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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Identity and Intolerance

I was reading a review of Amartya Sen's book 'Identity and Violence'. According to the reviewer, the book argues for the reasonableness of the violence of identity. Quoting few paragraphs of review here will be necessary to form basis of mine essay.

"He (Sen) takes aim at what he calls the 'solitarist' approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group. In a related vein, Sen criticizes the solitarist approach to civilizations. Influential texts like Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order" take a drubbing for assuming monolithic Western and Eastern civilizations.

The originality of this critique is that it eschews trite appeals to the common humanity of those in savage conflict. Instead, Sen invokes the myriad identities within each individual. Because all of us contain multitudes, we can choose among our identities, emphasizing those we share with others rather than those we do not. Sen acknowledges, as he must, that such choices will be limited by external circumstances. Still, to concede that identity choices are constrained is a far cry from the claim that identity is destiny.

The strength of Sen's argument lies in its intuitive nature: "In our normal lives we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups." Its weakness lies in its failure to explain why, at critical junctures, we disown that knowledge."

I am puzzled by such intricate relation of identity, tolerance and violence while going through this piece only. Identity is the one of the basic cultural aspect that is inherited and believed by an individual in any society. Most of our identities can be communal, religious, regional, ethnic, national and even sectarian in the nature. Belonging to fanboy clubs or to the political party establish ours identity in the society.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as religions based on sacred books, all want the whole world in their own image – this is their identity, to which all alterities must – they so wish – yield. This monotheistic vision has led to the crusades, holocaust and many wars among the believers. Even in the today’s Europe, with its increasingly bland, homogenized culture, there is little room for those who want to march to the beat of a different drummer. Whether it’s Muslims who dress differently, or gypsies who want to live according to their traditional way of life, more people in the West are insisting that they don’t want to live with communities who do not conform.

While the eastern religions celebrate diversity, they have their own pitfalls. Despite of several years of co existence, there is an unwritten rule of not mingling through marriage of one religion or caste. The caste system by associating certain identities- upper caste denominations like with power and privilege while disempowering untouchables has in fact institutionalized violence on a daily basis in Indian society.

There are beliefs attached to the institutions that each one perceives regarding 'others' those who don't share their customs and perceptions. The idea of untouchability, the idea that woman is a temptress and inferior to man, and the idea that homosexuality is a mortal sin that is punishable by death, are not benign private beliefs. So is not the idea that apostates, blasphemers, and unbelievers can, and should be, exterminated. Even few victims of such nonsense beliefs became part of mainstream, fewer raise their concern. Most of them are done muted by institutional propaganda.

Basically, tolerance is not practising someone else’s rituals. It is taken as accepting someone else ritual should have same respect as yours. Tolerance is a tool to defuse violent religious conflict and reduce persecution of cultural, racial, ethnic, and sexual identities. Tolerate is not to affirm but to conditionally allow what is unwanted or deviant. Heavy with lofty norms and consolidating the dominance of the powerful, tolerance sustains the abjection of the tolerated in such societies . The core differences are never resolved even after passing of long time and co existence does not solve the problem.

Identities such as developed, developing and backward have played a key role in the shaping of economic and social policies in formation of modern world with all the negative consequences of such policies being brushed aside as a trade off for achieving prosperity or civilizing others. That is another aspect of the violence and exploitation done in the name of the cultural supremacy and development.

Book Reviewer ask us few questions about identities that are still unanswered in my mind : Is it because human cognition tends to trade in binaries? Is it because violence creates identity as much as identity creates violence? Is it because human beings fear the choices or solitude a more cosmopolitan outlook would force them to face?

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