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Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Issues of Our Time) Paperback – February 17, 2007
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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.)
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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
Top Customer Reviews
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. First, he appeals to our common humanity; everyone laughs at weddings, cries at funerals, and worries about their children. More important than any of our external differences, even though these are powerful and important, is our shared humanity. Second, he makes the obvious point that all people enjoy plural identities. To understand a person one must consider factors of civilization, religion, nationality, class, community, culture, gender, profession, language, politics, morals, family of origin, skin color, and a multitude of other markers. Plus, these diverse differences within a single individual depend on one's social context, whether the trait is durable over time, relevant, a factor of constraint or free choice, and so on. Finally, Sen urges us to transcend the illusion of destiny and identity violence by what he calls "reasoned choice." Instead of living as if some irrational fate destines people to confrontation with others who are different, a person needs to make a rational choice about what relative importance to attach to any single trait. Although Sen never explains why rational people succumb to the irrational violence of identity instead of choosing enlightened self-interest, economic incentives, and geo-political peace, this readable book by one of our most brilliant thinkers conveys an important reminder: "We can do better."
This book is a necessary read for anyone who still prizes the ability to think critically and broadly.