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Kosmopolis Institute Publications Day 10: "Identical" but different!

Day 10: "Identical" but different!

It is Monday night. I prepare to enter my moderately sized bed, still reflecting on Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence - the reading that closed my day. My reflection is not much about the soundness of Sen’s ideas in the book but rather on how much comes with this package called Amartya. For an economist, issues to do with identity and violence would be considered to be a little over the fence! But I need not search farther than his book for an answer. “The incitement to ignore all affiliation and loyalties other than those emanating from one restrictive identity can be deeply delusive and also contribute to social tension and violence” (2006, p.21). Then Steve Biko also comes to mind, ‘I Write What I Like’.

As I am casually engaging with these thoughts, Frank (my kind roommate) reminds me that the Tuesday blogging ball was in my pocket. “I will wake up very early”, I respond. A smile immediately forms on his slightly bearded face, suggesting that he hears the bells of my line. It is now close to mid-night, I send myself below my four blankets to crossover to Tuesday.

Staying right opposite the kitchen, I need no alarm. Early Tuesday I am up, looking forward to the Identity classes. I am a little anxious about the mood of the class this day because Tuesday classes ended with mixed feelings about how we interpret/misinterpret each other’s differences. I had this nagging worry that an innocent comment could stray into a nerve already stretched with memories of identity issues. But I was wrong, it looks like the events of Monday had a big influence on the shape of Tuesday. Nevertheless, there was a lot to learn on identity.

Caroline was on the steering wheel, interactively taking us through Palekh, Sen, Moisi, Huntington, Young and Nussbaum’s views on identity. Interesting readings, save for Huntington’s Clash of the Civilisations which was more faulted than credited. Of much interest was the first hypothetical group exercise we were given. Each of us was to tell what identity they would wish to come back with if they were to die and come back in another life. And came the confessions, ranging from shocking to amusing! Fulgencio, from Uganda, would wish to be reincarnated as a female white Catholic priest in America but with a Mother Theresa sort of character. He would as well want to work in places like Indonesia so as to convert the people there. Caroline interjects, “what does that mean about pluralism?” Before her lips close, Ram has an answer: “upside down”. Hellen, a South African, would resurface as a Tibetan Buddhist monk! Hellen, there would be much to give up! “I know, but I would want to have the feeling and understanding of the suffering and self-negation”. And yes, soccer didn’t feature in her desired new world! Some preferred to come back with different nationalities, some with different sex, others new professions, and so on. 

The second task required us to identify a particular instance when we felt different; why; what we did about it; and what it signifies to our current identity. The revelations from this exercise made me realise that somehow there is always a difference to talk of. Only that, for some reasons, some forms of identity are often given little attention. Fleur, from Holland, and her sister are identical twins. But she says they have personality differences! It makes us realise how physical features can be deceptive and, as such, wrong bases of inclusion and exclusion. Vinita is confronted with her difference as a woman when she leaves home. Coming from a patriarchal society, there is a way she is expected to dress, behave, and a time she is expected to be home! At some points, some felt different as Muslims, some as lesbians, as young boys, others as belonging to some ethnic group, etc. Like with most discussions here, time cut us short on this exercise, I think there were many more surprises coming. I went to class with the hope of coming out with a simpler grasp of the dynamics of identity, I came out with an appreciation of its complexity.

When class ended, we discussed our group project with Caroline. It keeps getting clearer and simpler, the more temptation to relax. Back to my room, I find one of my four blankets missing! Whoever laid my bed must have thought that I was over-reacting to the cold. Besides, isn’t the norm three blankets? The ‘justice’ of treating differences homogenously! Well, Frank, Evarist, Hellen, Fulgensio and I had to go play soccer. It was fun, but differences will always follow us, even at the pitch! I was still confronted with difference! Don’t speculate, the difference was in skill. My legs could not cooperate and, for that reason, someone felt that “the two of them (me and Fulgencio) are equivalent to one player”. I couldn’t agree more.

Winding up the day at the Institute, I lazily type down as I keenly observe people reading and playing games. With a common human identity, they are conspicuously different. I can’t help but realise the beauty of our differences. Let’s see them right; not as threats, inferiorities, superiorities, ... Different colours, religions, tribes, sexes, sexualities, professions; but one people.

Jimmy Spire Ssentongo