Tuesday 21 June 2011

My Conversation with Amartya Sen

I felt so privileged last evening to find myself standing in the great hall of Marlborough House, home of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. It wasn't the cobalt blue and gold of the ceiling or the marble inlay of the flooring that made me feel like the luckiest girl in the world. It was that I was chatting about issues of justice with a diminutive octogenarian of Indian origin - Amartya Sen. Anyone who knows my book and and my blog will know that Sen's work is the cornerstone of my thinking.

Sen's latest offering to those struggling with what to make of societies beset by poverty and violence is published by the Commonwealth Secretariat and titled "Peace and Democratic Society". Sen is its editor.

In his new book, Sen asks us to consider the politics of identity. He asks us to see ourselves as members of a variety of groups and belonging to all of them. He writes, "The same person can be, without any contradiction, a South African citizen, of Asian origin, with Indian ancestry, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a jazz enthusiast, and one who believes that the most important problem that the world faces today is to make cricket more popular across the globe, breaking the spell of 'silly' games like baseball. ....There is no reason to think that whatever civilisational identity a person has - religious, communal, regional, national or global - must invariably dominate over every other relation or affiliation a person may have." (pg.12)

It is single identities, either racial or religious, that most often foment violence, such as in the case of Protestant v Catholic in Northern Ireland, or Muslim v Christian. Multiple identities give us individually and collectively, a chance to find shared experiences of being human as well as common objectives. Sen decries the interfaith movement as being at its core divisive, because it is based on the single identities of faith groups.

This idea is very interesting for people with disabilities and their families - or for that matter, anyone else with perceived differences who is struggling for place and belonging. Take the case of my son, Nicholas Wright. One could easily say (and they do!) that he is a young adult with severe, multiple disabilities. Or, one could say that he is a young adult, male, Canadian, keen Ottawa Senators fan, son, brother, cousin, wheelchair user, heterosexual romantic who values political incorrectness.

Listening to Sen's keynote address last night, I wondered about the hierarchy of identities. How could we fail to rank identities on the basis of the power that we perceive to be inherent in each of those roles? The example that I thought of was a CEO who is also drug addicted. Couldn't this be a cause to 'choose' the most powerful identity in the list and just go with it, to the exclusion of those roles we deem to be less powerful? After the speech, I posed this question to Sen. He responded that "it doesn't matter about rating a hierarchy of identities. Identities just are and the only occasion that you might pick out 'drug addicted' would be if you were trying to prosecute the CEO for illegal drug use. Identities have an important relation to justice and the danger is when we assign ourselves or others single identities that have the potential to be very divisive." That is, of course, paraphrased from my memory of our conversation, but the gist is there.

This line of thinking is helping me to understand our own disability community and our relation to groups identified with aging and childcare. But I'll save that for my next post.

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