On Identity and Argumentative Indians and a few other things

Conversations take place in all sorts of forms, and one of the weaknesses of the blogosphere is that only one kind of conversation tends to get captured. It is with this in mind that I direct those who are interested in this topic to what’s happening here, in Johannes Ernst’s blog, and here, in Gordon Cook’s blog.

Sometimes the conversations get heated, particularly when they revolve around any of the Three Is : Identity, Intellectual Property and the Internet. People spend an incredible amount of time arguing about what terms mean, what they should mean, what they shouldn’t.

And it is in this context I am reminded of the writings of an Indian, a Calcuttan, Argumentative as all Calcuttans are. Amartya Sen. In a book he published only sometime last year, Identity and Violence, Professor Sen makes an assertion I found staggering at first sight: that much of the violence we see in society is driven as much by confusion as by anything else. Confusion that takes many shapes, ranging from ignorance and illiteracy to that driven by the classic fear, uncertainty and doubt.

If you haven’t read Amartya Sen, you must. My favourite Sen quote:

No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.

I have rarely seen a sentence that touches upon so many of my interests at the same time, somehow capturing a socio-economic truth while meandering into issues related to freedom and democracy, yet at the same time stressing the importance of free communications.

One of the key messages within his recent book is the importance of social capital today. Here’s an extract emphasising the multiplicity of relationships:

Belonging to each one of the membership groups can be quite important, depending on the particular context. When they compete for attention and priority over each other (they need not always, since there may be no conflict between the demands of different loyalties), the person has to decide on the relative importance to attach to the respective identities, which will, again, depend on the exact context. There are two distinct issues here. First, the recognition that identities are robustly plural, and that the importance of one identity need not obliterate the importance of others. Second, a person has to make choices — explicitly or by implication — about what relative importance to attach, in a particular context, to the divergent loyalties and priorities that may compete for precedence.

Identifying with others, in various different ways, can be extremely important for living in society.

He goes on to say:

It has not, however, always been easy to persuade social analysts to accommodate identity in a satisfactory way. In particular, two different types of reductionism seem to abound in the formal literature of social and economic analysis. One may be called “identity disregard”, and it takes the form of ignoring, or neglecting altogether, the influence of any sense of identity with others, on what we value and how we behave. For example, a good deal of contemporary economic theory proceeds as if, in choosing their aims, objectives and priorities, people do not have — or pay attention to — any sense of identity with anyone other than themselves. John Donne may have warned, “No man is an island entire of itself,” but the postulated human beings of pure economic theory are often made to see themselves as pretty “entire”.

In contrast with “identity disregard”, there is a different kind of reductionism, which we may call “singular affiliation”, which takes the form of assuming that any person preeminently belongs, for all practical purposes, to one collectivity only — no more and no less. Of course, we do know in fact that any real human being belongs to many different groups, through birth, associations and alliances. Each of these group identities can — and sometimes does — give the person a sense of affiliation and loyalty. Despite this, the assumption of singular affiliation is amazingly popular, if only implicitly, among several groups of social theorists.

You may well ask why I spend so much time on the social aspects of identity. The reason’s simple. For me, identity is essentially something social and not personal, something that Sen emphasises. Incidentally, Shripriya, welcome to the conversation; I did notice your lurking earlier. I am a great believer in the robust plurality of identity he refers to; the personal aspects of identity are best manifested in the choices we make when determining the relative importance of different facets in a specific context.

These choices are also very important. And, as Stephen Smoliar and Prakash commented earlier, there is an intrinsic power play behind all this. It is the power that suddenly made “Muslim” mean “terrorist” in the wake of 9/11, the same power that made “citizens of New Orleans” morph into “refugees” and somehow “not-citizens” during and after Katrina. George Lakoff is a good place to start if you want to understand what happens in these circumstances.

Now while I stress the social aspects of identity, this does not mean I don’t care about the processes or technology associated with identity. There are many blogs which deal with that far better than I could; Kim Cameron’s Identity Weblog is worth visiting if you want to know more; Kim provides a good springboard to the pool of conversations taking place in this respect. His Introduction to the Laws of Identity is a must-read. And if you really haven’t delved into this subject at all, you must must must watch Dick Hardt do his Subterrenean Homesick Blues impression. While there are many versions of it extant, this one, which he did at OSCON a few years ago, is as good as any.

I will spend more time on identity soon. A number of you have asked me for the 5 additional facets I’ve been working on since my first six, and I promise to oblige. But in the meantime.

There has always been an interplay between power and identity. The fear of misuse of power is one of the key drivers behind the wish for anonymity; yet every example I can think of where one person stood up for his beliefs: Gandhi; Prague 1956; Rosa Parks; Tiananmen Square; Aung San Suu Kyi; Nelson Mandela; the list is much longer, but the people are all onymous. They did not hide.

