By OICD Executive Director, Prof. Bruce White

Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen makes clear his argument for the importance of maintaining multiple identities in his path-breaking book Identity and Violence. In the book Sen points out that in the normal course of life, we all see ourselves as members of a variety of groups. “The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a women, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater 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).”

None of these identities, writes Sen, can or should stand above the rest or determine that individual’s whole identity at any time. Rather, “we have to decide on the relative importance of our different associations and affiliations in any particular context.”

In contrast to acknowledgment of our plural and multiple identities, conflict and violence is triggered by people somehow becoming locked to one identity, one that overrides the other affiliations and relationships. Indeed, says Sen “the art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations… (and that) many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity.”

Certainly, this is a fascinating and critical perspective, one that we put at the heart of the OICD mission. Indeed, what we call Identity and Cultural Development, (the ICD in OICD), is essentially a systematic practice of analyzing the way that cultural information is being (or is vulnerable to being) negatively narrowed in societies, and fighting to preserve or regenerate plural, multiple, and inclusive ideas and concepts of identity that people can easily access and use.

Interested in this area of identity-making, or have something to contribute to the thinking or practical use of such observations? Do contact me at [email protected] to give feedback of any kind.