August 5, 2011 10:11 pm

Many hats, not just one

Having a manifold of identities should be seen as a celebration of the sheer plurality involved in being human
A crowd of men wearing hats

Amartya Sen wrote: ‘The same person can be ... a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor’

A while ago I wrote a column lamenting the decline of hat-wearing, especially among men. I connected that decline to the disapproving Puritan idea of William Penn that “the hat telleth what men are ... It is blowing of a trumpet” – the idea that hats are too revealing of identity and status and show too much pride in them. What I didn’t stress was the desirability of wearing many hats, not just one.

This thought came as I was conversing over dinner – a rare privilege – with one of the world’s most distinguished thinkers, the Indian Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. Actually, only one of those three descriptors is unequivocally accurate. Amartya Sen was born in Bengal before the modern state of India came into being, when Bengal (now divided), and what is now Pakistan, and what is now Burma, were parts of the British empire. He was educated first at Rabindranath Tagore’s school, Santiniketan, north of Calcutta, and then as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, much later, he was master from 1998-2004; he now spends half the year in Cambridge and the other half teaching at Harvard, when not travelling around the world, especially the developing world, at a rate that would exhaust someone half his age.

So Sen is arguably as much British as he is Indian; perhaps he is really global; and he is certainly not just an economist. His recent books, including Identity and Violence and The Idea of Justice, have been as much concerned with politics and philosophy as with economics. He is a man who wears many hats.

The dinner was hosted by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and followed the launch of Peace and Democratic Society, a Commonwealth report on the complex cultural, economic and political origins of violence with an incisive introduction by Sen. Some of the talk was about Afghanistan; it was interesting to hear a number of voices question the military emphasis of the west’s engagement there and the assumption that the country’s default position was to revert to Taliban-style fundamentalism.

Talk of the Taliban segued into what was perhaps the evening’s main theme: Sen’s passionate advocacy of plural as opposed to singular identity – the choice, you might say, between wearing many hats and just one – especially as that relates to violence, nationalism and religion. He feels strongly about this, not least because he witnessed the Hindu-Muslim riots which “suddenly erupted in ... pre-independent India in the 1940s, linked with the politics of partition, and also the speed with which the broad human beings of summer were suddenly transformed, through ruthless cultivation of communal alienation, into brutal Hindus and fierce Muslims of the winter.”

Afghanistan, as the remarkable exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of Civilisation at the British Museum made clear, has been for much of history a place of exchange on east-west trading routes. It has been Greek, Buddhist, Muslim. Such plurality is anathema to the Taliban, which is why they want to reduce the country to a single identity, a single religion – and why they committed the monstrous cultural crime of blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas. Many of the exhibits in the BM show would also have been destroyed had it not been for the courage of Afghan officials who risked their lives to conceal them from the Taliban’s iconoclastic fury.

What Sen calls the “viciousness of single identity politics” seems to have particular power to unleash violence when religion is involved (though nationalism and ethnicity are pretty potent too). He is a harsh critic of those in the west who prioritise singular religious identity: “Western parochialists and Islamic extremists have, I fear, a ... shared involvement in arguing for the primacy of a person’s religious identity, leaving a person no room for ... other affiliations.”

To give an example of how plural such affiliations can be, Sen writes that “the same person can be, without any contradiction, a South African citizen, of Asian origin, with Indian ancestry, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor”, and so on.

Of course we should all be more like Sen: broad polymaths straining every mental sinew to do good in the world, wearing many hats. He had the luck to be brought up in a school and a family that encouraged breadth of perspective and straddling of cultures. Unfortunately, that seems rare; from insular US golfers making disparaging remarks to English people waving the white flag of St George I see much flaunting of narrow, not broad, identity. But meeting Sen has given me courage to dust down my own collection of hats, however motley – I am proud to be a European, Briton, Englishman, Hispanophile, nature-lover, poet, pianist, tennis player and many other things besides.

The wearing of many hats should not be seen as either elitist or frivolous but as a sign and celebration of the sheer plurality involved in being human.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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