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Pluralism And Posterity: Extricating The Positives And Negatives Of Group Identity Through The Writing Of Amartya Sen And David Brooks

The Cheyney Ryan Peace and Conflict Studies Essay Contest is an annual competition sponsored by the Master’s degree program in Conflict and Dispute Resolution at the University of Oregon. The essay contest seeks to provide an opportunity for undergraduate students internationally to consider and write about issues related to conflict and its resolution. It is open to full-time undergraduate students worldwide from any field of study.

The topic for the 2009-2010 contest was:
We know that psychological and social well-being are tied in significant ways to our sense of belonging, and that a key part of our identity is based on the groups to which we belong – our family, our community, our nation, our ethnic group, etc. We also see how our national, ethnic, or religious identities can be the source of much destructive conflict. How can we reconcile this dilemma? How do we encourage the positive elements of group identity and, at the same time, avoid the perils of identity affiliations?

This year, three winning entries were selected:

Storytelling by Caleb Paul Mechem

Mestizaje as Strength: Articulating Plurality within Group Identities by Jeff Stoesz

and here presented:

Pluralism and Posterity: Extricating the Positives and Negatives of Group Identity Through the Writing of Amartya Sen and David Brooks
by Michael Cohen

In a post-9/11 world in which the struggle against Islamic extremism represents the centerpiece of American foreign policy; in which the front-page news is bombarded with daily images of the skull-shattering destruction wrought by suicide bombings across the Middle East; in which the international community is scrambling to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of the Supreme Leader of Iran who has vowed to wipe entire countries off of the map and who believes he was personally appointed by God (a troubling combination to say the least), much ink has been spilled over the question of whether Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” is here to stay. Huntington did not invent the term (Bernard Lewis referred to a “clash of civilizations” in a 1990 Atlantic Monthly article, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”), but popularized it in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. At times sounding more like a prophet than a political scientist, Huntington argues that the major conflicts in the post-Cold War world will arise not between nations, but between “civilizations;” between cultural and religious blocs.

Huntington points to the massive population boom as well as the wave of destabilizing radicalization that has swept the Muslim world; or the “Islamic civilization” to use Huntington’s lingo. The West’s chauvinistic conviction in the universality of its democratic values and institutions, he warns, will further fuel resentment that has long been simmering and will soon begin to boil in the Muslim world. The result will be a 21st century whose fault lines fall between civilizations, not nations, and whose wars will be fought not on the battlefield but in the radicalized minds of those who identify with their civilization (in Huntington’s sense of the word), and believe their civilization to be under attack from an external and, often, existential threat. Many viewed the tragic events of September 11th and the wars that followed as the horrific realization of Huntington’s ominous vision.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is not one of those people. In his book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, he argues that much of the conflict and bloodshed in the world today can be attributed to the illusory and destructive tendency to categorize humanity in terms of a single identity as opposed to multiple identities; to view individuals in terms of one overriding affiliation instead of the multiple affiliations, myriad groups, and plurality of interests that define people in the real world. When complicated individuals are simplified and reduced into neat little boxes, with no allowance for the crosscutting complexities that connect us all, our common humanity begins to erode. Sen writes:

The uniquely partitioned world is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse categories that shape the world in which we live. It goes not only against the old-fashioned belief that “we human beings are all much the same” (which tends to be ridiculed these days – not entirely without reason – as much too softheaded), but also against the less discussed but much more plausible understanding that we are diversely different. The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of the human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one single hardened line of impenetrable division. (i)

Thus, Sen argues that humanity is too complicated and diverse to partition into anything approaching a unique, bright-line taxonomy. The same person can be a French citizen, of African ancestry, a vegetarian, a soccer player, and a communist. Therefore, the notion that individuals can be understood in terms of just one group affiliation – what Sen calls the “solitarist” approach to human identity – is a deeply engrained fiction. Sen explains how a pluralistic view of identity can encourage the use of reason, discourage the myth that one’s destiny is tied to one particular group affiliation, and thus defuse deadly inter-group conflict: When one adopts a pluralistic view of human identity and recognizes the myriad groups to which one belongs, it becomes necessary to balance those affiliations and determine which particular blend of one’s many possible identities to embrace:

Given our inescapably plural identities, we have to decide on the relative importance of our different associations and affiliations in any particular context. Central to leading a human life, therefore, are the responsibilities of choice and reasoning. In contrast, violence is prompted by the cultivation of a sense of inevitability about some allegedly unique – often belligerent – identity that we are supposed to have and which apparently makes extensive demands on us. (ii)

