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Step 58: Identity & Violence

Our identity is multifaceted, but people love the simplicity and tend to reduce people to a singular trait, which objectifies them. This reduction leads to violence, in part because it allows an “us v them” narrative.

Amartya Sen points out the ramifications in his book “Identity and Violence”. To consider it personally, we look at Martin Buber’s “I-thou” to show how most of the time we are in an “I-it” relationship to the world, and must “self-surrender” to have an “I-thou” whole relationship, and not objectify others.

Ryder closes out with David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” in which to be a better person we must be attuned and aware, even imaginative. Matthew Crawford counters that unfortunately, even Wallace remains stuck in his head manipulating mental models to relate to the world as a good person. The solution, says Crawford, is to take action in reality by engaging with others and the world.

Identity and Violence

Amartya Sen (2013)

Part 1: Reductive Identity

Part 2: I-it, I-thou

Part 3: Mind Games


amartya sen idenitty and violence
Step 58: Identity and Violence

PART 1: reductive identity

The major take away from “Identity and Violence” is that identity is multi-faceted, and that we identify as multiple things to multiple people at various stages in our life.

This is a fairly obvious notion we often forget: you can be an American jew, a scientist, a vegetarian, and addicted to painkillers. You can be a sister, mother, spouse, proud citizen of Mexico, CEO, and hyper religious roller derby fanatic who shoots guns at ufo’s in your spare time. We are never just one thing: besides race, nationality, familial relations, and career, we are also unique in interest and temperament, and to make it more complex it all changes over time as our relation to the world changes.

Amartya Sen discusses that perpetrating violence comes from reducing the identity to one primary feature. (for example, your race as a Jew, or is that your religion, or nationality?) And once reduced, we can attach to this single feature negative, demeaning traits.

This is a type of abstraction making the complex stupidly simple (which humans love). From simple, we convert people with this trait into an object: they are lesser, barely human and “other.”

A way to dissolve empathy is through reductionism. Reinforce that with “Us vs Them” propagandistic narratives and it take generations to unravel.

  • How about nationalism and race: The treatment of the Irish or Japanese or Chinese when they came over to America, or the Japanese interned after Pearl Harbor. Slavery of Africans in America became paired with racist ideas, and even scientists like Watson -who co-discovered the double helix- said black people were genetically inferior.
  • Or Religion: how about Muslims after 9/11? Or did we already have a precendent since the the 11th-century crusades, which made it that much easier to convert peopel to other?
  • Or Intelligence: how about not giving entire cultures credit for genius inventions. (mathematic concepts like ‘sine’, gunpowder, magnets, suspension bridges, etc) Instead, Englishmen would create outlandish fictions, requiring a lot of work, to uphold their supposed intellectual and genetic supremacy.

What tends to happen is groupthink, group dynamics. Out of fear, for power, or due to deep insecutirty othering people pretends to simplify the world.

But one of Sen’s key points is that the lengths you have to go to in order to maintain your false simplifications are not only irrational, costly, and harmful, but the warped cruelty your falsity inspires -especially when claimed as truth. This damages all of mankind.

Step 58: Identity and Violence

PART 2: I-it, I-thou

Sen says, repeatedly, by reducing identity to one dominant trait and ignoring the rich complexity of entanglements we all have, we are led to violence and cruelty. Now let’s look at how the broader “Us vs. Them” stems from more individualist “I” vs “you.”

To reduce people to “them,” and bstract them further into an object, we must manufacture a lie:

a lie is an illusion that separates you from reality.

This aligns with Buddhist philosophy, where a self that exists independent of experience is seen as illusory

The Buddhist teaching is that “attachment brings suffering,” and we should be pursuing “unity” and releasing the “self.” But we are very attached to our ego: we identify with thoughts and mistake the “self” for the “I”… which is typically some voices in our head, maybe a little tyrant between our ears scared and berating us, and telling us lies.

(check out our last episode, step 56: integrating embodied perception, for more on this tyrant in your skull.)

Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others

Alan Watts
martin buber, I-thou

Before Alan Watts in the 60’s, a German guy named Martin Buber wrote a book called “I and Thou” (Ich und Du) where he addresses this twofold tendency, this binary we return to over and over. Buber says we address the world as “I-it” and “I-thou”.

The easiest way to describe this is that we spend about 90% of our interactions as “I-it” where I exist and I engage with objects around me. A chair, a pencil, whatever. This is an experience and sensation. To engage in “I-thou” requires you to truly relate to another: “thou” is not an object but whole relationship.

Buber says you cannot take out of this person a single aspect, their hair or eyes or pattern of speech, because to do so turns them to a sub-identity, an “it”, an “object,” where you do not fully relate, but you objectify.

How do we begin to relate to others as “thou”?

Maria Popova, speaking of Buber, says:

“To address another as Thou requires a certain self-surrender that springs from inhabiting one’s own presence while at the same time stepping outside one’s self. Only then does the other cease to be a means to one’s own ends and becomes real.”

Maria Popova

Notice the surrendering of “self,” the moving from self-identification and thought to fully present cohabitation? In this moment there is no concept of ends/means objectification, the other becomes ‘thou’ instead of ‘it’ and in this process they remain ‘real.’

How do you not reduce someone’s identity and perpetuate violence?

Surrender your “self” -vulnerably submit to being open- without you self-identifying. Then we can co-inhabit the present with another. “I -thou” is not an abstract mental model, but a lived, present, relational experience.

Step 58: Identity and Violence

 Part 3: Mind Games

For the last few episodes we have been walking through Matthew Crawford‘s book “the world beyond your head“, and the repeated thread is to engage in reality, step outside of yourself and your mental models, be attentive and find yourself through submission to reality.

Violence is made possible by ignoring the complexity of reality in favor of a simplistic illusion, a lie, which allows you to go from treating people as an interconnected “thou” to treating them as an “it.”

To commit violence is to go from a whole, relational reality to a fragmented, false objectification.

What are some practical paths to take?

Being aware is step one, but let’s look at a solution (insight?) by David Foster Wallace in his “This Is Water” commencement speech. This should help clarify our modern conundrum where we attempt to generate empathy internally (abstractly) rather than as Buber says, we “take our stand in relation to him… to fully experience him.” It is beautiful, but we still remained isolated in our head instead of engaging reality.

(Excerpt from the speech “This Is Water.”)

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

When we are angrily disgusted by others, we must play mental games to manipulate ourselves into feeling empathy for them. This is -in part- so we can be good people. To imagine alternate others and engage our mental benificence towards them even helps us feel good about ourselves. We want to be “good people,” but we often become captive to our thoughts, not doing the hard work to pay attention to reality, to be aware, and less identified with our incessantly rambling inner monologue.

To counter David Foster Wallace, the solution is not to play mind games. In which you are manipulating yourself so that you more favorably perceive the world, and thus mentally (and privately) secure your position in relation to the world as a healthy happy individual. It is a helpful, but ultimately false security.

Crawford says quit playing mind games. Either distract yourself from those thoughts by paying more attention to reality and engaging with the real world (becoming aware), or take the direct, honest, simple approach: have a conversation with the person.

The goal is action or movement into the world, not a retreat into your fallible, lying, game-playing head.

This activity, interaction, relation, short-circuits the tendency to stereotype and reduce others, which of course leads to ends/means objectification, which is violence.

An actual relationship, “I-thou,” leads to real empathy made through communal interaction. Abstract empathy as artifical simultaneously traumatizes you and removes you further from the world. I know several people who have so much abstract empathy for black people, Ukrainians, and the poor, that they cease to have realistic empathy for the people in front of them. Please, keep your empathy, but activate it with those around you as well.

Don’t stay in your head, don’t manipulate yourself. Participate by relating.

(This is part six of several episodes on “The World Beyond Your Head”)

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Amartya Sen, “Identity and Violence” 2013

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015) _ link

Alan Watts, The Book

Martin Bubber, I-thou

Maria Popova, Marginalia

David Foster Wallace, “This is Water


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