When we implement technical ways of supporting this rich and diverse thing we call identity, we provide tools for good as well as bad. There is a Guns Don’t Kill People, People Do aspect to all this. And unless we understand this, unless we understand that social identity needs to be robust, built upon personal choice and impervious to the kinds of reductionism Professor Sen refers to, we may be building weapons of social destruction. This is the fear that people have about the Semantic Web, which in their eyes is 1984 gone doolally.

More later.

16 thoughts on “On Identity and Argumentative Indians and a few other things”

  1. JP wrote: And, as Stephen Smoliar and Prakash commented earlier, there is an intrinsic power play behind all this. It is the power that suddenly made “Muslim” mean “terrorist” in the wake of 9/11.

    Can’t agree more. My country has been hi-jacked by such people. I am better at giving some examples than stitching together the fine points of semantic philosophy.

    I have recently managed to read Robert Fisk’s the Great War for Civilization. I came of age with Sputnik and the Cold War. Therefore I would up doing my doctorate on Russian History and Peter Chaadaev – the first Russian to seriously grapple with Russian identity. Were I 18 instead of 64 today, I would be studying Arabic. Fisk’s 1100 pages in a single concentrated dose are overwhelming. How little I had learned from casual reading over the past 30 years!

    I have been a participant in a small online forum for 20 years. (tmn.com). There a graduate of West Point class of 74, phd in nuclear physics and currently employed by SAIC, explains with a very straight and serious face that were are in a war to preserve western civilization from the evil of Islam. And that the US now is carrying on the Western banner, having inherited it from the United Kingdom. When I said you are saying that France, Holland, Germany, Italy and Spain among other western nations are no longer worthy of respect? Offer nothing of value, he essentially said: that’s right. They have acted with cowardice to embrace multi-culturalism.

    Now I am not all that liberal, but my god I find that fanaticism chilling! As I watched Enron and other corruption unfold, I became enamored of the moral certitude in the West Point honor code. Until that is I asked some West Point graduates how they could take orders from a Commander in Chief who lies to the American people. It seems that under the code the CINC gets a free pass.

    Is a multiplicity of “identities” across a multiplicity of groups the only was to avoid a national psychosis? There is also much anger in this unfolding drama. I wonder how different groupings of identity can acct to focus or diffuse anger?

  2. That was a very nice essay, JP, particularly in light of my own value system, which gives the highest rating to those essays with the seeds to start further conversation! I am not sure I can enumerate all the seeds in your essay, so I am not going to try to be thorough about it. (Everyone can now heave a sigh of relief.) However, I doubt that I can integrate all those potential conversations into a single thread; so forgive me if this turns into too much of a ramble.

    First of all I have to confess at your being staggered at Sen’s assertion about violence. After all, violence and confusion share a common link to the extent that each of them both drives and is driven by fear. In other words violence, confusion, and fear are a tightly-coupled bundle of concepts the same way that knowledge, learning, memory, and being are in Plato’s “Theaetetus.” So, while it is important that Sen made that assertion, for me, at least, it was more of a necessary reminder than a staggering new insight!

    By the way, if I may be allowed an aside, I believe there IS an important insight in the “family resemblance” between Sen and Plato when it comes to dealing with complex concepts. Wittgenstein spent pretty much all of his post-thesis career tilting at that windmill of our obsession with defining every concept in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions that isolate it from all other concepts. To invoke Sen’s analogy, the obsession is one of dealing with each concept as “an island entire of itself.” The more comfortable we are with dealing with these tightly-coupled webs of concepts, the more likely we are to be able to deal with the individual concepts themselves. Thus endeth the aside.

    Now that we have confusion on the table, I have to comment that, for me, the greatest weakness of the blogosphere is not that only one kind of conversation tends to get captured but that there are just too damned many conversations out there! For me this points out one of the virtues of the academic institution, the extent to which the nature of the institution limits the scope of the conversations. This may well provoke any number of indignant responses that suggest that I do not appreciate the virtues of the blogosphere; but, as one of my former colleagues put it in parody of an old religi0us saying, “The Web is so big, and my mind is so small!” An academic institution tends to define “normal conversation” along the lines of Kuhn’s “normal science.” One can always try to shift the paradigms, but in the academic world one can also change institutions. My point is that, particularly when we are dealing with such a broad-ranging concept as identity, I am more inclined to follow the path of that Russian hedgehog that knows one thing well, rather than the fox that knows many things. Grasping that one concept of identity is quite enough for me, thank you very much! This does not mean that I want to lock out the diversity of conversations out there in the blogosphere, but I have reached an age where I know that my time is limited. If I try to follow to many of those conversations, I run too great a risk of losing my own voice (and identity).

