01 December 2006

Book Review: Identity and Violence, by Amartya Sen, *****


In this penetrating book, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues that we are becoming increasingly divided along lines of religion and culture, ignoring the many other ways in which people see themselves, from class and profession to morals and politics. When we are put into narrow categories the importance of human life becomes lost.

Through his lucid exploration of such subjects as multiculturalism, fundamentalism, terrorism and globalization, he brings out the need for a clear-headed understanding of human freedom and a constructive public voice in Global civil society. The hope of harmony in today's world lies in a clearer understanding of our sheer diversity.


This book makes one supremely important argument very well: to identify ourselves with an identity, no matter which, is both incorrect and dangerous. Most of us don't have ONE identity, but many. If one of them takes excessive precedence over the others, and we therefore identify ourselves mainly with it, we start down a slippery slope of exclusion of those who do not belong to it, even though we may share several of our other identities with them. The step from this process of exclusion to conflict and war is a short one to take.

I am a man who is or has been during his life an Italian citizen, a secular agnostic, a European, has lived many years in the United States, philosphically sceptical and politically cynical, a political scientist, an economics amateur, an international civil servant, a military analyst, a diver, a photographer, a consultant, heterosexual, a defender of civil liberties, an opponent of capital punishment, a believer in universal values, an existentialist, someone who is strongly attracted to Buddhism, a lover of classical music and cool jazz, someone who can't stand heavy metal and sports programs on TV (except the soccer world cup!), pro choice, in favor of birth control, someone who never watches TV, a hater of cigarettes who likes his pipes and a cigar once in a while, gastronomically and enologically curious, and many other things it would be too long to list.

Therefore, I can identify with many categories of mankind indeed. These categories are all like overlapping circles. Together, all of them make my identity, so I find it easy to be tolerant because I can share one or more of the above with most people alive on this planet.

However, if one chooses, or is manipulated to choose, a single identity as the only one, or the paramount one, to define oneself, it becomes more difficult to understand those who do not share that particular aspect of our being, even though we may share many others. At a personal level, conflict results, and on a broader scale this all too often means war.

People kill each other because of religion, football, abortion legislation, language, ethnic background and other single issues when one of these becomes their one and only defining identity.

I came away from reading this book thinking perhaps I don't have any defining identity, or perhaps I have a sort of "meta identity", the result of my personal blend of disparate identities. This makes me unique yet compatible with all other equally open meta identities of the world... I can be at home anywhere in the world because "me" is made of ideas, practices and backgrounds that come from all over the world. Perhaps I have no roots, but I don't mind, I have wings!


  1. I have only so far read the first chapter, but the book has provided unexpected comfort at personal level. The fact that I cannot give a short answer to the question "Who am I?" is not a sign that I am lost but rather than I have a low propensity for violence!

  2. Thank you I overheard a fragment of Amartya Sen's lecture at the Hay Festival, Hay on Wye, England, on the radio on Monday 25th May and was intrigued by what I heard. Now that I have read your comments, which ties in so well with my own view of the world - that ALL living things are part of a oneness, yet each and every one of these living things has its own unique perspective on the rest of the world due to its own individual environment and experiences (or 'domestication' as Don Miguel Ruiz calls it in his book 'The Four Agreements'), I am definitely going to buy his book and very much look forward to reading it.
    Brenda Webb

  3. I can't agree. Identity is not so easily dismissed. It is very hard to give clear definitions of what are identity might be ,but it is easier by saying what we are not. I, for one, identify with secular democratic principles and an open society, and not totalitarian ones, based either on political philosophy or religiously mandated. I am also not a cultural or moral relativist who thinks FGM or death for apostasty, for example, can be embraced. My identity lies in a broader European one, but then it is particular to the country and culture that I grew up in...for example, there is a Hungarian culture...it is not mine. I am not Hungarian, but long live that difference.



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