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Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny Hardcover – 3 Aug 2006
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'Identity and Violence' is a moving, powerful essay about the mischief of bad ideas. -- The Economist, August 13, 2006
Identity and Violence is a book both rich in ideas and easy to read, a model of its kind. -- Anthony Daniels, The Spectator, 29 July, 2006
Impassioned, eloquent and often moving -- John Gray, The Guardian, August 5th 2006
One of the few world intellectuals on whom we may rely to make sense out of our existential confusion. -- Nadine Gordimer
The world's poor and dispossessed could have no more articulate or insightful a champion. -- Kofi Annan
About the Author
Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor at Harvard. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998 and was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge 1998-2004. His last book, The Argumentative Indian, was also published by Penguin. His books have been translated into thirty languages.
Top customer reviews
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 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 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!
Drawing on his impressively broad and detailed knowledge of the cultural history of various parts of the world, as well as the economic and political theory that has made his name (and earned him a Nobel Prize), Sen argues carefully against the current trend for wholly classifying individuals, communities, and regions of the world by one aspect of their culture, usually religion.
Over-emphasising a single identity, he argues, constrains the public reasoning and informed individual decision-making that is at the heart of human well-being. It also creates artificial and seemingly irreconcilable oppositions that degenerate into violence.
It's a shame Sen doesn't attempt to understand just why it is usually religious affiliation, rather than any other, that has this tendency to crowd out other aspects of identity in the worldviews of social theorists, political pundits, policy-makers, and self-styled cultural leaders, or why this identity has proved so potent a crowd-stirrer. I suspect the answer is an inherent tendency of at least some of the major religions to claim such dominance, and would like to know what difference it would make to Sen's view if this is the case.
Relatedly, it would be interesting to hear a lot more about an issue the book only touches upon: what are the pressures that lead us to foreground certain aspects of identity (religion, gender, sexuality) rather than any of the many other categorisations available to us?
But a good book is the start of a discussion, not the end of it. And the world would do well think long and hard about this one.
While both points are true i felt he never really got to the heart of why people prioritise particular identities in certain contexts (place, time, circumstances).
Nor did he seem to understand that an identity constructed in terms of multiple identities is an identity in itself. This is significant because it is this "meta-identity" that Sen himself prioritises. The book seemed to me to be about a perceived threat to Sen's identity rather than about identity, the concept.
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