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Identity and Violence

Neser Boha

upgrade your gray matter
Mar 4, 2009
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Nordic Bayou
I've been reading an amazing book lately. The first three quarters of it I finished in two days - that's how captivating and well-written it is. The author seems to be speaking out of my own heart - putting sentiments and thoughts into an eloquent and well-thought out form. The book is "Identity and Violence" and the author is Dr. Amartya Kumar Sen, a Nobel Prize in Economics winner for 1998 and a professor at Harvard University.

The book offers a philosophical look at the violence that has riven our society. Professor Sen postulates that the violence is driven as much by confusion as by hatred. He is challenging the reductionist division of people by religion, class, and race and presents a vision of how to move towards peace.

There are so many passages of this book I'd love to quote that one could just as well quote the entire book; however, I chose to quote this:

If religion and community are associated with global violence in the minds of many people, then so are global poverty and inequality. There has, in fact, been an increasing tendency in recent years to jusitfy policies of poverty removal on the grounds that this is the surest way to prevent political strife and turmoil. Basing public policy - international as well as domestic - on such an understanding has some evident attractions. Given the public anxiety about wars and disorder in the rich countries in the world, the indirect justification of poverty removal - not for its own sake but for the sake of peace and quiet in the world - provides an argument that appeals to self-interest for helping the needy. It presents an argument for allocating more resources on poverty removal because of its presumed political, rather than moral, relevance.

While the temptation to go in that direction is easy to understand, it is a perilous route to take even for a worthy cause. Part of the difficulty lies in the possibility that if wrong, economic reductionism would not only impair our understanding of the world, but would also tend to undermine the declared rationale of the public commitment to remove poverty. This is a particularly serious concert, since poverty and massive inequality are terrible enough in themselves, and deserve priority even if there were no connection whatever with violence. Just as virtue is its own reward, poverty is at least its own penalty. This is not to deny that poverty and inequality can - and do - have far-reaching connections with conflict and strife, but these connections have to be examined and investigated with appropriate care and empirical scrutiny, rather than being casually invoked with unreasoned rapidity in support of a "good cause."

Destitution can, of course, produce provocation for defying established laws and rules. But it need not give people the initiative, courage, and actual ability to do anything very violent. Destitution can be accompanied not only by economic debility, but also by political helplessness. A starving wretch can be too frail and too dejected to fight and battle, and even to protest and holler. It is thus not surprising that often enough intense and widespread suffering and misery have been accompanied by unusual peace and silence.

Indeed, many famines have occurred without there being much political rebellion or civil strife or intergroup warfare. For example, the famine years in the 1840s in Ireland were among the most peaceful, and there was little attempt by the hungry masses to intervene even as ship after ship sailed down the river Shannon laden with rich food, carrying it from starving Ireland to well-fed England, which had greater purchasing power. The Irish do not have a great reputation for pliant docility, and yet the famine years were, by and large, years of law and order (with very few exceptions). Looking elsewhere, my own childhood memories in Calcutta during the Bengal famine of 1943 include the sight of starving people dying in front of sweetshops with various layers of luscious food displayed behind glass windows, without a single glass being broken, or law and order being disrupted. The Bengalis have been responsible for many violent rebellions (one against the Raj occurred even in 1942, in the year preceding the famine of 1943), but things were quiet in the famine year itself.

The issue of timing is particularly important, since a sense of injustice can feed discontent over a very long period, much after the debilitating and disabling effects of a famine and deprivation are over. The memory of destitution and devastation tends to linger, and can be invoked and utilized to generate rebellion and violence. The Irish famines of the 1840s may have been peaceful times, but the memory of injustice and the social bitterness about political and economic neglect had the effect of severely alienating the Irish from Britain, and contributed greatly to the violence that characterized Anglo-Irish relations over more than 150 years. Economic destitution may not lead to any immediate violence, but it would be wrong to presume from this that there is no connection between poverty, on the one hand, and violence on the other.

The neglect of the plight of Africa today can have a similar long-run effect on world peace in future. What the rest of the world (especially the richer countries) did - or did not do - when at least a quarter of the African population seemed to be threatened with extinction through epidemics, involving AIDS, malaria and other maladies, might not be forgotten for a very long time to come. We have to understand more clearly how poverty, depression, and neglect, and the humiliations associated with asymmetry of power, relate over long periods to a proneness to violence, linked with confrontations that draw on grievances against the top dogs in a world of divided identities.

Neglect can be reason enough for resentment, but a sense of encroachment, degradation, and humiliation can be even easier to mobilize for rebellion and revolt. Israel's ability to displace, repress, and rule over Palestinians, assisted by military power, has extensive and long-run consequences that go well beyond whatever immediate political gains they may be currently bringing to Israel. The sense of injustice in the arbitrary violation of the rights of Palestinians remains in readiness to be recruited for what, from the opposite end, is seen as violent "retaliation." The vengeance might come not only from Palestinians, but also from much larger groups of people linked with Palestinians through Arab, Muslim, or third-world identities. The sense that the world is divided between haves and have-nots greatly helps in the cultivation of discontent, opening up the possibilities of recruitment in the cause of what is often seen as "retaliatory violence."

In order to understand how this works, it is necessary to distinguish between the leaders of violent insurrection and the much larger populations on whose support the leaders rely. Leaders like Osama bin Laden do not - to say the least - suffer from poverty and have no economic reason whatever for feeling left out from sharing the fruits of global capitalism. And yet the movements that are led by well-off leaders typically do rely greatly on a sense of injustice, iniquity, and humiliation that the established world order is seen as having produced. Poverty and economic inequality may not instantly breed terrorism or influence the leaders of terrorist organizations, but nevertheless they can help to create rich recruiting grounds for the foot soldiers of the terrorist camps.

Second, tolerance of terrorism by an otherwise peaceful population is another peculiar phenomenon in many parts of the contemporary world, particularly wehre there is a sense of having been badly treated, for example, because of being left behind by global economics and social progress, or where there is a strong memory of having been politically roughed up in the past. A more equitable sharing of the benefits of globalization can contribute to long-run preventive measures both (1) against the recruitment of the cannon fodder of terrorism, and (2) against the creation of a general climate where terrorism is tolerated (and sometimes even celebrated).

Even though poverty and a sense of global injustice may not lead immediately to an eruption of violence, there are certainly connections there, operating over a long period of time, that can have a significant effect on the possibility of violence. The memory of ill treatment of the Middle East by Western powers many decades - perhaps even a hundred years - ago, which still linger in various forms in West Asia, can be cultivated and magnified by the commanders of confrontation to enhance the ability of terrorists to recruit volunteers for violence. The anger with the Soviet Union particularly linked with its Afghan policy may have been seen by American strategists as a nicely usable weapon in the cold war, but it was open to redirection against the Western world through the solitarist view of an Islamic identity confronting Europe and America (the distinction between a capitalist US and a Communist USSR would not matter much in that singular perspective). In that twofold classification, the rhetoric of global injustice is torn away from its constructive correlates, and is deployed instead, in a suitably adapted form, to feed an atmosphere of violence and retribution.

Sorry if that's too long, but it's such an insightful piece.

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