Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence

Will someone please hire Amartya Sen an editor? His new book, Identity and Violence, is instructive and insightful, but it's also the most endlessly repetitive and frustratingly rambling book I've read in a long while. For every one step Sen takes forward, he takes four steps circling through what he's already said, so that you spend much of the book thinking "Wait! Haven't I already read this before?". This would be annoying enough if the author had nothing to say – but when the writer is someone as deserving of a careful read as Sen, it becomes doubly irritating, because you can't afford to skim the repetitive bits.

Consider an example. On the second page of the prologue, Sen writes: "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 out space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk". Well put. Except that he says basically the same thing again on page 19, except this time in first person: "I can be, at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a non-believer in the after-life." And then again on page 24. And something similar comes up on page 30 (this time his ex-wife's father is the example used). AND by page 46 we're back to the anonymous woman, who can be a lawyer and a feminist, etc, etc. all at the same time. Certainly, some ideas bear repeating – but five times in less than 50 pages is surely excessive. And that's just the number of times he's using this 'example' to make the point. I'm not even counting the myriad other ways he's trying to put across the same idea.

This sense of deja vu is made worse if you happen to have read some of Sen's earlier work – in particular his last book, The Argumentative Indian. A good part of the anecdotes from that book return in this one – we are told (at least twice in this book alone) how Akbar was making great reforms while heretics were being burnt in medieval Europe, how Akbar was all for the path of reason, the 'rahi aql' (shouldn't that be raah-e-aql, btw) but remained a proper Muslim his whole life. There's the usual talk about Ashoka. The anecdote about Mandela's childhood experiences of local democracy returns, complete with the quote from the Long Walk to Freedom. There's plenty of talk about ancient India's contribution to mathematics.

The point is not that these examples are not valid (and to be fair, there are several other interesting examples that Sen does bring in) or that Sen's basic arguments do not make sense – Sen is, in my opinion, eminently right – the point is that the constant repetition makes the argument sound less convincing, because it feels as though Sen has an incredibly limited store of instances to draw on. After the fourth time you've heard Aryabhata mentioned, you begin to wonder if that's the only contribution to mathematics that India ever made. Surely Sen, of all people, could bring a richer range of instances to bear. In their absence, he comes across less as a serious historian and more as a beloved and erudite uncle, one who goes over the same old war stories over and over again, forgetting, each time, that he's told them to you before. I believe Sen, but if I hadn't started reading Identity and Violence already in agreement with what he is saying, I doubt his arguments in this book alone would have convinced me.

Identity and Violence is also, I think, a much weaker book than The Argumentative Indian when it comes to dealing with India. Sen is surprisingly dense on India this time around – he tells us (twice again!) that India now has a Sikh prime minister, a Muslim president and a leader of the ruling party who's Christian – offering this as evidence of India's rich multi-cultural society. One expects better from Sen than this kind of tokenism – especially when, by his own argument, the relevant dimension by which to assess this 'achievement' may not be religion, but other socio-economic factors (caste, economic status, etc.). Worse, there's a point in the book (pg 168 – 169) where Sen actually makes the claim that "thanks to the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others…India has been able, to a considerable extent, to avoid indigenous terrorism linked to Islam", giving credit for this to the nature of India's democratic politics. Sen says that making this claim is embarassing for him as an Indian – but it should be embarassing for him as a scholar. That claim may be literally true, but it's made true only by adding 'linked to Islam' at the end of that statement. India is hardly a thriving pluralistic democracy free of terrorist violence. Remember Punjab, remember Kashmir? And what about the Naxalites, and the ULFA, and the dozens of other indigenous terrorist organisations fighting against the idea that they are a part of India? And it's not as though India has a particularly exemplary record of communal harmony either. Certainly, India's democratic credentials are impressive, especially when seen in context. And the point (made so well in The Argumentative Indian) that this democracy is not an entirely Western import, but at least partly a long-standing local tradition, is well taken. But the celebration of Indian 'democracy' must be balanced against the very real inequalities that exist in the country (again, something that Sen has done well before), rather than exalting India, as Sen seems to do here, as some sort of exemplar of how pluralism can be managed.

