The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that a university can task itself to seeking the truth, or to promoting social justice, but not both. Why? Because the truth is sometimes incompatible with the promotion of social justice. A university that tries to have it both ways is going to fail at both, and as a result it’s just not going to be a very good place to work or study. That precisely describes my own university, the University of Lethbridge in southern Alberta. It simply can’t make up its mind what it wants to be, and as a result it’s not very much at all.
A case in point is its Indigenous Studies Department, which assures prospective students in its website that, “Our major in Indigenous Studies explores art, law, philosophy, health, politics, history, gender studies, ecology, business, music, customs and language – all from a unique Indigenous perspective.” Hubris to be sure, but especially hard to make good on when the Department consists of four instructors, not one of whom is indigenous. So at most what can be meant by an ‘indigenous perspective’ is an educated guess at what an indigenous perspective would be if, not unlike a woodchuck chucking wood, an indigenous perspective could be.
Of course even that supposes there’s a perspective shared by indigenous people in much the way there isn’t one shared by the rest of us. If you and I do share a perspective, you won’t find anything in what follows you could possibly object to. But I suspect you will.
But making good on this “unique Indigenous perspective” is the Dean’s problem. Mine (and Haidt’s) is the Department’s attestation that “We honour the Blackfoot people and their traditional ways of knowing in caring for this land.” Does that mean that, from neither its students nor its staff, would the Department countenance any disparaging of these putative “traditional ways of knowing”? Hard to see how one could both disparage and honour anything, let alone a way of knowing. So I suspect it would not bridle any such self-critique. Nor should it, if the objective is to raise the status of indigenous people in what is, admittedly, the viciously racist environment that is western Canada.
But if instead truth is our goal – and I’m not suggesting it needs to be – well then, indigenous people are a people. And the history of every people has its share of darkness. For example, the Creek Nation of south-eastern Oklahoma – it was formed at the western end of the Trail of Tears – bought African slaves to work their cotton fields, slaves who weren’t emancipated until three years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves the descendants of whom, to this day, have been denied citizenship by their erstwhile owners, because, well, it turns out indigenous people can be just as racist as the rest of us.
To be fair, we’ve all had hours that were not our finest. And if indigenous peoples are to be pedestaled as hapless victims, the last thing we need to be told about them is that they too bear the stench of the oppressor. But to be equally fair, a people is made up of people, and people do the best they can under the circumstances they find themselves in. Those dumped like garbage at the end of that Trail of Tears did not find themselves in very enviable circumstances.
But to be fair yet again, that’s equally true of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who themselves had little choice but to come to this land and colonize it. Nature is indeed “red in tooth and claw”. And as Thomas Hobbes put it, in a state of nature “the notions of justice and injustice have there no place.”
But this acknowledgement, however true, is thought to be incompatible with the rhetoric needed to ameliorate the disadvantage of indigenous people in western Canada. I say “thought to be” because I’m not convinced that it is. I think this might be one of those cases where the truth would actually enhance the lives of a disadvantaged people. I say this because from 1935 to 1945, my own people paid a very high price for having played victim for their two thousand years in diaspora. Sometime between 1945 and 1948 they decided to trade that card in, and adopt instead the posture of the Maccabees.
It’s true that by taking ownership of the genocide of the Amalekites – and so of what we allowed at Sabra and Shatilla – we Jews forfeit at least some of the sympathy we’d earned at Auschwitz and Babi Yar. But for seventy percent of Jews – of which I’m one of the other thirty – that’s been a trade they’re prepared to live with. By this I’m not saying indigenous Canadians should go big or go home. I’m simply saying that if they’re looking for respect, they may get more of it from the truth, however morally checkered it may be, than from the myth of collective innocence.
But that, I grant, is mere speculation.
So if that’s not the intended take-away from this rant, what is? Just this. If the Indigenous Studies Department had been set up as a stand-alone program, dedicated to whatever laudable ends it envisions for itself, there’d be no problem. But it’s embedded in a university, and as such it’s difficult for its students to do an end run around every course involving some critical self-reflection. And that means that at some point some professor – the one who didn’t get the memo, or maybe he did – is going to either knowingly or inadvertently challenge one of the program’s enabling assumptions, and then all hell’s going to break loose.
And that’s precisely Haidt’s point.
The only way to work around this is to ask the Indigenous Studies student if she wants to be challenged on the program’s assumptions, or would she rather just be left with those assumptions unrattled. My experience is that some of them do choose the latter, and in their so choosing I wish them God’s speed. Truth is an instrumental value. If it’s not working for you, give it a pass.
Of course that makes professorial collegiality a bit of a challenge. We don’t have a faculty club at the U. of L. So probably just as well.