An Argumentative Indian? Am I, really?!
Posted by Jerry on July 1, 2006
Well, now that I’m in India… I thought, oh hum… let’s get aquainted somewhat with this Indian culture and the scholarly commentaries on it. I mean, heck, I am afterall, biologically of Indian ancestry. Moreover, I have almost entirely assimilated into the Indian masses: like them, even I now leap on and off trains and buses on my way to work; like them, I push and shove and jostle to find flat ground to rest my feet while hanging off the side of a train or a bus; like many of them surely have at some point, I too, sprained my ankle after I jumped off a slow-moving train inorder to avoid the tsunami of Indians clamoring to climb onto it (my ankle is still swollen, btw); and finally, like many of them, after a long day’s work, I stop by the road-side open-air food stall and indulge myself in one of those tasty, finger-licking, Indian “chaats.”
Basically, I am now an Indian! 🙂
So, in order to learn more about the intellectual side of this culture, I decided to go into one of the many swanky new shopping malls in Mumbai and buy “The Argumentative Indian” by Amartya Sen.
It is a collection of essays written by this Nobel prize winning economist of Indian origins. Thus far, the book has proved to be an interesting, easy, almost “light” reading (I say “light” because I’m comparing it to the dense scholarly articles I have to read everyday at my job, and in that sense, Sen’s book is certainly a treat).
I have already found some basic disagreements with his approach, interpretation, and analysis of the Indian culture and identity. Sen is quite famous–aside for his achievements in economics–for his argument against the isolation of an ascribable human Identity. Sen argues:
to speak of a person as “a Muslim” to the exclusion of other facets of his personality–leads to the “miniaturization of human beings.” And this, he avers, is Not Good. It is also Not Accurate. And Unhelpful. And Divisive. And Dangerous. [OpinionJournal, April 21, 2006]
His thesis is similar to what I have also believed and argued on many occassions regarding the issue of identities (here “identities” is used to denote the various labels one ascribes to oneself, such as, American, Christian, Athlete, Homosexual, etc.).
Sen further states:
“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 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).” [OJ]
The difference in his and my theses is that while he wants to remind us that humans generally have more than one interacting and complex layers of self-identity and that any one should not be isolated or reified, I argue for a complete shedding off of those layers that, in my opinion, conceals one’s true and only identity: that we are fundamentally individual, thinking, human beings.
I argue for a total and complete renunciation of unnecessary and accidental identities above and beyond that which characterizes one’s own essential self, such as American, Muslim, Heterosexual, Hanoverian, etc. I agree and understand that for many, such identities afford them the solace and comfort of larger groups of other people who hold similar identities. For example, a gay man internalizing his sexual orientation as the crux of his identity finds comfort in discovering other gay men in a predominantly gay neighborhood, doing mostly gay-friendly activities, etc. Nonetheless, one can–and I argue that one should–in due time wean one’s self away from such labels that do not actually describe the proper essence of who and what we are.
I am not advocating that one practice complete anti-social and isolationist behavior. I am fully in favor of choosing to associate with people with similar interests and ideas (eg., Objectivists). What I argue against is that we must not accept labels or associations and reify them as our core, essential psychological identity. Thus, I am an Objectivist in the sense that I subscribe fully to this philosophy. Yet, I am primarily and essentially an individual, thinking, human being before I am an Objectivist. Thus, my identity is consistent with my nature–with who I am–and that takes primacy over what I believe or what my interests are.
In fact, some of the more pernicious examples of internalizing these non-essential identities to destructive extremes are fanatic nationalism (like the Nazis, North Korean Commies, Hamas, etc.), religious fundamentalists (like the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Ayatollahs), and racism. Identifying to notions above and beyond one’s own self (such as to one’s nation, race or religion) creates a fertile breeding ground for Collectivist mentality and behavior. When one’s self-identity is not properly anchored in one’s own self but in some thing other that one’s self, then individualism is surely sacrificed.