Sen explores how narrow concepts of identity imperil global security

By Leslie King | Emory Report | May 10, 2016

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"The newly popular singular view of identity is not only incendiary and dangerous. It is also astonishingly naïve," Nobel laureate and Emory honorary degree recipient Amartya Sen explained in a campus lecture. "In our normal lives, we consider ourselves as members of a great many groups. We belong to all of them."

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen took a philosophical approach in his talk "Global Security and World Civilization" as he inaugurated the Milton and Virginia Kafoglis Economics Nobel Laureate Lecture Series for Emory’s Department of Economics.

Introduced by Emory Provost Claire Sterk, Sen spoke Sunday, May 8, to a full house in White Hall — the day before he was presented with an honorary doctor of letters degree during Emory's 171st Commencement.

"We live in a divided world, partitioned by economic inequality and political disaffection, but also increasingly by the bellicose calculations by some single categorization of human being, reducing the richness of being human," Sen said in his lecture, which explored the impact of narrow views of identity on global security.

Awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 in recognition of his groundbreaking research into welfare economics and the understanding of how economic policies affect nations and communities, he is currently the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University.

"People have been made to fight each other to serve the imagined demands of their allegedly single identity, effectively along the lines of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, expressing itself in ways like communal slaughter, political butchery and wars," he continued.

This single identity is currently "increasingly taking the form of containing a hard and allegedly impenetrable division along the lines of religion or religion-based understanding of civilization," he explained.

But, Sen noted, that has not always been the case. At the beginning of the 20th century, in World War I, the Germans, the British and the French were all Christians. Nationality, not religion, was the great divider at that time.

It's important to remember that history, Sen said, because narrow-mindedness "can take many, many different forms. And if you have one kind of narrow-mindedness, another narrow-mindedness is a remedy for that."

Sen criticized "the presumption that the people of the world can be uniquely categorized according to some singular and overarching system of partition."

"The newly popular singular view of identity is not only incendiary and dangerous. It is also astonishingly naïve," he said. "In our normal lives, we consider ourselves as members of a great many groups. We belong to all of them."

Multiple identities

Sen then cited a variety of ways one person can be identified: "The same person can be — without any contradiction — a U.S. citizen, of Asian background, of Indonesian ancestry, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a movie fan, an environmental activist, a tennis player, a sprinter, and someone who believes that extraterrestrial beings should be taught how to write graceful sonnets, preferably in good English," he said, drawing laughter with the last identity.

"Each of the collective identities to which this person belongs simultaneously without any contradiction gives her a particular identity, which can be, depending on the context and circumstances, extremely important for her behavior and priority," he explained. "And these different identities can co-exist without any battle among them."

The singular partitioning of the world population according to some overarching criteria of identity makes the work of terrorists and other instigators of violence who exploit the use of singularity much easier for them, he said.

"The ultimate issue is not only of personal choice and how we should approach our life and how we may think of our identity, but also of how we may see others," Sen said.

He illustrated his point with the example of "the demand for expelling all illegal immigrants from the USA."

"Illegal immigrants of course do have the identity of being illegal, as well as illegal in status, and this is significant for public policy," he said. However, propaganda can make many already settled Americans, "particularly those nervous about their jobs," be persuaded "to see the identity of an illegal immigrant as being just that, as illegal, the total description.

"They have other identities, too, not just in terms of their shared humanity, their shared concern about their future, about their children, about families, about neighborhoods," Sen said, "but also in terms of the work they do, particularly for the economy, and the global perspective they can and often do bring directly and indirectly to American public reasoning."

Inclusive vs. fragmentary views of world civilization

Sen described two ways of thinking about the pitfalls of civilization in the world. "One is to understand the story in an inclusive form and to encompass the manifestation of world civilization in different parts of the globe, taking on the divisions as well as the interdependences between human lives across the world," he said.

He contrasted the inclusive approach with the fragmentary approach, "which segregates the beliefs and practices of different regions into separated and self-contained boxes," he continued.

"Recently, the fragmentary approach has come much into prominence, especially in the threatening form of the so-called clash of civilization," Sen said. "The entire subject has been elevated to the position of being of central concern in many Western countries today."

He referred to the "dreadful events of 11 September 2001" having ushered in a period of awful conflicts and distrust in the world.

"Indeed, many influential commentators have been tempted to see a firm linkage within the profusion of atrocities that you see around us today and the civilization of division primarily along religious lines," he said.

To categorize people according to an identity such as a member of the Western world, the Islamic world, the Hindu world, or the Buddhist world, is to reduce people to this one dimension, as Sen sees it, and to presume this must be the predominant influence in his or her mode of thinking — thereby ignoring all other identities related to economic, social, political, professional, cultural or occupational affiliation.

In his 2006 book, "Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny," Sen noted that he discussed the harm that is done by the implicit belief in a single identity and "how this intellectual confusion can be used to foment violence, as terrorists do to recruit people to fierce deeds against ‘those others,’ and how that intellectual disarray can make it very hard to resist violence or to win the so-called war on terror."

Celebrating global interdependence

The West is suffering greatly right now from violence against it by those who want to exploit the divisions between civilizations and traditions, Sen said.

The anti-Western jihadists, including Islamic terrorists, like to promote the idea of a fundamental dichotomy between the West and the non-Western world, he said. They see themselves as rigidly-separated Muslims, concerned only with their divergence from the West, and not with pursuits they can share with others in the world, including mathematics, science, literature or music.

Sen called it "altogether astonishing and truly tragic" that Western parochialists do not dispute the fragmentation of civilization and history.

"Rather than resisting the alienation that feeds the anti-Western violence, this adds further force to the terrorists’ segregated vision," he explained. "In this sense, Western parochialism and the belligerence it generates have been in an unstated and implicit alliance with Islamic terrorism."

Sen concluded, "The need for recollecting and celebrating the richness of the vast interdependence within our global civilization has never been stronger. It’s a huge intellectual challenge that we face with increasing urgency, I believe."