    Let me now turn to that Sen quote you like so much: “No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.” The first thing the text analyst in me observes are two glaring weasel words: “substantial” and “relatively.” These provide Sen with two trapdoors for escape from challenges. However, even if I stop biting his finger and look where he is pointing, I simply cannot buy the proposition. The American Dust Bowl may not have knocked out the entire country with famine, but it still dealt a pretty harsh blow. Since, to the best of my knowledge, there were not a lot of objections about the lack of a free press during the Depression, I would say that I have a pretty solid counterexample. The problem, as I see it, is that Sen’s finger points the same way as Habermas’, towards a social world in which an “ideal speech situation” provides the context for all communication. Unfortunately, issues such as those intrinsic power plays undermine that context and nullify all the bets on the table. This is why, for all of Sen’s virtues, I still cast my own lot with Berlin and Appiah, both of whom remind us where all the flaws are in our social world and then focus on strategies for coping with them.

    I should also point out that the hedgehog in me has a bone to pick George Lakoff, even though I greatly admire his skill in bringing key insights to public attention. Thus his work on metaphor fits very nicely into the “normal conversations” about cognitive science that prevail in American academic institutions (and most British ones); but he seems to be quite oblivious to the insights of the Continental literary theorists, particularly the French ones. Lakoff also has the advantage that he is much easier to read than just about anything from the Continent, meaning that he is great for foxes but far less satisfying for hedgehogs!

    Let me conclude (finally!) with a gentle reminder about where I have trying to point my own finger. As I pointed out in my comment to Prakash, I still think that the prize on which all our eyes should be fixed is the safety of cyberspace. What Sen has brought to the table about violence, confusion, and fear is important; but it begs the question of those principles of conduct that Chris Locke has raised. I would hate to see that question get lost in the flood other other conversational topics!

  3. I have a signed copy of the Berlin essay…. and I’m used to being called a fox…. but I agree with you, the key issue is to do what we can as a community to make cyberspace both richer as well as safer. Locking down cyberspace is of no value by itself, if it means that we can’t learn and share and experience new ways of experiencing new things.

  4. Gordon seems to have been writing his comments at the same time I was writing mine, and I am glad to see the way in which he reinforced some of my points before being able to read them! For those unfamiliar with SAIC, it is one of those R&D institutions whose fiscal survival depends on the contracts it wins; and, the last time I checked, just about all of those contracts come from the United States government and have something to do with defense, intelligence, and/or homeland security. I do not think it is cynical to observe that you cannot win a contract in such a context without buying into the ideology of ITS institutions! As one of my musician friends keeps reminding me, there are plenty of PhDs out there acting like idiots!

    My point is that we must all cope with the challenge of communicating in a social world that is about as far from an ideal speech situation as you can dare to get! We need to start taking lessons from those who have such communication skills: anthropologists whose bread-and-butter come from communicating with “alien” societies, psychiatrists who cannot “heal” the psychotic without first communicating with them, and actors who have mastered the art of communicating through an “other” persona. Perhaps if we addressed the question of principles of conduct in terms of such communication skills, the “question of identity” will take care of itself as a corollary!

  5. While on the subject of Sir Isiah Berlin, I met the man once at his office at CUNY in 1966. I am chagrined to admit that I had no idea until much later what a giant he was. The description of his night with Akhmatova is one of the most glorious in all the literature on Russian culture and civilization.

    Finally may I recommend Russian Ark, a 2002 film by Alexander Sokurov. Stunning – for me especially because I visted St Petersberg on 8 different occasions in the 1990s staying always in the apartment off the same Russian friends. The ermitage is portrayed therein as integral to the identity of the Russian nation. The ARK that preserved Russian culture.

    I view 19th century Russian history as tragic outcome of the search for identity carried out by the russian nobility beginning with the conclusion of the napoleonic campaigns.

  6. Gordon, you know far more about Russian history than I do; but I think you are raising the same theme that Stoppard addressed in his COAST OF UTOPIA trilogy:


    The titles of the three plays say something about the author’s point of view: “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” “Salvage.” You may have also heard that, after the first play opened at Lincoln Center, there was a mad dash to buy up copies of Berlin’s RUSSIAN THINKERS.

    I think it is interesting to consider the analogy between Stoppard’s conception of a search for Utopia and your perspective of the search for identity. As you probably know, Berlin took a very dim view of Utopian thinking, not just from the Russians. This is best captured in “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” which is the lead essay in THE CROOKED TIMBER OF HUMANITY. His basic idea resonates very nicely with the sort of language we are inclined to use. The “tragic flaw” (if I may wax Aristotelian) of a Utopia is that it is a STATE, which means that it can never accommodate any “real world” context, since that context will always be in flux.

