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Amartya Sen's Commencement Address

The 2003 commencement remarks of Amartya Sen:

It is a tremendous privilege for me to become associated with this great college in this splendid way. I am immensely grateful. I would also like to tell the non-honorary graduands how wonderful it is for us honorary graduands to join you today. We honorary graduands are, of course, free riding on your hard-earned achievement. It is to record and celebrate your success that the university has to have a commencement and, as a result, we too end up getting degrees, without having worked for them. So, on behalf of the honorary graduands, not only do I congratulate you warmly, but also thank you for being ultimately responsible for giving us a wonderful complimentary ride.

The time of graduation is also a great moment to reflect on what you want to do with your life. More generally, we also have to ask ourselves how we wish to see ourselves in the wide world. In her marvelous student address, with which these proceedings began, Chiara Davis Fuller spoke eloquently and elegantly on this very subject, through her question, "Who am I?" I would like to follow her in pursuing the theme of how we may see ourselves. Chiara emphasized the variety of identities we all have, and she has asked us to reflect on the richness of this plurality. She is absolutely right-we have to guard against being led into an impoverishment of that richness.

The divisive nature of our identities is often exploited as a source of conflict in the world in which we live. It can be made incendiary and explosive through political manipulation. Ogden Nash wrote many years ago, "Any kiddie in school can love like a fool, / But hating my boy is an art." That art is practiced by skilled artists and instigators, and the weapon of choice is identity, in particular the privileging of exactly one specific-often belligerently exclusive-identity over all others. Brutal sectarianism is cultivated, around the world, by uniquely prioritizing some narrowly singular sense of belonging, and drowning all others. We are suddenly told that we are not Rwandans, but Hutus ("we hate Tutsis"); we are not Yugoslavs, but Serbs ("you and I have never liked Albanians); and so on. Some instigators exploit religious identity. Others focus on so-called civilizational categories. Still others concentrate on communities and commandeer the narrowest form of communitarian thinking. And there are, of course, still others who zero in on a fierce kind of nationalism, as if one's national identity must unconditionally swamp every other claim to our attention.

It is remarkable how far removed such an artificial view of uniquely privileged identity is from our normal lives. In our day-to-day lives, we see ourselves as members of a great many different groups-we belong to all of them. The same person can be an American citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese ancestry, a Christian, a liberal (or a conservative), a woman, a vegetarian, a tennis player, a pianist, an opera enthusiast, a poet, a historian, a schoolteacher, a heterosexual, a supporter of gay and lesbian rights, an environmental activist, and one who strongly believes that there are extraterrestrial intelligent beings with whom we must urgently talk. Preferably in English. The same person can belong to each of these collectivities, but none exclusively so. She herself has to decide, using her intelligence and judgment, what relative importance to give to her various identities in any particular context.

Peter Sellers once said, "There used to be a me, but I have had it surgically removed." That may be sad enough, but we have particularly strong reasons to resist the richness of our multiple identities being surgically removed by others-by scheming particularists. The main hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies not in any imagined uniformity, which does not exist, but in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one uniquely hardened line of impenetrable division and confrontation.

As you and I cherish our new-wonderful-identity as graduates of Mount Holyoke, we have good reason to celebrate the richness of the many relationships that make us what we are. We can refuse-and help others to refuse-to be bullied into a unique and bellicose identity. So I end by wishing you all a wonderful life with all your creatively fruitful identities. They make us what we are (and what we can be) and can also include, among other relations, our solidarity with humanity at large.

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