Amartya Sen awarded the 2020 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade

© Geraint Lewis

The Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen was awarded the 2020 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade today at a ceremony held in the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt am Main. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony took place without any invited guests. Amartya Sen himself participated in the gathering by way of live video transmission from the US. As Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was required to enter quarantine only one day prior to the award ceremony, the German actor Burghart Klaußner read the president’s speech honouring this year’s recipient.

In his acceptance speech, Amartya Sen emphasised the importance of freedom of expression and debate as prerequisites for freedom, peace and progress, noting that these values are under increasing threat from autocratic systems today. He asserted that books play an important role in fostering a democratic culture of discussion and argument: “Reading books – and talking about them – can entertain, amuse, excite and engage us in every kind of involvement. Books also help us to argue with each other. And nothing, I believe, is as important as the opportunity to argue about matters on which we can possibly disagree.”

Sen described the act of arguing – that is, of expressing one’s own opinion and listening to the opinions of others – as a means of making sense of our lives. At the same time, however, he noted that arguing is a highly endangered commodity: “When freedom of speech is curtailed and people are penalised for speaking their mind, we can experience serious harm in the lives we can lead. Unfortunately, significant restriction of the freedom to argue is not a thing of the past, and there are more and more countries where authoritarian developments are making the freedom to disagree harder – often much harder – than it used to be. There is reason for alarm in the repressive tendencies in many countries in the world today, including in Asia, in Europe, in Latin America and the United States of America. I can include my own country, India, in that unfortunate basket”.

Drawing on examples from countries such as India, the Philippines, Hungary and Brazil, Sen described how governments can work in different ways to suppress certain social groups and also curtail their human rights. He sees cause for concern in this social division: “Authoritarianism imposes direct penalties on people, including the violation of liberty and political freedom. But going beyond them, social advancement depends greatly on human cooperation, and a splintering of society through the persecution of disfavoured groups can make collaboration for progress that much more difficult. It is not my intention to argue that no social progress can ever be made in an authoritarian system. That can sometimes happen, but there tend to be serious obstacles to progress when arguments and critical discussions are prohibited, and the interests of some people are persistently ignored”. 

Sen also spoke of his concerns for the future: “The world does face today a pandemic of authoritarianism, which debilitates human life in distinct but interrelated ways. Given our global connections and the importance of our shared humanity, there are reasons for us to be seriously concerned not only about our own country, but also about others”. Sen closed his remarks with an appeal for further resistance: “It would be hard to find a more urgent social need today than global resistance to growing authoritarianism across the world. The needed resistance can come in many different ways, but greater use of reading, talking and arguing would undoubtedly be a part of [it]”. 

In his speech honouring Amartya Sen, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described this year’s prize-winner as a moral authority, a fighter for global justice and a democrat. He emphasised the key role played by democracy in Sen’s ideas of justice and freedom and pointed to the perpetual battle among political systems to provide answers to the most pressing questions of our time: “For Sen, there can also be no justice without political freedom and no political freedom without democracy. One cannot be had without the other. To him, democracy is therefore also not a luxury that only rich countries can afford, and it is also not just a normative project of the West. It is something that is longed for the world over and a universal promise. The people demonstrating on the streets of Caracas, Minsk and Hong Kong remind us of this, as well! The universalism of democracy and fundamental human rights – these are the main pillars of Sen’s philosophy. This is the essential and fundamental discovery that is coming under pressure again these days.”

Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, Chairperson of the Börsenverein, described Sen’s work as providing the ideal foundation upon which to build a better world after the COVID-19 pandemic: “Sen [is] a visionary in matters of just distribution, but also as a feminist and a global citizen who gives a stronger voice to the wisdom of the East. The oeuvre of Amartya Sen provides us with a North Star guiding us towards a more open-minded and just society. His work gives us orientation and an incentive to act. It helps us avoid lazy compromises and instead find ways to take more courageous paths”.

The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade has been awarded annually since 1950 by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association on the final day of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Previous recipients include Albert Schweitzer, Astrid Lindgren, Václav Havel, Jürgen Habermas, Susan Sontag, Liao Yiwu, Navid Kermani, Margaret Atwood, Aleida and Jan Assmann and last year’s Sebastião Salgado. The Prize is endowed with a sum of €25,000.

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