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Religion and Society

Each One of Us is Made up of Many Others

Author: Amartya Sen Title: Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, New York~London, 2006 Italian Translation: Identità e Violenza Publisher: Laterza, Rome~Bari, 2006  

The illusion of a single identity is much more pregnant with divisions than the universe of plural and variegated classifications that characterise the world in which we really live. The descriptive weakness of uniqueness without choice has the effect of gravely impoverishing the strength and range of our social and political reasoning. The illusion of destiny requires an extraordinarily heavy price" (p. 19). The observations just quoted contain the conceptual core of the volume by Amartya Sen, Professor in Economics and Moral Philosophy at the University of Harvard and winner of the Nobel Prize for economics of 1988. This book is the outcome of a series of lectures held in Boston between November 2001 and April 2002 whose central theme is the role of identity in the social and cultural transformations that are now underway at a global level. The titles of the chapters, which employ words like violence, identity, civilisation, Islam, the West, culture, globalisation, multiculturalism and freedom, give the idea of a complexity and a richness that it is not easy to communicate in a few words. It is therefore advisable to concentrate only on the basic thesis and on certain fundamental key points of the book.


For Sen, the path that leads to peaceful co-existence between peoples passes by way of the recognition of the plural nature of belongings and thus of identity: in our epoch we need, that is to say, to distance ourselves both from 'indifference to identity', a concept according to which in our individual actions a feeling of identity with others in itself has no relevance, and from 'the illusion of being solitary', according to which a person has only one identity (in general according to Sen the religious identity), which eliminates all the others. The illusion of being solitary is what leads a person to seeing the world as a federation of religions and civilisations and which can easily break out in violence. For Sen, a multicultural policy must foster cultural freedom and human rights and not a situation in which two (or more than two) styles and traditions co-exist but are rigidly separated. This second example of multiculturalism, which can be traced back to the British model, should be called instead 'plural monocultural-ism on a religious basis'. Every man belongs to different groups and because every membership confers a potentially important identity we must be able to decide which are the relevant identities and weigh the relative importance of these different identities. In choices in relation to identity not only utilitarian calculation but also the social context and the ties that it imposes are called into play.


Against communitarian and fundamentalist negative tendencies, Sen upholds the 'priority of reason', the fact, that is to say, that 'reason must be placed in the primary position because even if you want to contest reason you have to bring reasons' (p. 164). The author of this book does not propose as an institutional model the creation of a gigantic world state, but hopes, instead, for a situation in which it is possible to ask oneself about values, ethics and the meaning of belonging within a world public space that involves not only 'institutional' bodies (such as the UN) but also the protagonists of global civil society (citizens' organisations, NGOs, independent sectors of the mass media), which for that matter is still far from being achieved. As can be seen from this summarising account, in this book Sen speaks about many (too many?) things, and touches upon the exposed nerves of our epoch. His reflection is to be located in very detailed debates (one need only think here, to give just two examples, of the studies by Eisenstadt or the research on multiple globalisations carried out by Berger and Huntington), and makes a contribution of importance, at the level of analysis, to demystifying old and new ideologies. At an operational level, that of cultural policies in relation to identity, this essay does not seem to be able to offer solutions or recipes. For that matter, this was not the purpose of this book, which certainly deserves to be read.