These initial quibbles notwithstanding, this is an impressive and insightful book. Sen's basic argument is both relevant and well-made. He makes three fundamental points:

First, that human identity cannot be defined on the basis of religion or region alone. Human identity is a composite of a great many categories, a wide range of dimensions, and while some of these dimensions may be fixed (in the sense that we cannot change them), we are certainly free to choose what weight we give to each category in defining (for ourselves) the identify of the self. To classify people on the basis of any dimension then, to group them together because they are the same in one way, is to completely miss out on the dozens of ways in which they are different. This sort of single category focus is therefore misleading and wrong. Moreover, adopting such a focus creates a potential for polarisation, which eventually leads to the sort of violence between communities that is becoming an increasingly common feature of our world today. If we recognised that people are not just Christians or Muslims but a wide variety of other things besides, we would begin to see the many ways in which the people we are fighting are just like us, and would have incentive to make common cause with them, rather attack them. Definitions of identity matter, because narrow definitions enable violence.

Second, this pluralism of identity has important implications for socio-historic theories that tend to categorise large populations as belonging to a certain culture – the 'clash of civilisations' hypothesis. These theories are wrong for two reasons: first, because they ignore the rich diversity that exists within the supposedly homogenous cultural groups they define. There is no such thing as a Hindu culture or an Islamic culture, there are only Hindus and Muslims, people who live in South Asia and people who live in West Asia, and all of these people have widely diverse views on ethical, social and cultural issues. Clubbing them together into one meta-culture is non-sensical, asking the question of whether this meta-culture is compatible with other such (bogus) meta-cultures even more so. And second, theories of the 'clash of civilisations' are exercises in historical revisionism, because they completely overlook the rich tradition of linkages between cultures. Neither democracy nor science is the exclusive domain of the West, on the contrary, much of what the West considers its own today came originally from the East, so that there is a very real sense in which civilisation is a truly global phenomenon.

Third, thinking about identity as a choice of weights between different dimensions of the self leads us to the importance of cultural liberalism, and giving people (especially children and young people) the right to choose what values and cultural influences they want to make part of their identity. Multiculturalism, Sen points out, is not about maintaining cultural diversity, it is about allowing for it. In a truly pluralistic society people have a right to choose whatever lifestyle they prefer, and are not forced to adapt to the majority lifestyle any more than they are forced to go in for cultural conservatism and made to inherit the culture they were born into. Restricting people from choosing outside the cultures they were born into (as is implied by British initiatives to put in more faith-based schools) not only goes against the principles of multi-culturalism, it is also dangerous, because it forces people to define their identities more narrowly, and sets the grounds for alienation that ultimately results in violence. We must not only learn to judge people on the entire range of identity choices they make, we must also ensure that they have sufficient exposure to other cultures, values and ideas to keep them from getting pigeon-holed into the sort of narrow identities that make them amenable to manipulation by self-seeking sectarians.

There are several other good points that Sen makes in the book, drawing on the arguments made above. He speaks about the role of religion and the expectations we have of it – arguing that we should not simply assume that the best representatives of immigrant or minority communities are their religious leaders, recognising that religion is just one of many factors defining community interests and identity. He makes a case for globalisation, pointing out that misguided anti-Western parochialism has no place in the quest for human development, but acknowledging the need to pay close attention to the distributional effects of globalisation and the role that appropriate institutions must play in ensuring that globalisation does not increase international inequities (which will eventually lead, he points out, through a process of humiliation and antagonism, to further increases in polarisation, terrorism and violence) [1].

All in all, then, Sen makes several interesting observations here, and his perspective on key international issues is fascinating. While I would be loath to disagree with anything Sen is saying [2], I do think, however, that he doesn't take some of his arguments far enough. One of the more frustrating things about Identity and Violence is that again and again Sen comes up with an observation that seems crucial, but then doesn't really develop it.

Let's start with the 'religion does not define a person' argument. This is undoubtably true – people of the same religious faith can, and do, hold wildly divergent views about a whole host of issues, but the point that Sen alludes to, but never quite develops, is that religion itself is an amorphous quantity, open to a wide variety of interpretations. What do you absolutely have to believe to be a Hindu? What values, what ideologies do you necessarily have to adhere to? Practically none. The idea that belief in a certain faith automatically defines some part of a person's principles and value system is a persistent one, but because of the inherently ambiguous nature of practically all major religions, it is, in my view, entirely false.

Let me give you a personal example. In the spring of 2003, during the initial invasion of Iraq by US forces, I was visiting friends in the US and happened to attend (don't ask me why) a young people's Bible reading session. Our text for the evening was the book of Joshua from the Old Testament. Have you ever read the Book of Joshua? It's a flat-out terrorist manifesto if I've ever read one. God has promised the Israelites land, so they proceed to invade and mercilessly slaughter all the existing inhabitants of the region. The only people spared are those who turn against their own people and aid the invading armies (also known, in plain English, as traitors). The basic message: it's okay to kill innocent people and destroy their cities as long as your God ordains it. Or at least that's the message the group took away from their reading (while I sat in horrified silence at the back) finding, in the book, affirmation for the invasion of Iraq by Bush & co.

