The Violence of Illusion

Amartya Sen on Identity and Violence. In his otherwise thought provoking lecture, Sen appears to assume that identities are only determined, discovered or assumed. He overlooks the fact that sometimes they are imposed. He also appears to overlook the relations of power which accentuate identity, or for that matter the functional, defensive necessity of identity as a means of resisting domination. (thanks Eric)

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is widely recognized for his ability to join economics and philosophy, reflected in his work through ethics and a sense of common humanity. In this Hitchcock Lecture from UC Berkeley he explores the violence of illusion.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

7 thoughts on “The Violence of Illusion”

  1. I’m halfway through this lecture, and had to stop to tell you that I think you must not have actually listened to this lecture or you were distracted through a great deal of it or you are so determined that the cruel world can in fact impose identity on adult humans that you outright do not register the point that identity is ALWAYS purely a matter of choice, whether you are bright enough to question it — ignoring that it is your choice is no defense — and whether you are responsible enough to stand behind this choice, be it one you consciously made or unconsciously ignored.

  2. “identity is ALWAYS purely a matter of choice,”
    That’s the thing about life as opposed to ideas: in order to describe it you have to be flexible.

    People are adaptable, and tractable. By your logic the intellectual laziness of the rich man by the pool and the poor man in a shack are equivalent. On one level they are: people are stupid and moral responsibility is an ideal not a fact. But on another level there can be no comparison. On one level the nationalism of the Israelis and the Palestinians are equivalent, but on another the nationalism of the weak and the strong are not.
    The powerful in their high morality claim to speak for others, or in their amorality they say others do not matter.

    It’s the problematic reality of all politics. You can and should argue for political maturity, non-violent resistance, patience and pressure. But at the same time you don’t want to be the one who argues that the niggers need saints to lead them. The moral seriousness of the powerful, or the elite and the army is always false. So is the moral seriousness of the leadership of their opponents. But I’m still with Hamas and Hezbollah over the IDF. And I’m against Hamas and Hezbollah against nonsectarian socialists.
    I don’t defend people I defend positions.
    People are stupid and you can’t be trapped by stupidity.

  3. By your logic the intellectual laziness of the rich man by the pool and the poor man in a shack are equivalent.

    As regards identity, they are.

    That people let themselves fall into these hierarchical relations with each other is a function of this “intellectual laziness” that is excused away by things such as weakness and strength, conditioning, all sorts of stuff. People also use the unwillingness to stake their lives on these things to excuse it, but it doesn’t make it any less true that each adult is responsible for our own identity.

    The pusillanimity of the weak is every bit as culpable as the rapacity of the strong. We just usually root for the weak because the rapacity of the strong is so evil. A pitfall in this is that it helps the victimized assume the identity of victims to cope with their “intellectual laziness” and fear, which weaken them still further.

    In the half of this lecture I heard Amartya Sen was being exquisitely clear about identity not being something that can be imposed without the consent of the imposed upon. Yes, when brute force is applied, it is very, very hard not to consent, appear to consent, but the message remains that consent it is, and each of us is responsible for that, no matter how many people there are out there helping to reify your victimhood into doing duty as strength.

  4. You want to enjoy your high horse and your web site full of high style snap shots with stories about dreams of killing Paris Hilton. Fine with me. Enjoy your angry adolescence.
    But don’t pretend to understand the weight of things.

  5. Nailed my ass? You didn’t read what I wrote.
    Here’s some more fun for you:
    “He forced the door open with the help of his cab driver, Professor Ogletree said, and had been inside for a few minutes when Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department appeared at his door and asked him to step outside.

    Professor Gates, 58, refused to do so, Professor Ogletree said. From that point, the account of the professor and the police began to differ.”

    Snobbish bourgeois black guy disses white cop, pulling rank out of a mix of racial puffery and simple snobbery: a humiliation the white cop would take from a bourgeois white guy even though he’d be pissed off, and have a right to be.

    Race vs class. Pick one? Pick neither? Or deal with the ambiguities in the real world.

    If you’d bother to read what I wrote I took issue with The poster and with you, with your easy moralizing. It’s the easiness that pissed me off not the idea.

  6. Somebody calls and reports two black men trying to break in, any black man at the scene will be arrested, especially if he is the least bit defiant.

    Somebody calls and reports a very tall white man is causing a disturbance at a bar, the cops arrest the first very tall white man they encounter there, because he tried to tell point out the real perp instead of lying down on the floor to be cuffed, while the one who was guilty just walks away, laughing.

    In both cases the innocent can protest all they want, but they’re going downtown until things are straightened out, and the cops will try to cover their asses for their failure any way they can. Same. Same. Same.

    I had to defend cops against this crap they pull for a long time, and the fact that it is their own crap, sometimes racist or based on their class consciousness, bears not at all on their victims’ identities. The fact that bullies who operate under a constant sense of threat, and who prize the injunctions against the least disobedience in the course of their professional duties above all, do this outrageous shit all the time has no relation to the subject of identity.

    They goddam taser seventy-two-year-old women for giving them lip at a traffic stop.

    The POINT of Sen’s lecture was IDENTITY, all the various markers we choose to identify with, the ways these too often unexamined facets of our senses of ourselves bear on our action.

    I’m sorry if the distinction between the individual sense of identity and the labels others attempt to thrust upon individuals is too recondite for you, but it IS a crucial distinction, and whining about racism and class distinctions and the ambiguities of the real world isn’t addressing the matter at hand.

    I’m only theorizing, now, because I didn’t continue listening to the lecture after about half way, where it became apparent to me that Sen had absolutely addressed the matter of imposed identity, but I’m pretty sure the man was trying to express the fact that the cure for all this trouble lies inside each of us, getting clear in ourselves, and to for crapsakes stop doing things like elevating victimization to a virtue to beat others over the head with. The point is to lessen the victimizing going on, and, ultimately, the responsibility lies in each of us, irrespective of whether we are oppressors or oppressed.

    The way I see it, you’re just whining, just trying to avoid the point, so you don’t have to have the courage to break the negative cycles. So, “easy moralizing”? I guess you could call pointing out actuality “easy” if you would rather do the work of denying it than have the courage to face it.

    The old woman in that video has both a better grasp of her identity, and more courage than you do.

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