Saturday, February 18, 2006

Identity

  From the Guardian:
 
What grates on Sen is the idea that individuals should be ushered like sheep into pens according to their religious faith, a mode of classification that too often trumps all others and ignores the fact that people are always complex, multi-faceted individuals who choose their identities from a wide range of economic, cultural and ideological alternatives. "Being defined by one group identity over all others," he says, "overlooking whether you're working class or capitalist, left or right, what your language group is and your literary tastes are, all that interferes with people's freedom to make their own choices."
  What begins by giving people room to express themselves, he argues, may force people into an identity chosen by the authorities. "That is what is happening now, here," he says, a little indignantly. "I think there is a real tyranny there. It doesn't look like tyranny - it looks like giving freedom and tolerance - but it ends up being a denial of individual freedom. The individual belongs to many different groups and it is up to him or her to decide which of those groups he or she would like to give priority."
  Sen is also critical of the growing consultative power given to the religious organisations of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. It does, he believes, magnify the power and authority of religious leaders at the expense of a healthy democratic debate. "Suddenly the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim organisations are in charge of all Jews, Hindus and Muslims. Whether you are an extremist mullah or a moderate mullah, whether you're Blair's friend or Blair's enemy, you might relish the idea of being able to speak for all people with a Muslim background - no matter how religious they are - but this may be in direct competition with the role of Muslims in British civil society."


  Perhaps this is all a reaction to the 'atomised identity politics' of the 80's, if that label makes any sense. But to lump everyone together is just as bad as an idea in other ways as to try to treat them all as representatives of small groups. Yes to try to help women in general when they have formed factions of black lesbians, white middle-class soccer moms, homeless abused etc. and for them to all want their own demands to be met is silly. But you can't hide the problems of minority ethnic groups by making them all of one religion. Not all Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or atheists agree. From my experience of Muslim students, some feel very divided, specifically by where their family originally came from, down to country and the region of the country and even sometimes the village. Who can speak for everyone, everywhere?
  In the office recently, the cartoon controversy came up. A muslim staffmember expressed annoyance at both sides, saying that they thought the cartoons were disrespectful but could not condone what muslims elsewhere were doing - "they do not speak for me". I asked this staff-member who did speak for them, and as they struggled gave them the conclusion that perhaps only they themselves spoke for them. And the staff-member agreed, perhaps without realising exactly how lonely and unpleasant a predicament that is.

  Sartre reckoned, and he reckoned a lot of things, that you cannot trust the cause you are involved in to go on after your death - what if all the people you are working with give up, get interested in something else? This is a philosophy of do what you can, and do it now, do not trust in grand systems of thought to sweep public opinion for as long or as powerfully as you want them to. Just do what you think is right. (I believe he said this in Existentialism and Humanism.)
  Perhaps no-one can speak for you. Perhaps only you speak for you. If some humans feel like this, Sen is right to say that lumping everyone together under one banner is indeed tyranny, because your voice will be co-opted. I would react with much anger if a society of white male 20-something agnostics suddenly decided to speak for me, and I disagreed. And this leads us to a pressing question: how can we teach people to speak, for themselves, and not be afraid that hardly anyone will listen to them?

3 Comments:

Blogger Atum said...

One could say that religion is the original tyranny, and that giving it power to speak for swathes of society is its reinstatement. It occurs to me that for politicians to defend the notion that you should not structuralise the shifting sands of identity, they would have to give up their own existence, as compartmentalising identities and appealing to it where they are most static is precisely what political campaigning is.

What is the proposal here?

7:34 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

My only proposal is to educate people that they must represent themselves if they wish to participate in democracy - either by using their own voice, or by being very careful in choosing an organisation to speak for them.

8:04 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

I wondered actually what Sen's proposal was. Does he appear to have a similar view of democratic process, or is there something 'whiter than white' about his position (as a prize winner and yawn) such that he can say what he likes while not actually being very radical at all?

11:35 PM  

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