The point is (emphatically) not that Christainity is an evil religion, driven by blood-lust. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that emphasise the importance of mercy, 'Thou shalt not kill' is right up there among the Ten Commandments. The point is that the Bible, like most other religious texts, is complex, capacious and contradictory enough to allow for a wide variety of ethical views. The religions of the world are not narrowly defined bodies of ideas that provide clear prescriptions on moral issues, comforting as it may be to believe so, they are diffused entities that can sponsor almost any action under the sun. The Devil can quote scripture for his purpose.

This point is important because it's one of the key enablers of the sort of multiplicity of perspectives and ideas that Sen argues can be espoused by people of the same religion. If religions were truly as directive as we often perceive them to be, then there would be a fairly narrow set of beliefs that would be consistent with holding a particular faith, so that religion would truly go a long way towards defining identity. It's because the set of things that is inconsistent with any religion is so small that whatever religion you happen to belong to has little influence on who you really are. That's why it's such a bad idea to make judgements about people based on their religion.

My main criticism of Identity and Violence is that Sen, even as he clearly explicates the reasons why single dimension identity measures are wrong, never really discusses the question of why such narrow measures end up being adopted [3]. This is not simply an academic question. If Sen's argument is that we must step away from the adoption of such narrow frames, then surely the question of why such frames end up being adopted in the first place is a critical question to look into.

My two-cents worth of argument is this. The essential problem, in a world threatened by violence, is one of identification. Faced with the horror of September 11, we need to have an enemy. But how is this enemy to be identified?[4] Sen would argue that we must apprehend this enemy by a careful consideration of various social, cultural and economic aspects of a person's background, as well as their own personal beliefs and choices. There are at least two problems with this. First, the processing power needed to truly understand another person's identity is enormous. We are barely able to apprehend the people we are closest to in their entirety, so what realistic chance do we have of 'understanding' who someone is before condemning them as an enemy? Second, to the extent that identity is about personal choice, our knowledge of it is constrained by self-reporting, thereby raising the possibility of moral hazard. Sen makes this point himself, in response to Lord Tebbit's 'cricket test' (a procedure by which a person is considered a true British citizen only if he cheers for England in a cricket match, even against his home country), pointing out that it would take little effort for a terrorist to cheer England in a match without changing his views or intentions in any way.

The problem then, is to find some way of classifying the enemy that is both easily observable and at least somewhat difficult to change or misreport. Any realistic attempt to identify the enemy must look for patterns, however inconclusive, in the composition of terrorist groups. And the empirical fact is that, in the world as it exists today, the fact of belonging to a particular religion or hailing from a particular region may be correlated, in a statistically significant way, to the probability of being a terrorist. This is where, I believe, narrow views of identity evolve from.

The problem is compounded by the assymetry in costs of making an error in either direction. What is the cost of suspecting an innocent man? What is the cost of not suspecting a terrorist? As long as we believe that the costs of ignoring an enemy is greater than that of mistakenly assuming someone is an enemy, there will always be a bias to play it safe and go after anyone who we might have reason to believe may mean us harm, even at the cost of being unfair.

An everyday analogy may be useful. Assume you're walking down a street in a US city late at night, and you see two young African Americans coming directly towards you. Do you keep walking, or do you cross the street / turn away so as to put some distance between you and them. And if you do the latter, does that make you racist? Perhaps. But the fact is that crime statistics are very clear about the disproportionate number of crimes committed by young African Americans – so that, statistically speaking, there's good reason to believe that you're at a much higher risk of getting mugged by two young black men, as opposed to an elderly white woman. Crossing the street may well be the more prudent thing to do.

Two things are important to note here. First, crossing the street doesn't mean that you think that all African American people are thieves, only that there's a statistically higher probability of it. If you ran into an African American person you knew or were friends with, you'd have no reason to cross the street. But in the absence of any other information you have to make the best assumption you can. Nor can you get to know the person approaching you better at that point – you can't shout across asking them whether they're looking to mug you, for instance. Second, you don't need to believe that being either young or African American is a cause for them being muggers. The argument above is one of correlation, not causality. The fact that crimes by African Americans are more common has nothing to do with race, it has to do with socio-economic disparities between races. White people growing up in the same neighbourhoods with the same opportunities (or lack of them) may turn just as easily to crime. The fact is though, that African American people are disproprotionately subject to the kind of deprivation that drives crime rate up, so that race may still be a good indicator of the propensity to crime, without being a cause for it.