To Sen, that reason-driven process of self-identification is critical in preventing inter-group violence and avoiding the perils of identity affiliation; for to engage in the pluralistic process of selecting between one’s possible identities is to admit – albeit implicitly – the fact that there is a range of identities out there, each of which is valid; each of which is human. The responsibility of reasoned choice, then, is an antidote to the solitarist inevitability that holds diverse individuals captive to a single identity that dictates their every move. Huntington’s notion of civilizational clash rests on just such a solitarist understanding: 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.” (iii)

Thus, Sen is more concerned with the damaging premise that the world can be carved into distinct “civilizations” than the impact of their potential “clash.” Huntington’s misguided thesis is, to Sen, a prime example of how attempts to alleviate inter-group strife can backfire and harden existing fault lines if such attempts are based on absolute categorizations and solitarist identities. For example, Western leaders (Tony Blair among them) have tried to fight Islamic extremism by recruiting moderate Islamic leaders to preach that “true Muslims” stand for peace and tolerance, not violence and jihad. Yet, Sen declares, this approach does nothing to fix the underlying problem, which is the unwavering, dogmatic devotion to a singular identification: Muslims who engage in jihad view themselves exclusively in religious terms, to the point of repressing the many commonalities that they share with the infidels they kill. Therefore, Islamic extremism must be resisted by encouraging people to view themselves not just through the lens of religion – not just as Muslim – but also as an author, an artist, a vegetarian, etc. To simply champion moderate, instead of radical, Islam is to seriously misdiagnose the perils of group affiliation:

Unfortunately, many well-intentioned attempts to stop such violence are also handicapped by the perceived absence of choice about our identities, and this can seriously damage our ability to defeat violence. When the prospects of good relations among different human beings are seen (as they increasingly are) primarily in terms of “amity among civilizations,” or “dialogue between religious groups,” or “friendly relations between different communities” (ignoring the many different ways in which people relate to each other), a serious miniaturization of human beings precedes the devised programs for peace. (iv)

Sen’s thesis is both profound and intoxicatingly vague. If singular identity is an illusion – and if it is singular identity that fuels inter-group bloodshed – then all that is required to end such violence is to rid ourselves of that harmful illusion and perceive the world as it really is. Yet that is easier said than done. If singular identity is an illusion, it is one that has held human society hostage for millennia. If one is serious about exploring how to avoid the perils of group affiliation (while retaining the positives), then, one must ask the difficult questions: Why is it so difficult for human beings to identify themselves and others through a plural – not singular – lens? How can one explain the remarkable persistence of inter-group bloodshed? And, perhaps most importantly, how can people be encouraged to see the world through the more tolerant framework of plural identities?

Of course, there are no easy answers, as history is riddled with examples of how in-group harmony can so easily produce inter-group discord. Yet an interesting place to start is with this observation: While Sen argues that certain affiliations and identities need not dominate others and become overarching frameworks, a cursory glance at history and world events reveals that certain affiliations and identities do dominate others and control human perception: Blood is constantly spilled over race, nationality, and religion, not over one’s favorite food, hairdo, or zodiac sign. Why is this? Why do some identities grip us more strongly than others? The answer is a profound one involving the human hunger for tradition and passion for posterity; the cosmic insecurity and very mortal fixation with what came before and what comes after; with supplying meaning to an overwhelming and frightening universe; with embedding our own miniscule existence in a story far greater than ourselves.

In a New York Times column entitled “The Power of Posterity,” David Brooks engages in a fascinating thought experiment: What would happen if a freak solar event caused mass sterilization? If one perceives the world through an individualistic lens, perhaps nothing great would happen: After all, many successful, happy people do not reproduce, and they fare just fine. Yet, as Brooks points out, the collective failure to reproduce would be cataclysmic, robbing human life of its most basic meaning and stripping society of its most basic foundations: …we don’t lead individualistic lives… People live in a compact between the dead, the living and the unborn, and the value of the thought experiment is that it reminds us of the power posterity holds over our lives. (v) What does all this have to do with avoiding the pitfalls of group identification? The group affiliations that grip us most deeply are not limited to this life, but are vast and eternal; they link “the dead, the living, and the unborn.” These groups – religion, race, nationality – involve nothing less than the frameworks in which we see the universe; the grand historical narratives in which we place our lives. Brooks writes:

…unlike the other animals, people do have a drive to seek coherence and meaning. We have a need to tell ourselves stories that explain it all. We use these stories to supply the metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty… They are the frameworks that shape our desires and goals. So while story selection may seem vague and intellectual, it’s actually very powerful. The most important power we have is the power to help select the lens through which we see reality. (vi)

