More Than One

I posted this report on an address by Amartya Sen a few days ago, because I admire Sen (I well remember the moment I heard over the radio that he’d won the Nobel Prize, and how surprised and delighted I was) and also because he said something I’ve been thinking and muttering about for a long time, including here.

The Emeritus Professor at Harvard tore to shreds, the theory of ‘clash of civilisations’ (championed particularly by Samuel Huntington) and which has gained much currency, describing the classification as “very crude.” According to him, “what is most immediately divisive in this kind of theorising is not the silly idea of the inevitability of a clash, but the equally shallow prior insistense on seeing human beings in terms of one dimension only, regarding them just as members of one civilisation or another (defined mostly in terms of religion), ignoring their other affliations and involvements.”…Sen said to define people just in terms of religion-based classification of civilisations, can itself contribute to political insecurity, since in his view, people are seen as simply belonging to, say, “the Muslim world”, or “the western world”, or “the Hindu World”, or “the Buddhist world”, and so on “To ignore everything other than religion in classifying people is to set people up in potentially belligerent camps”, he warned. Secondly,Sen said it was a mistake to assume that a person’s religion defines him or her reasonably adequately. For example, the history of the Arab World with which an Arab child today can potentially relate is not only the achievements of Islam (important as they are), but also the great secular accomplishments in mathematics, science and history which are part and parcel of Arab history.

Just so. “ignoring their other affliations and involvements” Exactly. As if we only have one. As if we’re all one-dimensional creatures, little pencil-dots, instead of sprawling complicated unboxable things with height and depth and breadth and other dimensions we can’t even name. How bloody boring that is, apart from anything else – even apart from how dangerous, and divisive, and anti-rational it is, it’s just so damn small and limiting and impoverishing. Bernard Williams made the same point about philosophy, especially for instance Kantian and Utilitarian views of ethics: that they ignored far too many aspects of human experience. And that bit of the Colin McGinn review I quoted a couple of days ago also makes a similar point –

But this assigns to women the patriarchal obligation of having children and bringing them up, with this obligation morally trumping any other projects that they might entertain.

What is this impulse to try to limit each other to being just one thing? What is this need to see everything in terms of one category – identity, or parenthood, or religion, or politics? It would be all right if we were ants, but since we’re not, let’s try not to think like ants. (Never mind how I know how ants think – educated guesswork, that’s how.)

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