Let's take the example one step further. Let's say you adopt a rule that says that anytime you see anyone coming directly towards you on a street after 1 in the morning, you'll cross the street and avoiding passing next to them. And in 9 out of 10 cases the people you end up avoiding based on this rule are young African Americans – if only because they're the people most likely to be out on the streets at that time of night (any time you see a 65-year old white woman alone in a deserted alley at two o'clock in the morning – be very afraid). Does that make you a racist.

The point is not just that it's easy to see how repeated trials of this rule of yours could leave you biased against African Americans, and could cause you to start using race as an indicator of criminal propensity. The point is also that even if you managed to resist falling into that trap, it would still look to an outsider as though you were just prejudiced against African Americans, and African American community leaders, wanting to condemn you as being racist, would find easy fodder.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that prejudices based on religion or race are justified. They are not. I'm only saying that Sen, in delivering his impassioned argument against narrow definitions of identity, isn't paying enough attention to the real pathology by which those narrow identities come to be accepted. The opponent Sen takes on is a convenient strawman of prejudice disguised as grand theory, and he does an exquisite job of demolishing that opponent. But how many people really believe the grand theories anyway? How many people don't already recognise that Muslims or Hindus or Asians can be more than their stereotypes, that religion or homeland alone does not define an entire human being. That point is certainly worth reiterating and remembering, but the fact is that the narrow lenses of identity that have been adopted recently are a result of people being very frightened and not having any better way of telling friend from foe than these crude measures. Just reminding them that these measures are crude and that the assumptions underlying them are shaky at best is valuable, but it may not be enough. If we really want to create a more pluralistic world, then we have to either make people less afraid or give them a better way of identifying the enemy than religion or homeland. Otherwise one could refute Sen's arguments by saying – yes, we're making some really bad assumptions, but why shouldn't we use them as long as they're making us a little safer and you don't have anything better to offer? Sen could argue back that these assumptions are fundamentally unfair to large sections of immigrant populations, but expecting people to disregard their own safety for some abstract notion of fairness is hoping for too much.

Does this mean that Sen's arguments, though sound, are simply impractical and can be ignored? Should we just go on defining identity in narrow ways until we can come up with something better?

No. For one thing, Sen's book clearly highlights the dangers of empiricism giving way to prejudice. Even if we believe that using narrow measures of identity may be a justifiable empirical strategy, we must be clear that these measures are provisional at best. It's important to be clear about the assumptions implicit in using them – first, that they are correlated indicators, not causal variables, and second, that they are measures to be used in the absence of other reliable information only. A good empiricist sets up a provisional null hypothesis and then does his best to disprove it – the thing you want to be true is almost always the alternate hypothesis. Even if we are to adopt a guilty until proven innocent approach, we must recognise that this entails making serious and open-minded effort to prove the accused innocent. We must not sink into the complacent assumption that all people belonging to a certain religion or geographic area are the enemy, or generate bogus theories that justify this myth; we must rather be aware of the fact that there are many, many other dimensions of identity, and search for evidence on those other dimensions that would weaken the beliefs we hold about a person based on his religion alone. We may use the narrow lens when we have to, but we should constantly be trying to expand it. 

There is, however, a stronger reason for avoiding narrow definitions of identity, one that Sen vaguely points to in his book, but, surprisingly, never really develops. In Chapter 2 of the book (pp 26 and 27) Sen makes the point that there are almost an infinite number of ways in which identity can be categorised, but that not all of them are salient. There is, theoretically, a community of people who wear number 8 shoes, but this is not normally a categorisation of any political importance [5]. Sen goes on to argue that were we to live in a world where size 8 shoes were particularly difficult to find, for some reason, then this may well become an important way of classifying people.

That, I think, is a central point. People come together in communities to obtain support in the face of opposition and adversity. And, often enough (and especially in the absence of other alternatives) they come together with people who share the same adversity, thus making joint action possible. If people with size 8 shoes were suddenly to be discriminated against, people who wore size 8 shoes would come together in solidarity, even though they had almost nothing else in common between them. And that's why victimising people on the basis of one narrow dimension is dangerous – because it can create a reason for solidarity between people who would otherwise never have got together. Singling out a particular community for humiliation or mistreatment will only cause them to feel alienated and make them easy prey for sectarian influences. How many people who never thought of themselves as Jews before the Holocaust became militant Jewish activists after it? How many perfectly well-meaning young men and women have been driven by assaults on their homeland or racism abroad to become suicide bombers? Ultimately, prejudice is self-fulfilling.

