Identity and Violence

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen wrote Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny to argue why the conventional wisdom on large scale human conflict is almost entirely wrong. There is no clash of civilizations. Instead, there are people who are happy to speak on behalf of these viewpoints for their own benefit, while actual people are far too complex to be captured in such narrow confines.
    Sen repeatedly makes two points: first that people have a variety of identities, and different identities are more or less important under different circumstances. Sen's second point is that opponents of the narrow-minded "clash of civilizations" perspective usually concede too much. It is not just, for example, that the Muslim and Christian worlds are not inherently at odds. Moreover, people who are ostensibly part of these two "worlds" do not see themselves as one-dimensional components of these worlds, and they should not try to see themselves in this way. Sen has a term for the simple-minded concept of identity that makes a "clash of civilizations" seem possible. He calls it the "miniaturization" of identity. But of course, the consequences of this mistaken, miniature view are serious and dangerous. That's where the "violence" part of the title comes in.
    Sen's book reminds me oddly of a very different book by a very different author that makes similar points: My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd. Loyd's and Sen's books are mostly about different things. However, particularly regarding religious identity, both Sen and Loyd make similar points about how extremists benefit by destabilizing situations and marginalizing moderates. Loyd makes his point more viscerally, and Sen more scholarly, but both draw on their own horrifying personal experiences to inform their analyses.

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