Identity can be a tricky thing.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s not.
My ambivalence about this is partly professional and partly personal; in both senses I’ve been subject to influences which make it difficult to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ The influence of postmodern theories in history over the past two decades or so has tended to emphasise identity as – on the one hand – in some way floating and fragmented, and – on the other – a matter of free choice. So, depending on whom you read, who we think we are ends up being some kind of mix of the ‘discourses’ imposed upon us and the selections that we make in ‘trying on’ certain identities at certain times.
The common denominator in these views is that identity ends up being rather like clothing. The difference is that for some it’s more like a straightjacket, while for others it's more like a fully stocked walk-in closet.
From both perspectives, the notion that someone simply ‘is’ something - that there is something important about who we human beings are which is innate - is seen as terribly, terribly reactionary and passé. But to quote a not entirely smart man, it does rather depend on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.
During the course of my education, for example, I thoroughly imbibed the postmodern view. It had become more or less part of the conceptual weave out of which one stitches together a Ph.D. in the humanities. Anything else would be essentialism, a word whose very spelling lends it to being hissed rather than spoken.
Moreover, my personal life – as an immigrant to a foreign country, language and culture – might also be seen to have put the theory of the ease to which identities are rejected and adopted into practice. Certainly, being cast out of the comforting cultural frameworks in which you know how to operate on a daily basis does indeed do wonders for one’s ability to respect the fundamental arbitrariness of many aspects of human societies. There is, furthermore, something enjoyable about the extent to which you can ‘be’ someone else in another language, and its remarkable how much you can ‘adopt’ the identity of the host population, even to the extent of – at times – feeling more native than the natives.
Thus, it would seem as if I were an ideal target audience for Amartya Sen’s book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (and, indeed, as I am a specialist on the history of violence, the match would seem to be complete!).
I must admit I haven’t read this book, but I have read quite a bit about it. It does indeed sound as if there is much to commend it, and it seems to be a very right-thinking sort of book. Moreover, having read and admired some of Sen's other essays on economics and social justice, I know that he is an extremely thoughtful and profound thinker about a great many things. Having, additionally, had the pleasure and privilege once to have met him personally (we shared about 15 minutes of conversation and I have no doubt he wouldn’t recognise me again), I also know that he’s a very gracious and charismatic figure.
And, in his book about identity, he writes such clearly sensible things. Taking his own life as an example of how difficult it is to pin someone down to a single thing we can call his or her 'identity', he writes that he is
at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident,...a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in a "before-life" as well).
Who, it would seem, can argue with this view, not only of Amartya Sen, but also of human life in general? Which of us has not known the feeling of ‘becoming’ someone else in all of the myriad social roles which we live out?
And Sen is undoubtedly right in using this persepective to attack overly reductive notions of identity such as those deployed by Samuel Huntington. The inability to, in the end, reduce any individual to any particular identity is, in these depressing days, an important and necessary statement.
And yet, there’s been something bothering me about this ever since I read it, shortly after his book came out. What could it be? His statement, after all, seems eminently reasonable.
After a while, it occurred to me. Its very reasonableness is precisely its weakness.
The luxury of multiple identities, of being able to adopt and discard various ways of being with relative ease is, first of all, precisely that: a luxury, a valuable good, to which far too few people have access (and even the majority of those with access to such flexibility rarely, in my experience, make use of it). Additionally, Sen, I think, may underestimate the extent to which communities enforce fixed identities upon people.
Secondly, it may be that we can all ‘be’ both tennis players (or to make it less flippant, feminists) and members of religious communities. However, there does seem to be something immediately apparent about this: how many wars have been started for the former and how many for the latter? It would appear that there are after all certain aspects of our (multiply-formed) identities which tend strongly to win out over others.
Thirdly, it is not as if the rationality on which this worldview is based can – or for that matter ever could – thrive unchallenged in human societies. A whole variety of other, less sensible forces compete with it for our attention.
It may be that you can lead people to reason; it is another thing entirely to make them drink from it.
Sen’s book appears to be part of a long tradition of political critique in which the source of human suffering is presented as a set of false beliefs (or, in the correct modern jargon, ‘discourses’). The corollary: remove said beliefs, you can remove human suffering.
Quite coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago, I ran across the following passage in John Gray’s book, Two Faces of Liberalism, in which he critiques what he identifies as a ‘post-Romantic’ denial of human nature:
The post-Romantic denial of a common human nature is
intelligible only as a species of idealism. It makes sense only if human beings
are essentially constituted by their beliefs about themselves. If that were
true, all that would be required to bring conflict to an end would be a change
in our beliefs.
(To interject briefly: One, again, could put this into academic jargon and replace ‘change our beliefs’ with ‘subverting our discourses’. It amounts, I suggest, largely to the same thing.)
But the causes of moral and political conflict are not finally in our opinions. They are in our needs. It is because the needs of humans are discordant, not because their moral opinions are at odds, that conflicts of value are universal.
This – and a lot of other things in Gray’s book – seem highly relevant to a lot of what’s going on today. He has most recently expanded upon this point in his recent review of Identity and Violence. While respecting Sen’s perspective (which, I think, one must) he makes a few well-articulated criticisms.
There is a deeper unrealism in Sen's analysis, which emerges in his inability to account for the powerful appeal of the solitarist view. He tells us "there is a big question about why the cultivation of singularity is so successful, given the extraordinary naivete of the thesis in a world of obviously plural affiliations". Here we touch the heart of Sen's continuing bewilderment. Along with many liberal philosophers, he seems to think human conflict is a result of intellectual error. But if the error of solitarism is so blatantly obvious, why do large numbers of people continue to believe in it and act on it? Sen refers repeatedly to manipulation by malevolent propagandists. "Violence is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people," he writes, "championed by proficient artisans of terror." But are people really so stupid? Or is the failure of understanding actually in the liberal philosopher?
For Sen, as a good liberal rationalist, it is an article of faith that the violence of identity is a result of erroneous beliefs. He cannot accept that its causes are inherent in human beings themselves. But as Berlin perceived, when freedom and order break down it is not because of mistakes in reasoning. The people who knifed the day-labourer in Bengal and who dragged off the man to his death in Petrograd made no error. They did what they did from fear, desperation or cruelty. Such atrocities express deep-seated human traits that are not going to be removed by the kind of conceptual therapy offered by Sen. If he cannot accept this fact it is because it suggests that ridding the world of identity-driven violence is going to be infinitely more difficult than he would like to believe.
Gray’s worldview is a far more unsettling one than Sen’s (which in itself, of course, is neither a reason to believe in it or to dismiss it). It states very clearly things which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.
I’m fairly sure that the postmodern emphasis on the indeterminacy and freely-interchangeable nature of identity is wrong. We choose most of the important things about our starting point in life (such as the era, place and social class into which we’re born) as little as we can affect many of the things which affect the course of our lives (such as war, illness, accidents and our encounters with others).
Neither do we choose the genetic code which we inherit and which it seems increasingly clear has a significant effect upon (although it does not determine) who we are. Finally, accumulated experience creates not only new choices but also new inertias.
We are, in the end, not totally (or even largely?) free. And most of the easily accessible forms of multiculturalism seem, for one reason or another, to be either unworkable, undesirable or both.
Beyond that, I’m still working on it.
In the end, I would like to believe that Sen is right.
However, I suspect that the truth is rather more…gray.