I know there are people because I’ve met some. But I’m not sure I’ve ever met a people. A people, I’m told, is a collection of people, but not just any collection of people. It has to be of people who have a certain set of properties in common. What properties might those be? That’s where I get stuck.
The way to get unstuck, when you’re stuck figuring out how to carve up the world – or in this case people – is to attend to how other people carve people up into peoples, and then try to induce what set of properties they’re capturing by carving them up as they do. So, for example, I’ve figured out that blacks are blacks because of their skin colour, the texture of their hair, the width of their lips and noses, and the fact that, well, unlike yellow people for example, they have rhythm. Yellow people in turn … And so on. But neither blacks nor whites nor yellows nor reds are a people. For that matter – though I’m told this is rare – a people might have more than just one colour among its membership. Jews certainly do.
I’ve worked long and hard trying to figure this all out, to no avail. Until, just recently, it occurred to me that the work has already been done for me. A people, I’ve discovered, is whatever a university has cobbled together a department to study. Why are Jews a people? Because there’s a Department of Jewish Studies. And the same holds for blacks in America, for indigenous in Canada, and so on.
But having looked at the course offerings of these departments, I’ve come to realise that neither Jewish Studies nor Black Studies nor Indigenous Studies is about commonality of skin colour. As I say, there are some decidedly black Jews, and some lily white blacks. Rather it’s about some commonality of experience. See? I’m making progress, aren’t I?
Now of course ‘commonality of experience’ is a pretty course-grained concept. After all, the experience of each Jew or black or indigenous person is unique. We’re each a product of a sui generis intersection of constituencies. But we can’t each have our own department dedicated to the study of each one of us. So we have to stereotype ourselves, though of course we’re not supposed to call it that. So, for example, though some Jews are tall and some are short, they’re all children of the Holocaust.
Well, maybe not. The Holocaust was a largely Ashkenazi event, Sephardic not so much. So a Jewish Studies Department will look at the distinct experiences of both, just as it will the distinct experiences of Ashkenazi men and Ashkenazi women. And so on. So I think I’m getting it. What we mean by a people is just a set of regularities the causes and consequences of which are important to study. Got it.
And what that explains is why we don’t have a Department of Polish Studies. There are more Polish Canadians than there are indigenous Canadians. But there’s nothing importantly different about being a Polish Canadian as distinct from an Italian Canadian, whereas there is something importantly different about being an indigenous Canadian as distinct from other Canadians. Good. Now all I need to know is wherein that importance might lie.
We might be tempted to say that entitlement to a Department has nothing to do with numbers, but that would be too quick. I suspect there’s something importantly different about an albino Canadian, but there just aren’t enough albinos to get our tail feathers in a knot about. I’d like to say the same about transgendered Canadians, but apparently that would be transphobic. But there are enough Polish and indigenous Canadians to get our tail feathers in a knot about.
Polish and Italian history are very different, but that’s not important … important to what? Polish and Italian cuisine are very different, but that’s not important either. Important to what? Polish and Italian immigrants were treated very differently when they first immigrated to this country. But that seems no longer important. Is it important that what we call indigenous Canadians got here first? Hard to see why. Besides, they were no more first to be where we found them than were the Normans the first to be found in England.
So the only candidate for this indigenous ‘exceptionalism’ remaining is where they sit in the social pecking order. We have an Indigenous Studies Department because we think studying why they sit where they do in the social pecking order will be of service in doing something about it. Mutatis mutandis why Americans have Black Studies Departments. And though we’re not so much worried about where Jews sit in the social pecking order, we do have concerns about the possible re-emergence of anti-Semitism.
Assuming I have all this right – and I’m now reasonably confident I do – what this shows, I think, is the tension between, on the one hand, the manifest reasonableness of these programs of study and, on the other, our discomfort with identity politics making its way into university programming. Oh shit! Don’t you just hate it when analysing our moral intuitions like this can reveal that they’re often embarrassingly inconsistent?!