When the victims of the Paris attacks received massive public sympathy on a global scale, many people pointed out that such an outpouring was disproportionate, and even stunk of Eurocentrism. After all, other attacks had occurred in recent months, other lives were lost, and far less attention was paid. There was a heady debate on and beyond Facebook about its activation of Safety Check for Paris victims and its provision of a French flag filter for people’s profile pictures — why now, for France, and not for Beirut, or Syria, or Kenya? I argued that perhaps this outpouring might, far from being an object of disgust and an indication of an insidious ingroup preference, actually merit our moral approbation. Why? Precisely because these victims are “like us” in an important and relevant sense – this, I said addressing the community in which I teach at Bard College Berlin, a small and intentionally diverse institution. The relevant sense in which the victims were “like us,” I suggested, is precisely that they were not all French or European (or not that simply), but rather were citizens of nearly 20 nations, from across the globe, speaking many languages and brought up in different faith traditions, residing in the capital of a nation-state that has been at the center of the great experiment of the global(izing) network of multiethnic democracies that Europe has exported (surely for better and yet often very much for worse) since the heady days of the late 18th century republican revolutions. The thought was something like this: The modern multiethnic democracy is an attempt to do something quite extraordinary in terms of the limits of the human heart (or the inevitably limited extension of our moral sentiments, if you prefer a less poetic phrase) and the lessons of history. It is also, as it happens, the form of life that we, the global community of readers and writers connected in the blogosphere, were brought up in and/or aspire to be part of; thus it is both natural and right that we should feel the attack on those victims to be an attack on “people like us.” And thus, yes, we should feel more aggrieved for the loss for that reason.
Whatever the merits or demerits of that argument, I rehearse it here today in the service of a contribution to a rather heated discussion that has (I use the word advisedly) exploded at the institution of higher education where I work, in the time since the attacks, centered on a question that could be phrased in different ways but I would put thus: does our curriculum sufficiently reflect and respect the diversity that we as a learning community both represent and, at least putatively, cherish?
As I intend this reflection to serve both those of us who live and study at Bard College Berlin and those who maybe have never even heard of the institution, let me say just this much about us, who we are and what we do before I attempt to make a contribution to answering that question. I believe this description might even be of service for the “internal audience” as my colleagues and students can read the rest of this paragraph and see if they agree or disagree with my characterization — which would already be a step in the direction of the conversation that I believe we wish to have. Bard College Berlin is a state recognized private liberal arts college in Berlin Germany that offers two BA programs taught in English, one roughly in the Humanities (in the broadest sense) and one roughly in the Social Sciences, along with semester and year-long programs for exchange and “gap-year” students that draw from the expertise and interests our 20 or so faculty members, who carry 11 nationalities and speak (to the best of my knowledge) 12 languages. Our small student body, of approximately 140 students, carries 42 different nationalities and speaks 24 languages. In short: we are a self-consciously and intentionally small and intimate community that wishes to and does reflect the richness and the variety of human communities, distributed as they are across the globe. We aim to provide a broad-based liberal arts education of, by, and for a global community of learners.
With this characterization in mind, both for those of who know the college intimately and for those who don’t know it at all, I believe we can see why the argument I tried to advance with respect to the recent outpouring of sympathy is relevant for us in this conversation. Namely, as a community, like the victims of the attack two weeks ago, we “are not all European,” but rather are “citizens of [about 40] nations, from across the globe, speaking many languages and brought up in different faith traditions, residing in the capital of a [European] nation-state.” The question I want to raise to the students who are raising the question about the diversity in/and/of our curriculum is: to what extent is this sense of “us” as a community relevant to the question concerning diversity, and in what way? To phrase it more directly in the terms in which this issue has been discussed in my presence to date, and as it pertains to the question of diversity in the curriculum: what is the referent in the clause “voices like our own” when we say, “We want to hear more ‘voices like our own’ in preparing the assigned readings for our seminars?”
To begin a search for an answer to this question, and in the spirit of Judith Butler’s formulation in her seminal essay “Contingent Foundations,” I want to suggest that whenever we speak of someone being “like us,” we have a responsibility to recognize that not only is the basis of our solidarity with the others who are putatively like us a contingent event, but even the very notion of there being an “us” in the first place is a “contingent foundation.” By this Butler means that any group identifier — Butler’s central example is “women,” but the point holds for group membership more broadly — is a shifting signifier that has no stable referent. More simply, some “we” can mobilize “as women,” but only insofar as they successfully mobilize that signifier with some non-essential point of reference, which will change over time and across discursive spaces.
