15 June 2006

After sliding downhill for over three years, the Secretary General lecture series picked up with a stimulating event. On Monday, 5 June, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and Professor Kwame Appiah inspired a raptured audience with views -- and quips -- on Identity in the 21st Century. They complemented one another -- not only through a witty exchange of understated quips -- but also in substance and approach.

In a concise historic background sprinkled with a typically intellectual sense of humour, Professor Appiah stressed three main values: dialogue, the need to care for what happens to others; and cosmopolitanism as a complimentary not an alternative choice. People matter. And cultures matter because they matter to people. Listening to others is as important as talking to them. He concluded by suggesting that we see a foreign movie with subtitles once a month. Professor Sen did not argue with his colleague but took a different perspective. In a world of economic depravation and political uncertainties, he doubted the misconception that identity problems could be solved only through dialogue. He was very skeptical of the much-touted dialogue among civilizations, stressing more on individual human identities that share similar needs and concerns. He raised the issue of illegal immigrants, stressing that a focus on that identify alone will do more harm than good. Some identities are by choice; others are not.

It seemed that the question of identity prevailed even when the floor was opened for questions. At ease and in an uplifting mood, the Secretary General would give the floor to "the gray haired gentleman in the back" or "the man with the striped shirt in front." There was also a repeated analogy to "an Icelandic blonde with blue eyes."

The audience strived to match the speakers. Brief yet substantive questions were raised about the stages of national identity, from nationalism and class struggle in the early twentieth century to ethnicity in the nineties to emotional religious groupings in current times. The audience was not the usual blend of accommodating staff or curious diplomats, but an impressive selection of individuals keen on hearing and learning while ready to make their view heard.

Listening and watching the two distinguished speakers on identity, it was striking to observe that Kwame Appiah, a Ghanian, looked more Indian than Amartya Sen particularly as he clipped his British accent. And while the Indian economist did not look like the Icelandic woman he did give an impression of an Oxbridge don. Mercifully, he had given the interpreters an advance copy to cope with his low-voiced speed reading.

On a lighter side, there was some sort of an identity mix-up as the participants sat on the podium. One seat indicated the name of an Abiodon Williams. From the first name it was assumed he would be Nigerian or Ghanian; though very few knew for certain who he was. The seat was eventually occupied by a bushy "gray haired gentleman" with thick glasses and a somewhat bored yet dutiful gaze. In due course, a conference officer replaced the label with the name of Edward Mortimer. As the Identity enthusiast crowd left the Trusteeship Council chambers, hardly anyone wondered where or who was Mr. Obiodon.