Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Identity and Violence

Just started reading an interesting book called Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen. The ideas expressed so far resonate with the non-reductionist, anti-essentialist leanings of this blog and the multilateral, relational upaya which I'm advocating as an alternative mode of understanding. Of particular pertinence to the explicit value topography of recent global politics is this excerpt (taken from pages 10-12):

A remarkable use of imagined singularity can be found in the basic classificatory idea that serves as the intellectual background to the much-discussed thesis of "the clash of civilizations," which has been championed recently, particularly following the publication of Samuel Huntington's influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. The difficulty with this approach begins with unique categorization, well before the issue of a clash - or not - is even raised. Indeed, the thesis of a civilizational clash is conceptually parasitic on the commanding power of a unique categorization along so-called civilizational lines, which as it happens closely follows religious divisions to which singular attention is paid. Huntington contrasts "Western civilization" with "Islamic civilization," "Hindu civilization," "Buddhist civilization," and so on. The alleged confrontations of religious differences are incorporated into a sharply carpentered vision of one dominant and hardened divisiveness.

In fact, of course, the people of the world can be classified according to many other systems of partitioning, each of which has some - often far-reaching - relevance in our lives: such as nationalities, locations, classes, occupations, social status, languages, politics, and many others. While religious categories have received much airing in recent years, they cannot be presumed to obliterate other distinctions, and even less can they be seen as the only relevant system of classifying people across the globe. In partitioning the population of the world into those belonging to the "Islamic world," "the western world," “"the hindu world," "the Buddhist world," the divisive power of classificatory priority is implicitly used to place people firmly inside a unique set of rigid boxes. Other divisions (say, between the rich and the poor, between members of different classes and occupations, between people of different politics, between distinct nationalities and residential locations, between language groups, etc.) are all submerged by this allegedly primal way of seeing the differences between people.

The difficulty with the thesis of the clash of civilizations begins well before we come to the issue of an inevitable clash; it begins with the presumption of the unique relevance of a singular classification. Indeed, the question "do civilizations clash?" is founded on the presumption that humanity can be pre-eminently classified into distinct and discrete civilizations, and that the relations between different human beings can somehow be seen, without serious loss of understanding, in terms of relations between different civilizations. The basic flaw of the thesis much precedes the point where it is asked whether civilizations must clash.

This reductionist view is typically combined, I am afraid, with a rather foggy perception of world history which overlooks, first, the extent of internal diversities within these civilizational categories, and second, the reach and influence of interactions - intellectual as well as material - that go right across the regional borders of so-called civilizations. And its power to befuddle can trap not only those who would like to support the thesis of a clash (varying from Western chauvinists to Islamic fundamentalists), but also those who would like to dispute it and yet try to respond within the straitjacket of its prespecified terms of reference.

The limitations of such civilization-based thinking can prove to be just as treacherous for programs of "dialogue among civilizations" (something that seems to be much sought after these days) as they are for theories of a clash of civilizations. The noble and elevating search for amity among people seen as amity between civilizations speedily reduces many-sided human beings into one dimension each and muzzles the variety of involvements that have provided rich and diverse grounds for cross-border interactions over many centuries, including the arts, literature, science, mathematics, games, trade, politics, and other arenas of shared human interest. Well-meaning attempts at pursuing global peace can have very counterproductive consequences when these attempts are founded on a fundamentally illusory understanding of the world of human beings.


alice said...

Here is an article describing the differences between the sexes, brought to you via Rev Sam.

It was once (in my youth) taboo to accept the notion that men and women are different, mostly because women had felt subjugated by the delineation of the differences and they (we) were rising out of our oppression. Now forty years hence we are back to accepting that there are differences. Evolution of enhanced ideas.

Paul Turner said...

If you're suggesting that I think it is wrong to see people as different from one another, that isn't what I'm saying. I'm saying that it's better not to reduce people to one aspect of their differences or of their similarities with other people. This follows naturally from my philosophy that nothing in this world should be reduced to a set of terms which trump all others at all times for all purposes.

The subjugation and oppression you refer to is a strong corollary, I think, of the reduction of people to one characteristic (woman, black, Jew, Arab etc.) coupled with a policy for how "such people" should be treated.

John said...

Hi its John from Melbourne. These related essays provide insight into the origins & consequences of the politics of solidified one dimensional identity.
1. www.dabase.net/coop+tol.htm
2. www.dabase.net/2armP1.htm#ch2