To make this move with Butler, I am very strongly rejecting a different construal of the referent “voices like our own” that seems to me — honestly, surprisingly — to be the intuition about group membership that many members of the Bard College Berlin community are working with right now. On this other construal, one common in the academic discourse about these issues in the United States since the so-called “Culture Wars” of the time just before, during, and after my childhood and adolescence, this clause refers to something like “people of my race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and/or faith background” or more recently, owing to a shift from a more essentialist to a constructionist and “intersectional” social epistemology, “people who identify as one or more of the race(s), ethnicity(ies), gender(s), sexuality(ies), and/or faith background(s) that I identify as.”
I humbly submit that we consider the possibility that one can both believe that (a) we are right to want to hear more ‘voices like our own’, and (b) understanding ‘voices like our own’ in this other (let me say, “non-Butlerian”) sense is mistaken. Following Butler, I would propose that the basic identities of the groups to which we (wish to) belong are constantly shifting, and to fail to recognize that is to do an injustice both to ourselves and to the broader social solidarity we are seeking to build. All the more so in a context where, like at the College, the community changes every semester, both individually and (to a significant degree) collectively.
In order to judge between or among the various senses of aspiring to diversity through increasing the degree to which all students, and faculty and staff, can recognize themselves in the voices that speak at and for the College that I have laid out here, I need to make clear three things. First, what is the positive content I want to give to the clause “voices like our own” as “a diverse set of voices”? Second, how do I imagine that we might amplify our commitment as an institution and a community to that sense of diversity? Finally, why should we do so?
By “voices like our own,” then, I mean precisely in the relevant sense of “they’re like us” with which I began. Namely, right across our curriculum and regardless of the subject matter and the putative chronological or geographical focus of the seminar, we should be aiming for course assignments — visual and practical assignments as well as reading assignments — in which we, teachers and students alike, confront voices that themselves are confronting our problem: how can we be one community, pursuing some shared goals, without losing our distinctiveness as individuals with a rich variety of backgrounds? As some of my readers here will know, a favorite example of the sort of author who is “a voice of and for diversity” in this sense is Herodotus: he very consciously identifies himself both geographically and culturally as a liminal figure, who crosses borders and takes on shifting identities in order to see the world as it looks to as many others as he can. His deadness, as far as I can see, is no obstacle to hearing his challenge to ethnocentrism, and his whiteness and maleness are contestable and should exactly be at the heart of our seminars on him.
This comment on Herodotus brings me to the second question I need to answer: how might I propose that we envision mobilizing this commitment to the sort of diversity worth working hard for and on? I would like us to consider the possibility that, wherever our consultation of the reading lists in the various courses takes us, we do not allow ourselves idly and lazily to say that an author is not “a voice of and for diversity” simply on the basis of their avowed or assigned identity. Artists and thinkers who raise our questions about pluralism and moral universality, I suggest, are such voices, regardless of when they lived and what gender or nationality or race they identified as or we assign them. Contrariwise, authors who happen to identify as or be assigned an identity that is underrepresented do not for that reason immediately become voices of and for diversity simply by virtue of that identity belonging. Let me provide one concrete example of this. In fact, let me provide an example that my colleague, a cultural sociologist, Irit Dekel provided in the context of campus conversations about this issue. She writes: “Today, we discuss a review article in sociology of culture on Ethnicity, Race and Nationalism written by one of the most eloquent and groundbreaking scholars on ethnicity, and alas, a white male, Rogers Brubaker.” It would be a mistake, Irit argues, to believe simply because Brubaker is a white male that reading his work would do less to “add diversity” to our shared work than reading work by a woman, of whatever race or ethnicity, simply on the basis of their identity markers. Let me sharpen the example by making the contrast with an author I read together with the students in that same seminar earlier this semester: Hannah Arendt. Surely, I would submit, we can agree that reading Brubaker who is so sensitive to and focused issues of ethnicity, race, and nationalism does no less to bring to the fore “voices like or our own” than the reading of Arendt who is an unapologetic liberal in the 18 th century sense and was a virulent opponent of identity politics and a cultural warrior (on “the wrong side”) herself. Does this mean that we shouldn’t read Arendt? That we should read Brubaker? That we should read both? That we shouldn’t read either?
These questions — which are not rhetorical — bring me to the third question, which I can rephrase thus: why believe that we should be concerned that we have more voices that are truly like us, in the sense that they reflect the diversity of our community as I understand it, and at the same time resist the temptation to understand what is salient about diversity in terms of identity politics and the culture wars? My short answer would be that this is a social and political commitment that is at the very core of what the College is: a commitment we inherited from a small family of institutions — Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, and the University of Chicago, above all — that during the early part of the 20th century set about “updating” the classical idea of a broad-based liberal arts education to serve the citizens of global, multiethnic democracies as they try to correct the errors of liberal democracy by building on what is best in the cultural legacy of liberal democracy. This tradition is predominantly (if not univocally) progressive, I would maintain, but — and this is the important point — it refuses to understand progressivism as opposed to cultural conservatism as such. It is, in my view, a tradition we ought not only to maintain but to actively fight for.