Sen, making the case for multiple levels of identity, quotes Shylock from The Merchant of Venice: "fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?". The truly revelatory lines, however, come later: "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? …The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction". This social Pygmalion effect is, in my mind, the most practical and immediate reason why Sen's arguments against adopting a narrow lens are so important. It's a pity he doesn't discuss this more. 

Not that this idea isn't implicit in Identity and Violence. Sen talks at length about how restrictive schooling and an emphasis on plural monoculturism and cultural conservatism may cause young people to become alienated and provide easy fodder for sectarian violence. But for some strange reason, he seems to believe that this is threat only for young children who, in the absence of exposure to other cultures, may not be able to make intelligent choices. I see no reason, however, why adults are not equally susceptible to mono-cultural influences, especially when the cultures they may want to belong to are cutting them off. To argue that people who have once been exposed to a range of cultural influences will make intelligent choices seems naive, and ignoring the effect of being viewed through a narrow lens on a person's definition of self is perilous. Identity is at least partly a social construction, and if we insist on seeing some people as terrorists based on their religion alone, it may not be long before they prove us right.[6]

One final criticism of Sen's arguments before I close. At one point in the book, Sen argues that the West has been wrong in looking to Islamic leaders to strike a blow against terrorism by excommunicating known terrorists. Being Muslim, Sen argues (for the umpteenth time), is not inconsistent with a wide variety of other beliefs and actions, and while the Islamic leaders may condemn the acts of the terrorists (which they have) they need not necessarily excommunicate the terrorists unless the terrorists actively repudiate Islam. To expect this from them, Sen claims, is unrealistic, and to infer from this that terrorism and Islam are somehow linked makes no sense. There is no 'true voice' of Islam – neither moderate nor violent.

That argument, as far as it goes, is exactly right. But it does beg the question – what is the responsibility of religion in our troubled times? Certainly, we cannot (and should not) automatically expect the Islamic leadership to excommunicate people like Bin Laden from their faith; certainly, there is no necessary contradiction between being a good Muslim and being a terrorist, any more than there is a direct relationship between them. But while we may not demand excommunication, is it really too much to ask? How exactly should a religion respond if violence and bloodshed is being committed in its name [7]? Sure, religions can stick to the line of not constraining any political / social actions not directly in contravention of their faith, but should they? If the religions of the world can play a more active role in stemming or weakening the forces of sectarian violence, shouldn't they be doing so? And how should we think about the relevance of religion in our life, if it does nothing more than issue empty condemnations that nobody heeds? Sen's point that religion is not everything and that we must stop assuming that it is, is well taken. But as long as religion is something, it is surely legitimate to ask what it is, and what role it is to be expected to play. Sen does not, for the consistency of his book, have to explore that theme. But I wish he had.

Overall then, Identity and Violence is an engaging if somewhat frustrating book. Engaging because it elucidates a perspective on violence in our world that is well worth keeping in mind. Frustrating because too much of it seems like a rehash of things Sen has written elsewhere, and too many closely related issues that could and should have been profitably explored are left out. One is grateful to Sen for having written this book. One hopes, however, that the next time he gets around to writing a book he has a lot more new things to say.  

[1] Interestingly, Sen also makes the point that at least some of the responsibility for the failure of civil liberties in the Third World lies with the West and with the dynamics of the Cold War. In particular, he points to the global arms trade – 85% of which originates in G8 countries, creating, he argues, a push for its use in the third world – as well as making the more general point that the West, while extremely conscious of democracy and civil liberties on its home ground, has been fairly negligent towards the rest of the world. 

[2]  I may be arrogant, but I'm not arrogant enough to take on Sen. Yet. :-). 

[3] To be fair, Sen does raise that question towards the end of the book (pp. 175 -176). But he never really attempts to examine the reasons for it, being content with saying vague things about "fragmentary logic" and drawing on "some basic instincts". The real question – why this works and why it seems so natural – is never really taken up.

[4] For a fuller discussion of the Identification problem, see Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict

[5] I am reminded of a Borges short story where the protagonist comes up with the theory that all people are part of an infinite set of groups, that for everything you are or do there is someone else out there who is or is doing exactly the same thing, and that all these categories could be listed. 

[6]  Notice that this ties nicely back to the argument about differential costs of errors in identifying the enemy. Wrongly accusing someone of being a terrorist may not be quite as harmless as it seem. 

[7] And I don't mean just Islam here – the argument holds for all religions.