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Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Amartya Sen Paperback – May 1, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Nobel Prize–winning economist Sen deplores the "little boxes" that divide us in this high-minded but seldom penetrating brief against identity politics. Sen observes that ideologies of hate typically slot people into communities based on a single dimension that trumps the multifaceted affinities of class, sex, politics and personal interest that make up individual identities. This "reductionist" us-versus-them outlook is not limited to jihadists, he argues, but is a widespread intellectual tendency seen in Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" paradigm, in postcolonial critiques of democracy and rationalism as "Western" ideals, as well as in efforts to "dialogue" with moderate Muslims. (These last, he feels, pigeonhole Muslims in purely religious terms.) Sen rebuts the "singular affiliation" falsehood with a cursory historical, literary and cultural survey of the diversity of supposedly monolithic civilizations (Akbar, a 16th-century Mughal emperor and champion of religious toleration, is a favorite citation.) Sen's previous work (Development as Freedom) injected liberal values into development economics; here, he argues that the freedom to choose one's identity affiliations is the antidote to divisive extremism. Stitched together from lectures, the book is dry and repetitive. While Sen's defense of humane pluralism against narrow-minded communalism is laudable, he never really elucidates the social psychology that translates group identity into violence. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Violence is "promoted by a sense of inevitability about some allegedly unique--often belligerent--identity that we are supposed to have," argues Sen in this rejection of the civilizational or religious partitioning that defines human beings by their membership in a particular group. Reminding us that each person is actually a composite of many affiliations, the author informs us that he is Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an economist, a teacher of philosophy, a Sanskritist, a believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, and a nonbeliever in afterlife; he omits, perhaps out of modesty, that he is a Nobel Prize winner. Those who would define themselves according to one monolithic system of categories (read jihadists, communitarians, and Samuel Huntington and his followers), says Sen, ignore both the composite nature of humankind and the freedom to choose how much importance to attach to a particular affiliation in a particular context and, in doing so, perpetuate sectarian violence. The key to peace, then, is the rejection of stereotypes in favor of humane pluralism. Pithy and optimistic. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (May 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141027800
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141027807
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,598,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Daniel B. Clendenin on January 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Amartya Sen, Harvard professor and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, still remembers the day sixty-three years ago when a Muslim day laborer named Kader Mia stumbled through the gate into his family's yard in Dhaka, bleeding from knife wounds and begging for help. His father rushed him to the hospital where he eventually died. Kader was a Muslim who was murdered by a Hindu thug, and was but one of the thousands of people who died in Muslim-Hindu riots that erupted in British India in the 1940's. Although most of the rioters shared an economic class identity as poor people, partisans demonized each other with a lethal, singularist "identity of violence," in this instance a diminution of their humanity to religious ethnicity: "The illusion of a uniquely confrontational reality had thoroughly reduced human beings and eclipsed the protagonists' freedom to think." Sen's book is an exploration of this memory of his as a bewildered eleven-year-old boy.

Far too much violence in the world today is fomented by the illusion that people are destined to a "sectarian singularity." Stereotyping people with a singular identity leads to fatalism, resignation, and a sense of inevitability about violence. It partitions people and civilizations into binary oppositions, it ignores the plural ways that people understand themselves, and obscures what Sen calls our "diverse diversities." In particular, he objects to the "clash of civilizations" thesis made popular by Samuel Huntington. Along the way he explores the implications of his thesis for multiculturalism, public policy, globalization, terrorism, anti-Western rage, democracy, and theories of culture.

Sen argues against identity violence caused by the illusion of destiny in three ways.
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Roger Green on December 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Amartya Sen's "Identity and Violence" is an excellent, perceptive and penetrating book. The reviews by the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly are rather obtuse. There is nit-picking to avoid the reality that Sen has shown Huntington's clashes of civilisations thesis to be fatally flawed, for example, and the reality of Maimonides' flight from Spain to refuge in Islamic lands rather than to jew-hating Christian Europe, and the reality of others of Sen's examples. Saying that his writing style is dry (I didn't find it so) simply suggests the level of literacy of the reviewer and perhaps most of the reviewer's audience. Some of the negative reviews by individuals are obviously written by people pre-determined to not like what this author says. Saying that Sen's thesis about multiple identities is no good because the Islamic terrorists don't think that way rather neatly avoids his point that far too many in "the West" think the same way as the Islamic terrorists in this regard. The attitude of many of the reviewers simply illuminates Sen's point that too many people on both of the artificial "sides" actually WANT to scream at each other across their imagined single-criterion divide. I urge everyone to bypass the more negative of the reviews posted here, and to go read this book and judge for themselves. I was certainly enriched by reading it. Perfect? No, but immensely worth reading. I wish it was required reading in schools around the world.
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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 31, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a work that is at once literate, insightful, and witty. Dr. Sen discusses how the narrowness of self-definition has and does lead to violence among groups who, if they but thought more critically about it, have far more that binds them in common concern than that divides them into antagonistic camps. He also discusses how over generalizing can also dismiss the legitimate concerns especially of minorities. He does this in language that is a pleasure to read and with a mind that is at once incisive and also compassionate. The humor comes from recognition of how easily humans are led away from finding common ground by those who benefit most from keeping peoples divided.

This book is a necessary read for anyone who still prizes the ability to think critically and broadly.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Byrne on April 14, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The book makes two main arguments. First it argues that identities are rational constructions where group allegiances of all sorts play a part. Second it argues that globalization, though an unqualified good in principle, is in practice often merely a way for some group in a globablizing nation to reap most of the benefits while others suffer most of ill consdquences. Both arguments work together in Sen's view of how one might best understand the phenomena of *opposition to the west*. We (G8 nations) have fallen into the habit of seeing nations as wholes characterized by specific identities. Sen suggests that we'd understand phenomena like saudi-born terror groups or mass disaffection with the G8 by the citizens of latin america, by learning to see the world in a less reductionist fashion: namely intersections of various groups overlapping in persons and populations.

Sen's prose is quite clear, and I find his claims rather convincing. The books style is a bit grating though. It's very repetitive. The same ideas resurface again and again along with the same examples. I suspect the book is really a compilation of speeches Sen has given. Repetition is necessary in speaking because the audience doesn't have time to step back and make the connections themselves. But in a book like this, already quite short, it's a waste of the reader's time.

Also Sen is not very careful with his historical examples. One recurring story he cites is how my Maimonides fled Christian Europe for Saladin's Egypt. Not true. Maimonides fled Almohad (and thus islamic) Andaluz for Saladin's Egypt. This was an easy fact to check, and you'd think an author of Sen's stature whould take the time to make sure an example he will use four or five times is correct.

The book is definitely worth reading. I only wish the author had spent just a bit more time tightening it up and doing a bit more fact checking.
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