Thursday, March 30, 2006

Are you what you worship?

Let's talk about dehumanization. Amartya Sen in Slate argues that when we talk about our various conflicts with the Arab world, we tend to reduce the members of that culture to only one dimension, their religion. We talk about how Islamic radicals go nuts over cartoons, etc. There is more to Arab culture, history, identity, he says, than simply Islam, and we err to ignore that diversity of culture. Algebra and algorithm, he reminds us, both start with "Al-" for a reason. He says
A person's religion need not be his or her all-encompassing and exclusive identity.
The insistence, if only implicitly, on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable.
So we reduce complex things, people, to very simple conceptions and thereby create problems in our relationship with those people.

People interrelate based on shared values and opinions. If one's conception of the other person doesn't extend beyond one point, then you've got a coin flip as to whether or not the two of you will get along.

It's a lot like racism, I guess. If you deny the humanity of a racial minority, then when you're exposed to a black person, you'll think that you have no common experiences or values that can form a sympathetic relationship.

Whereas if you think of another person as having a variety of characteristics, then you can find points of agreement and sympathy.

In Free Speech today we talked about arguments for regulating porn* that are founded in the notion that it dehumanizes women. I think you can make a similar case for what Sen's talking about. Instead of reducing a person's humanity to sexual subservience,** such thinking reduces a person to just their religious belief, and conflict can only follow.

But, of course, nobody would ever really argue that Sen-style dehumanization should be regulated. Then we'd be banning writing on the grounds that it lacks subtelty. In such a world, what would David Brooks do for a job?

Anyway, I recommend the Sen article.

*I first typed that pron, I'm proud to say.
**When critics say that porn objectifies women, their criticism really is that porn turns a living, vibrant, diverse human being into a soulless, thoughtless object. It's not so different from what Sen's discussing. Though I don't think I can really give a thumbs up to the argument.


Fishfrog said...

"Anyway, I recommend the Sen article."

Do you also recommend David Brooks?

Matt said...

I recommend this McSweeney's Internet Tendency about David Brooks and cereal. It's kind of amusing.

As for David Brooks himself...he's kinda like my St. Louis cops, if you know what I mean.

washrambler said...

I was actually at a lecture that Sen gave that dealt with the Clash of Civilizations topic. However, his ideas were at the time relatively embryonic, so I wasn't expecting much when I read the article. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Sen managed to develop his ideas past the point of "there is no clash of civilizations," which was all he really said during the lecture.