Diminutive Willis

December 2nd, 2006

View Amarya Sen's Identity and Violence at amazon.co.ukx
Whenever the World is facing catastrophe, whenever civilisation is in peril, Hollywood knows exactly what to do: send in Bruce Willis. He’ll blow up the asteroid, defuse the bomb, take out the terrorists one by one and save the planet. Single-handedly, while injured, despite his shirt being shredded and his face covered in motor oil.

Well, the World is facing some pretty shaky times and we need to look for saviours to take on the Willis role. So whom should we pick? After reading Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny I’m proposing Amartya Sen. OK, he might cut a diminutive figure next to Willis, and he won’t handle weapons with quite the same panache, but if anyone paid attention to his careful, patient, prose we would be a darn sight closer to saving civilisation.

Amartya SenHe’s only writing here on identity and sectarianism so we might need others for other issues. George Monbiot to fight global warming? Arundhati Roy to fight for people against power blocks? Richard Dawkins to tackle faith and superstition? But learning from Sen how better to get on with each other as individuals and communities would make a good start toward tackling the other problems.

Sen is a septuagenarian Nobel-prize-winning economist who made his name in development economics. In addition to providing complex mathematical analyses he would take time to point out simpler truths: “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” As a child, he saw both famines and communal killings in his native India prior to partition. Famines due to British mismanagement, and killings due to sectarian hatreds being stoked up by self-serving local leaders. He seems to have spent the rest of his life investigating how to deal with these evils.

The key point of Identity and Violence is that we all have complex multiple aspects to our personalities. As well as religious, ethnic, class and cultural backgrounds, we have many other facets that may include professional interests, political or sporting allegiances, social involvements, tastes in food, art or music and so on. To reduce any individual to being a cypher defined by a single feature is to diminish them greatly.

The second point is that the pressures for this reductive diminishing come from opposing sides embracing each other in a deadly dance. To respond to a stupid claim such as “all Muslims are terrorists, Islam is a religion of the sword” by saying “no, all Muslims are peace loving, Islam is a religion of beauty and truth” is simply to take on board the original accuser’s tactic of lumping a diverse and varied group together as one unified entity. It is in the interests both of the opponents of a group and of the leaders of the group itself to sharpen the group’s boundaries and lay claims to the group’s focus as being the defining feature of each of its members. But it is not necessarily in its members’ (or de facto members’) interests since once this reduction is agreed the racists’ work is largely done.

Sen therefore attacks the official views of multicultural Britain as “federations of communities”, where everyone is slotted into a single rigid, defining and unchanging community box. He calls this plural monoculturalism and argues that government attempts to tackle terrorism through the aid of religion (by cosying up to religious leaders, for instance) have magnified the power of the clerics over non-religious domains such as the social and political. The reductionist claims of the religious extremists are then strengthened not diluted.

He reviews arguments for and against globalisation trying to tease out meaning from this sprawling term. He points out that global trade in goods and ideas is nothing new and that the global influence on supposedly Western ideas should be better recognised. There is no real logic in opposing science just because it is seen as Western, but Sen reminds us that it’s as much the result of Indian, Chinese and Arab ideas (amongst others) as “Western” ones anyway, adding a further irony to this self-defeating stance. In fact, he warns that any exclusively oppositional mindset (against the West, against Islam, against the ex-coloniser, or whatever) is a severely restricted one since it cannot escape from being locked in relation to whatever is being opposed.

On specific issues he shows himself to be on the side of the light; he is solidly opposed to the arms trade (85% of arms are from the G8 countries, 50% from the US), to fatally restrictive patent laws, and to the outrageous barriers to trade facing poorer nations. He outlines the difference between trade justice where the poor are paid fairly, and trade exploitation where, in their desperation, they are forced to accept a pittance, and thus blows the trickle down/rising tide theories right out of the water.

He regards the UK government’s moves to widen state support for faith schools as outrageously divisive; we need more ways to enable the mixing of cultures, not to separate them. True multiculturalism (as opposed to plural monoculturalism) arises where people make informed and reasoned choices about how to live unrestrained by tradition or other pressures. For instance, a woman should freely choose her manner of dress, not be forced by one group into wearing a veil, nor by others into wearing a short skirt (my example). A particular behaviour is followed freely only where the awareness of (and possibility of picking) alternatives exists.

I’ve been dipping in and out of the frenetic exchanges on Pickled Politics and Ali Eteraz’s old and new sites, skimming the correspondence on the New Generation Network, and wading through the reams of comments on The Guardian’s CiF pages, and seen relatively few mentions of Sen. This surprises me, as I think he talks a lot of sense (and the NGN really should make him their patron saint!). At times I feel that much of what he says is blatantly obvious, but when I look around at the comments of bloggers it is more than evident that not everyone thinks this way. At other times his incisive turn of phrase gives clear expression to an otherwise murky or vague set of concepts (and I hope that I haven’t misrepresented him too horribly above). He’s an academic, a good-mannered campaigner, so he doesn’t shout or harangue you, even when covering emotive or volatile topics. But at the end of his quiet and precise book I found much to like and nothing to disagree with. That’s rare for me, and that’s why I think he’s a such a hero.

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