    I think we can reflect this back on questions of identity. Trying to deal with identity as some kind of state will result in an equally tragic flaw. While it is true that, at an abstract level, we can always “freeze time” and “capture” at least SOME of the attributes and relations that would count for a “state description,” I would argue that where “the crooked timber of humanity” is concerned, our understanding of identity resides in the TRANSITIONS rather than any artificial “states” we construct, often just because they are more compatible with our databases!

    The kicker, however, is that we really have not yet gotten our minds around the alternative. We know how to describe state; but our skills for describing transitions are impoverished, often reduced to saying little more than “what happens between these two states.” The last time I harped on this was in a discussion over the opensourcing of process:


    In another comment I suggested that the best way to confront the problem would be through a better understanding of the rich diversity in the grammar of verbs:


    This, in turn, reflects back on much of the life-work of Kenneth Burke and his efforts to develop a theory of “dramatistic” (as opposed to “scientistic”) thinking:


    Readers of the above link will see that I have also invoked Burke to address another one of JP’s favorite topics:


    I suppose this all demonstrates just how tightly coupled the nature of identity is to so many other equally complex concepts!

  7. It’s an offbeat way of restating why I started this blog. Will explain more in a post sometime this weekend.

  8. Stephen, just when I think this is played out you give me another spurt. :-) The Stoppard work I read about in a recent New Yorker. Ah yes it is about my most favorite period of 19th century Russia. The struggles of Belinskii, Herzen and Bakunin to deal with their feelings of guilt about serfdom in the context of Hegelianism between roughly 1836 and the liberation of the serfs in 1861. I inhaled all this literature in 1965-1966 while a grad student in Russian Politics under Leonard Schapiro at the London School of Economics.

    And you are dead right – the STATE was known to these tortured Russian aristocrats. It was the TRANSITION that was unknown. They all were developing different and conflicting paths on how to get from where they were to where they wanted to be.

    I steadfastly agree that in this new technology world it is the TRANSITION that stumps us and about which we argue.

    Here I want to try an analogy. Perhaps only someone with a career in media and film directing and production combined with tech consulting can succeed, What does a film director do but use visual media to tell complex stories of transition? Over the past 3 months I have gotten to know a bit about a man of my mail list. This person lurks. Hardly every says anything. He has a 40 year long career in film. I won’t name him until he gives me a green light. But if you were to put his name in Google a really impressive dossier emerges. And in California three weeks ago I heard from him a 20 minute or so portrait of the great transition we are in. Best portrait of this subject I have ever heard! Quite stunning and I am wondering if this framework that he has constructed could only have been arrived at by someone with such a visual artistic, story telling background.

    So I ask can only someone with this kind of background stand a good chance of building and explaining and architecture of transition. Maybe – Just maybe.

  9. ” No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press”

    This is something I have read before and often wondered about. Is it really true and what does it imply in cause/effect? What (if any) other factors are at play? We all know that human societies are complex and very little that happens can be reduced to one or two factors.

    In any case, I always invariable think about the famine in the USA in the 1930s.

  10. Blue Meanie, I’m afraid I don’t know much about famine in the US in the 1930s, I am more aware of those that struck the Ukraine and China.

    I don’t think that Amartya Sen was trying to play semantics on the meaning of “substantial”. If I have interpreted him correctly, his assertions are as follows: (a) famine is often preventable (b) there are early signs (c) if people respond correctly to the signs then the substance of the famine can be averted.

    I will look out for more comprehensive evidence.

  11. JP, my guess is that Blue Meanie is referring, as I had done earlier, to the Dust Bowl, although I think it is interesting that the Wikipedia entry for the Dust Bowl does not contain the word “famine:”


    Note, by the way, that there is still a weasel word in your synopsis of Sen’s argument: “correctly.” Apply the reasoning to global warming, and you should see what I mean. Even among democratic and independent countries with the blessings of a free press, the response to the evidence of global warming has been inadequate by almost any standard. However, whether or not a response is correct ultimately depends upon the outcome, which we shall not know until we get there.

  12. Gordon, everything you say about the production processes of film and the other media is true. However, the “core competencies” have been around far longer than those media! As a matter of fact, most of the content of Aristotle’s “Poetics” has far more to do with transitions than with states. You get a better sense of this when you look at the “Commentary for Students of Literature” that Hardison published then when you try to get “the straight dope” from Aristotle. Nevertheless, Aristotle taught as a man who seemed to have enjoyed going to the theater; and that greatly enhances the value of the text!

Let me know what you think