Friday, February 4, 2011

The Demise of the Many-Sided Politician

In Identity and Violence, Nobel Prize-winning polymath Amartya Sen argues that a major source of violence in the world is the illusory belief that individuals belong to a single, over-arching identity. In fact, Sen contends, individuals have many identities (race, gender, ethnicity, country of origin, religious affiliation, job, vegetarian, etc.) that are used in different contexts, and which may or may not conflict. Problems arise when people are placed (either by themselves or by others) into a single category, reducing "multidimensional human beings into one-dimensional creatures". Compromise and coalition-building become much more difficult in a one-dimensional world, facilitating friction and violence.

A classic example of this fallacy is Samuel Huntington's famous "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, or more recently, the premise that the U.S. is at war with Islam. Yet even arguments opposing such outright idiocy often fall prey to the same corrosive reductionism. To say that "the true nature of Islam is moderate and thus should help us fight terrorism" is faulty; Islam contains an internal fractal diversity of many unique identities, including radical militancy.
"The question we have to ask is not whether Islam (or Hinduism or Christianity) is a peace-loving religion or a combative one . . ., but how a religious Muslim (or Hindu or Christian) may combine his or her religious beliefs or practices with other features of personal identity and other commitments and values (such as attitudes to peace and war)."
Humans have the profound ability to choose their plural identities, even though choice is sometimes constrained by context and malfeasance. The illusion that individuals have only a single identity is frequently exploited by sectarians for the purpose of confrontation and galvanization.

Applying this analysis to the current state of political dysfunction in the U.S., we find that the problem is not an over-subscribed affiliation to any party or philosophy. Rather, it is party-identity as the all-consuming, over-arching partitioning that eliminates any other identities (region, state, gender, previous occupation, etc.). The solution is not "moderation" in our politicians and public, but rather the realization and promotion of other distinct identities and dimensions of value. Much of our legislative sclerosis is fundamentally a coalition-building problem, and thus the encouragement of plural identities among politicians, perhaps through institutional reforms, would surely enhance the fitness and dynamism of our government.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, important reflection.