The stories we select define who we are and the universe in which we live. These are not individual stories, but collective stories; stories of a nation, stories of a people; stories of a faith. Brooks’ hypothetical mass sterilization would turn upside down both secular and religious life because both secular and religious undertakings are based on such stories, collective and eternal: Religious beliefs are narratives that lead from creation to the present, and ultimately to an afterlife or some other fantastic eschatological end. Secular pursuits are also grounded in stories exponentially greater than ourselves:

Anything worth doing is the work of generations – ending racism, promoting freedom or building a nation. America’s founders, for example, felt the eyes of their descendants upon them. Alexander Hamilton felt that he was helping to create a great empire. Noah Webster composed his dictionary anticipating that America would someday have 300 million inhabitants, even though at the time it only had 6 million. These people undertook their grand projects because they were building for their descendants. (vii)

Yes, all of us feel the eyes of our descendants upon us. The human condition is obsessed with posterity, and it is this obsession that supplies the spark that ignites humanity’s deep passion for certain group affiliations. After all, whether we are building a great nation or working to usher in the Kingdom of God, these collective aims – these group affiliations – define who we are, not just for now but for eternity. Eternal order is a powerful concept; that is the tremendous force of identity and group membership; that is why compromise is so difficult; that is why Sen’s vision of replacing singular identities with plural identities is easier said than done.

Yet while the most powerful identity-forming stories are collective stories, individual responsibility remains. This point is critical if humanity is to avoid the pitfalls of group affiliation. Brooks explains:

We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world. Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves. (viii) The stories we use to make sense of the world may be collective and ancient, but the power of story selection is a perennial individual responsibility. Avoiding inter-group conflict requires the vital recognition that individuals have the power to select and modify these stories, not merely to inherit and cling to them. Such stories can be positive and beautiful features of human society; concern with posterity feeds productivity and ambition, while group identity can provide profound comfort and joy. That is all great. Yet clinging to a violent story or killing to fulfill a chauvinistic historical narrative must be seen as an abdication of that individual responsibility: Retaining and exercising the individual responsibility of story selection is perhaps the only way to extricate the positive of group affiliation from the negative.

To achieve Amartya Sen’s world of pluralistic – not solitarist – identities, we must recognize that human beings create stories; human beings need not be slaves to the stories we create. There is nothing wrong with taking pride and comfort in one’s identity – as a member of a family, nation, or race – as long as one recognizes that the story in which one lives is just one of many. Patriotism is admirable, but one must recognize that, if one had been born in a different country, one would be immersed in a very different story. Stories can be selected or discarded, adapted, or altered; identities are not singular and permanent, but plural and evolving. Huntington’s “clash,” then, is not an unavoidable clash of civilizations, but a quite avoidable clash of stories; of narratives, of lenses with which to make sense of the world. While Islamic extremism is rooted in an ancient story and a collective identity, it is ultimately individuals who must make the personal choice to select that jihadi narrative. A peaceful and pluralistic society can encourage individuals to recognize other aspects of their multifaceted identities and embrace different stories. No “clash” is inevitable and, in reality, “civilizations” do not exist: There exist only diversely different individuals, individuals who must decide which collective identities to adopt, which stories to accept.

In the words of Amartya Sen: Important choices have to be made… Life is not mere destiny. (ix)

Bibliography (Complete Citations)

Brooks, David. “The Power of Posterity.” New York Times. 7/27/2009.

Brooks, David. “The Rush To Therapy.” New York Times. 11/9/2009.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sen, Amartya. 2006. Identity & Violence: The Illusion of Identity. London: Penguin Books.

End Notes

i Sen, Amartya. Identity & Violence: The Illusion of Identity, xiv.

ii Sen, Amartya. Identity & Violence: The Illusion of Identity, xiii.

iii Sen, Amartya. Identity & Violence: The Illusion of Identity, 10.

iv Sen, Amartya. Identity & Violence: The Illusion of Identity, xiii.

v Brooks, David. “The Power of Posterity.” New York Times. 7/27/2009

vi Brooks David. “The Rush To Therapy.” New York Times. 11/9/2009

vii Brooks, David. “The Power of Posterity.” New York Times. 7/27/2009

viii Brooks, David. “The Rush To Therapy.” New York Times. 11/9/2009

ix Sen, Amartya. Identity & Violence: The Illusion of Identity, 39.


Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen is from the New York City area and is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He enjoys following politics and sports, and is working toward a career in law. He also enjoys writing articles and editorials, and gets inspiration from the… MORE >

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