The Solitarist View of Identity

John Gray is not entirely convinced by Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence, despite his admiration.

Impassioned, eloquent and often moving, Identity and Violence is a sustained attack on the “solitarist” theory which says that human identities are formed by membership of a single social group…There is a deeper unrealism in Sen’s analysis, which emerges in his inability to account for the powerful appeal of the solitarist view…Along with many liberal philosophers, he seems to think human conflict is a result of intellectual error. But if the error of solitarism is so blatantly obvious, why do large numbers of people continue to believe in it and act on it? Sen refers repeatedly to manipulation by malevolent propagandists…But are people really so stupid? Or is the failure of understanding actually in the liberal philosopher?

I’m very interested in that question, because I share in the failure of understanding (if it is one), at least partially. I think I understand the appeal of the solitarist view, up to a point, but I do have trouble understanding why it doesn’t break down fairly quickly under pressure from non-solitarist views. In other words, I see the temporary appeal of identifying with other (whatevers) – women, Muslims, Americans, Jews, gays, blacks, Asians, whatever – but I don’t fully see how one item on the menu manages to trump all the others all the time. I don’t. I extrapolate from myself, and so I don’t see it. I think of myself as a woman (and a feminist) some of the time, and I certainly don’t ever think of myself as not a woman (or a feminist), but I don’t and don’t want to think of myself as primarily a woman all the time; in fact I hate it. It bores me and it makes me feel claustrophobic and above all it makes me feel diminished. If the most important thing about me is that I Am A Wooman along with some 3 billion other people on the planet – well I might as well decide that my identity is all wrapped up in being a mammal, or a vertebrate. I might as well be a grain of wheat in a thousand-acre field (as of course I am, but I don’t particularly want to make that a Badge of Identity). I want to think about other things, and that precludes always uninterruptedly obsessing over and massaging my identity as a woman – or as anything else. So that’s my blind spot, that’s why I have trouble understanding the solitarist view: why do other people want to hug just one identity? Why don’t they get bored?

What does Gray tell us on this point?

For Sen, as a good liberal rationalist, it is an article of faith that the violence of identity is a result of erroneous beliefs. He cannot accept that its causes are inherent in human beings themselves…The people who knifed the day-labourer in Bengal and who dragged off the man to his death in Petrograd made no error. They did what they did from fear, desperation or cruelty. Such atrocities express deep-seated human traits that are not going to be removed by the kind of conceptual therapy offered by Sen.

That answer seems to me a good deal less satisfactory than anything Sen writes. Just for a start – the people who knifed the day-labourer in Bengal did make an error, because whatever fear, desperation or cruelty prompted them to do it, it certainly didn’t gain them anything. That is an error – an error is exactly what it is. To be so crazed with fear, desperation or cruelty that you murder someone of the ‘wrong’ religious or ethnic (or both) group just because he is of the wrong group and is in ‘your’ neighbourhood – is a big fat error. It’s not an error in arithmetic or spelling, but it’s still an error. So what does Gray mean saying it isn’t? In other words – I think he’s right that the appeal of solitarist identity has to be explained, but I don’t think he did anything at all in the direction of explaining it, and I think he made an error besides.

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