Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence

As a child, Amartya Sen, Nobel prize winning economist and philosopher of social justice, witnessed the Hindu-Muslim riots that accompanied Pakistan’s partition from India. His analysis of identity and violence is based on this formative experience and identity-based conflicts around the world including 9/11 and the war of terrorism of recent decades. At least since the Obama error, the rhetoric of identity-based violence and the tactics of terror have become endemic within the US. We see the dynamics Sen discusses play out in our contemporary culture war and tribal political divisions. With experts now warning of social upheaval and even civil war looming on the horizon, now is an apt time to revisit Sen’s analysis. I highly recommend Sen’s book length treatment: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of… book by Amartya Sen (

Individuals have many identities. I am all at once an, American, husband, father, cat lover, philosopher, handyman, cook, gardener, cyclist, and a white male. Individuals are complex and multifaceted. We each contain multitudes. Our various identities can be the basis of affinities that bind us together. They can also divide. As Sen puts it, “The adversity of exclusion can go hand in hand with the gifts of inclusion”

Division, enmity and ultimately violence are fomented by prioritizing singular identities to the exclusion of all others. When people are categorized according to just one of their many identities, that identity binds group members together even as it divides complex individuals from members of other groups. So, for instance, white supremacists in the US currently foment division and violence by categorizing fellow citizens exclusively by race (perhaps also immigration status), to the exclusion of identities that are shared across racial categories. Aside from being Black or white, Asian or indigenous, we are also parents, fellow citizens, hikers or basketball players, teachers or nurses, etc. In the fomenting of identity-based divisions, assorted shared identities among individuals are incrementally dismissed as irrelevant while a singular facet of identity grows all consuming. Individuals can only be thought of as white, Black, or brown in the rhetoric of the white supremacist. Individuals are reduced to narrow categories, their complexity is diminished, and the bases for shared understanding, appreciation, and respect that transcends the singular dividing identity is narrowed, ultimately choked off.

This is not the only example worth exploring in the current American cultural landscape. Ultimately it is our shared humanity that is undermined. The denigration and diminishment of our complex and multifaceted identities into singular categories is dehumanizing.


Locke wrote at a time when it would have been easy to miss the role of social systems and how unfair these can be. But aside from issues of fairness in our social systems, it’s worth noting how big a job it is to secure individual rights and liberties.

Part of our current political dysfunction is driven by people who see no threats to liberty except from the government. And from that point of view, any government rule or regulation is likely to look like an infringement of liberty.

So, we need to talk about vaccine mandates in connection with this. People who go around unvaccinated undermine the liberty of others by making their own physical presence a threat to the health and safety of others. Vaccine mandates are there to prevent some people from undermining the liberty of others by taking risks with the health and safety of others. Sometimes rules and regulations are there to advance and secure liberty.

This seems to be a difficult idea for many people to grasp firmly. I suspect this is because many people think of liberty in terms of getting to choose whatever they like instead of in Locke’s terms of self-ownership and non-domination. But political freedom is not the same thing as consumerism.

So, here’s another example we all get the point of. You are not free to run red lights, drive on the left side of the road, or go 90 MPH through the middle of town. The rules of the road we are all expected to follow don’t infringe on our liberty, they secure and enhance it. We are all more free to get where we want to go safely when everybody abides by traffic laws. Same idea with vaccine mandates.

If we, in the land of the free, could get a little clarity on how freedom works, I’d once again feel free to go to a bar, have a beer, and talk politics with someone who disagrees with me in at least marginally more reasonable ways.