006, 215 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

Amartya Sen once had trouble getting a hotel operator to understand the spelling of his family name. So he spelled it out letter by letter in this form: “S for somebody; E for everybody; N for nobody,” an interesting play with words relating to the self, personal identity and perception of oneself, which is the focus of this interesting and important book.

He has had a glittering academic career in the often dismal and sometimes arcane world of economics. He was a university professor in his native India at the tender age of 23 and has held university chairs at Delhi University, the London School of Economics, Oxford University (two posts), and Harvard where he now teaches. He was the first non-Briton to head Trinity College, Cambridge, his alma mater as well as the richest college at Oxford or Cambridge. He won the Nobel memorial prize for economics in 1998.

This book, hard on the heels of his “Argumentative Indian,” marks Sen’s arrival on the global scene as a powerful, eloquent voice for reason and tolerance amid turbulent times.

Sen challenges Samuel Huntingdon’s view that the world is heading for a devastating “Clash of Civilisations.” The biggest mistake, Sen argues, is to see people as classified in a simple, singular way — put into cramped personal boxes — as English, Chinese, American or Japanese or, more to the point, Muslim or Christian. Each of us has many different aspects of our personalities.

As he says in his preface: “The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk (preferably in English).”

That sentence gives the flavor of the book. It might be classified as a work of philosophy, but that is a dark pigeonhole for a highly fluent, readable yet passionate work. Sen offers no complicated mathematical formulas here, no deep unfathomable economic equations, no dark incomprehensible philosophical matter — just the voice of reason crying out for common sense and a realization of what is at stake in accepting personal stereotypes as the truth about complicated human beings. Such miniaturization destroys the dignity and potential of human beings.

Sen has a wonderful grasp of the history and literature of East and West and quotes with ease from Jean-Paul Sartre, John Bunyan, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare and even Peter Sellers — “There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed” — as from the Mahabharata, Alberuni, Ibn Battuta and Rabindranath Tagore. Indeed, Sen’s sense of the richness of the global world derives from his early education at Tagore’s Shantiniketan.

He has his own prejudices and sometimes they show in a raw way. As someone who has retained his Indian passport even though working in the United States and Britain, he resents the idea that modern civilization is a Western invention. Sometimes he exaggerates his argument almost to the point of praising the pinnacle of Arab, Indian or Islamic science as if commonplace, while downplaying the considerable achievements of Western science. But on his basic point that civilization has flowered as it has borrowed, shared and developed the ideas and inventions from all over the world, his argument is sound.

Sometimes it seems that Sen is too hopefully naive, for example when he asserts that, “Being a Muslim is not an overarching identity that determines everything in which a person believes . . . . To see one’s religious — or ‘civilisational’ — affiliation as an all-engulfing identity would be a deeply problematical diagnosis.”

Surely that is the great problem. Not only fundamentalist Muslims but even moderates like Abdullah Badawi, prime minister of Malaysia, see their religion as their over-arching identity. Abdullah specifically rejected the idea of secularism in an Islamic state, though he supports tolerance of other religions. More fundamentalist states reject tolerance toward any behavior that does not confirm to their narrow interpretation of what Islam allows. Fundamentalist terrorists are at the extreme of this spectrum, determined to destroy anyone and anything that will not accept the embrace of their version of Islam.

As a liberal and a free-thinker, however, Sen does not underestimate the role of religion and a powerful belief in an almighty God in guiding the lives of fervent Muslims — as indeed of committed Christians, whose God may appear more loving but still expects their total behavior to conform to the Christian ideal. In fact Sen is not being naive so much as trying to show the absurdity of allowing a part of a person’s identity, however important, to overrule everything else. It may inhibit an individual’s development, but when that individual tries to enforce his or her life-view as the worldview on everyone and everything else, destruction and disaster threatens.

Sen is alive to the danger that when leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair talk to religious leaders to seek their help in calming tensions, they are bolstering the religious authorities at the expense of nonreligious institutions and movements.

He is undoubtedly right to be passionate. The idea that the world can be brought to the brink of disaster by a small fundamentalist group that — if the “moderate” leaders are to be believed — is a minority within Islam, which itself holds the allegiance of only 20 percent of the world’s population, is repugnant to the potential richness and beauty of the world (just as it would be if the 300 million Americans or the 1.3 billion Chinese tried to enforce their views on the rest of the world).

Such are the times in which we live that Sen’s final paragraph is a memory of himself as an 11-year-old Hindu boy cradling a dying Muslim laborer caught in religious riots in Bengal, and a plea that our world should not be halved by artificial horizons. Where are the bold hopes of creating a world that would be free from poverty and allow all 6 billion people to show their talents?