Questions of Identity: Exclusivity and Pluralism
Recently, I happened to read a couple of articles addressing the question of how assumed identities and ideological affiliations help and hinder social discourse. I am quoting below excerpts from these articles along with some comments on how in my opinion they are relevant to a forum like this.

1) One nation, with Aunt Susan (November 25, 2010, The Economist)

Quote:Aunt Susan may be a Methodist, and you a Jew, but you know that Aunt Susan deserves a place in heaven anyway. In fact, Susan does not have to be your aunt, because in addition to the Aunt Susan principle the authors have invented the My Friend Al principle. In this case you befriend Al because, say, of a shared interest in beekeeping, and later learn that he is an evangelical Christian. Having an evangelical Christian in your circle of friends makes you warmer than you were before to evangelical Christians.

In our context, the argument holds equally well if you replace 'evangelical Christian' with 'skeptic' or 'atheist'. In practice this means that besides 'coming Out' in forums like this one, we will serve the cause of the Out Campaign more completely if we come out in our beekeeping groups, hiking groups, book clubs and salsa classes.

2) Keep your identity small (February 2009, Paul Graham)

Quote:For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerable—that all languages are equally good. Obviously that's false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

This is one of the clearest disambiguations I have read to forestall the ubiquitous misconception that 'freethinking' equals an 'all-accepting stance'. This is also a useful cautionary note here counselling that 'you exclude people who respond from identity' (this underlies many troll contrarian warning signs perhaps). In discussions here as well there may well be 'Marxists','Trotskyists', 'Periyarites', 'Nehruvians', 'Libertarians', 'Objectivists' and 'Naturalists' but even a quick skim is enough to demonstrate that the most edifying threads are the ones in which these identities don't jarringly jut ahead.

3) Identity and Violence : Prof. Amartya Sen's lecture at UC Berkeley

This one is a classic companion to the above articles and make a strong case for pluralism and the reconciliation of multiple layers of identities as integral to conflict resolution.
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Thanks for the links. This is an important subject, and is closely related to the ideas/people distinction that many who identify as freethinkers are drawn to on principle.

Regarding the economist article, aunt Susan might have something to do with it, but she can be dispensed with in favor of straightforward in-group/out-group identity politics. If believers feel that their Judeo-Christian tradition is being threatened by the "outsiders", they will begin identifying more with each other's groups than with the outsiders. This is, IMO, what you are seeing in America. There was a time in India when Vaishnavites fought wars against Shaivites. The "cultural invasion" of Islam and Christianity ensured that the former two would unite in defense of the "great Hindu traditions" Yawn

Before we go further we must be clear that there are different types of identities, but identities are inevitable.

The idea that Freethought is about giving equal importance to all ideas is an unavoidable and popular misunderstanding that comes with the semantics. I fear that it will constantly have to be explained to people, until it becomes an unnecessary category, or a better replacement term evolves over time. Nevertheless, I think that the identity 'Freethinker' is the one that best fits what I believe in. This is where the differences between the types of identities becomes important. 'Freethinker' is a type of identity that consciously targets only ideas, not people who identify with any particular label.
For example, you used these examples: "'Marxists','Trotskyists', 'Periyarites', 'Nehruvians', 'Libertarians', 'Objectivists' and 'Naturalists'". A person who identifies with any and all of these identities can very well be also identified as a freethinker, as long as they are willing to subject their beliefs to science and reason, and do not insist on making fact-claims from tradition or superstition.

But there are some identities that are simply terrible and must be excluded when considering building an ideological framework for promoting freethought. These identities are those based on silly superstition born of fear and perpetuated of ignorance and greed, and especially the ones that are intent on disrupting our agenda. In this regard I'm an exclusivist (excluding the identity, not the persons), and such exclusivism is certainly warranted for political purposes. Other freethinkers, and even other aspects of Nirmukta's outreach, may have a more inclusive approach to dealing with believers, but from a purely ideological standpoint, a political standpoint, and in the context of creating the freethought platform from which to fight for what we need, exclusivism is certainly warranted. This type of exclusivism is actually in line with a pluralistic approach, considering that there are many many other venues to integrate with the general community.
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
The late social scientist Arvind Das, in his book India Invented, describes a curious relationship between census-taking and identity-formation. It is somewhat similar to anthropology's observation paradox.

Quote:A census is not a passive account of statistical tables, but also engages in reshaping the world through categories and their definitions.

While the existence of “non-antagonistic contradictions” between different communities may have characterized pre-colonial society, available historical evidence points largely to the persistence of communities living “back-to-back” rather than as one integrated unit. If there were no aggressive assertions of communal and divisive identities, and hence no major sectarian conflicts, it is attributable to what has been described as the existence of “fuzzy identities”.

The fuzzy communities were indistinct groups with neither internal cohesion nor well known externalities and as such, were communities without overt communication. The group did not know how far it extended and what was its strength in numbers, therefore, had less accurate and less aggressive self-awareness. The fuzzy communities also did not require any developed theory of 'otherness'.

Colonialism changed this blissful state of social ignorance through census. 'Counting of Heads' and categorization for reasons of state had a deep social impact. It created both a majority-minority sense as well as a process of homogenization within communities. This process is still on and finds most dramatic expression in the simplified, pan-Indian Ram cult that is being nurtured among the Hindus.

Before head counts of people were announced, it was neither possible nor necessary for communities across the land to identify themselves with any degree of preciseness and to seek similarities or differences with others outside their immediate kin. There was, thus no general "Hindu community" and people defined themselves with reference to their specific modes of worship as localized Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva) or Shakts (Worshippers of the Mother Goddess, Shakti) or Vaishnavas (worshipers of various incarnations - Ram, Krishna, etc, of Vishnu ) and so on. Numbers became a political tool as Hindus were told that they constituted a majority and an effort was made to persuade them to act as a uniform community regardless of sect, caste or class affiliation.

Indeed, in the pre-modern periods, it is doubtful if even the Muslim "ummah" (global community) had any more than a symbolic meaning.

The censuses however, not only counted people but also pigeonholed them and made it possible for them to seek self-definition in terms that were set for them by external enumerations. There is little historical evidence of sustained communal hatred operating at the popular level prior to colonial rule. The fuzzy communities have been turned into enumerated communities and further into political communities by the colonialists.

The census figures also provided the geographical distribution of religious communities. Both size of religious communities and their distribution was used to widen the rift between religious communities particularly between Hindus and Muslims. Numerous such examples are found with the intent to perpetuate divisions in Indian society along caste, religion and linguistic lines. The division of Bengal based on religion in 1905 was the most glaring example of evoking communalism by the British policy of divide and rule. Therefore, the census exercise during colonial rule instilled a geographical and demographic consciousness among religious communities - an awareness of their geographical concentration as well as their demographic strength.

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