Sunday, March 04, 2007

Individuals and Categories - 2

Jai Arjun Singh had once written about Identity and Violence, and reproduced an excerpt from its prologue, which I re-reproduce, corny as that sounds.

Civilisational or religious partitioning of the world population yields a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group…This can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups – we belong to all of them. The same person can be, without any contradiction: an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theatre lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk (preferably in English). Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them can be taken to be the person’s only identity or singular membership category.

Amartya Sen has summarily destroyed all of my rhetorical '22, male, engineer' posturing. I stand corrected. Indeed, a definition of individual identity as the intersection of all the sets that the individual belongs to takes care of the individual vs category debate in my mind.

It is still fascinating to explore why we let the classifications of various categories overshadow our perception of others as individuals. Nation, religion, caste, race and gender are the bases of division that spring to the mind immediately, but it can be extremely interesting to explore this phenomenon in a more localised manner. In school and college, fights that break out between individuals often transform into group vs group slugfests. Hostelites vs Day-scholars. Localites vs Outsiders. Seniors vs Juniors. Hostel X vs Hostel Y. Even Wing A vs Wing B. There is perhaps a distinction though. It is highly unlikely that violence at the micro-level will affect individuals who were not directly involved. Those people from hostel X who were not part of the slugfest will probably be spared by the warring battalion of hostel Y. On the broader issues too, for some reason, violence that envelopes even unwilling individuals is common only in the case of religion and caste. I may have had to include nation into this list but the modern concept of armed nation states largely prevents that (leaving aside bombings on civilian areas - but those are anyway termed 'mistakes' and are not part of acknowledged strategy). Is this the reason why a majority of educated 'liberal' individuals consider patriotism a virtue but casteism and communalism to be evil?

Though, I still stand by my argument that the opportunities available to most individuals are the products of not just their abilities and choices as individuals, but also of their unchosen allegiance to certain categories.

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