Let me substantiate this a bit more in closing. I want very much for us to read Butler and Herodotus, Arendt and Brubaker, Plato and Nussbaum, and I could go on. I want us all to read them because they are alive for us today, and they can all help us to get a hold of what is beautiful and what is ugly in our world, in our lives, and yes, even in our own hearts and minds. None of them have all the answers, but each of them has something specifically for people like us. We must, we can, and we will continue the process of bringing in more theoretical and creative works from the global south and east (including those written by white and/or male authors who hail from those regions). But the diversity there is and will be in our community and our curriculum does not only come from the others or the “subaltern” or the underrepresented. There is also already a great deal of diversity in and alongside the canon, as well as in contemporary authors whose descriptive identities are “dominant” but whose thinking is not, if only we can read for ourselves.
3 thoughts on “When Is Someone “Like Us”?”
Sounds like some pretty serious conversations are taking place at Bard! I think you’ve done a great job of laying out the complex terrain here, to which I can only add a couple of thoughts:
1) Conversations about what to read and how to learn are reflective of broader conversations about what to do and how to live. Meaningful debate on multicultural issues in classrooms might well reflect and guide debate on (frankly more important) issues outside the classroom. Figuring out how to live together is (along with the environmental question of how to live at all) pretty much top of the list. Reflecting on course curriculum and revisions to canonical lists and such is very important, without question.
2) But can we do so in such a way that this doesn’t become our only activity? Sometimes it seems like we could spend all our time arguing about this kind of issue, such that the issues raised by people who are not talking about this can also be ignored! Creepy old Jose Saramago wants us to think about death and disappearing furniture, and that is pretty important too! I did an M.Phil in Humanities once, and we had courses on “time”, “space”, “history”, “language”, “literature”. Pretty general, but pretty important. It would be a pity if students come out of humanities programs having only talked about diversity.
3) There is only so much time! SO painful to realize this. Even if all I’m interested in are the dead white males of the early modern period, I’ll never even be able to read them all in a reasonably deep way! We will all die before we we can read everything worth reading. So to answer your non-rhetorical question, I really, really think as many people as possible should read both Brubaker and Arendt (and Aristotle and Herodotus and Goethe and Agamben and Singer and Morrison and Butler and Chomsky and Ranciere and Kant and Bolano and Diaz and Shakespeare and Taylor and Fraser and Bernstein and Rorty and…… There is so much good stuff out there! And I know NOTHING of Chinese literature! Oooh! Or what about all those early Muslims who transported Aristotelianism to Europe and sowed the seeds of the Renaissance?? THAT is a hell of a story. Al Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, Averoes, Thomas Aquinas… The problem is not in deciding what to read, but what to exclude owing to the practical fact that there is only so much time in a semester or a lifetime.
Thanks for the engagement! I am honored to have occasioned such a thoughtful reply. My hope with this post is to inaugurate an ongoing conversation here on PS using the O.O.P.S. function that could perhaps help us precisely to think of how classroom experiences can be prepare us for the–yes, absolutely agreed–more important work of living together in the social space that surrounds the seminar table and its privileged participants.
My next post (in perhaps a week’s time?) will make a proposal for how we might do this over the coming months. Perhaps you would like to join me/us?
Michael I agree with the main thrust of your argument but remain
unconvinced about your characterization of our teaching environments and
to be frank also
about the idea of a multicultural Europe. We do, in fact, live in
super diverse societies but also in highly segregated European cities,
antisemitism, islamophobia, and racisms are tangible and daily, but
powerfully suppressed and denied, where now millions of people live
people with “human rights” – the worst possible status to have as we
have learned from Arendt. Even though our college, both the community
curriculum too can be portrayed as “diverse” or “unorthodox” in
exactly the same sense that you are arguing for, at the same time we
have to admit that it
is also conformist and anti-pluralistic in many respects. I do agree
with you that contemporary challenges to the persistence of structures
universities even in this day and age to be still overwhelmingly
WHITE and upper middle class must be re-thought in order not to
mindlessly repeat some of
the stupid, regressive and ineffective interventions of past
“identity politics”. We have a group called “decolonizing the
University” here in Amsterdam
and I have been frustrated by some of their actions (like putting up
posters such as “have you heard of…” – naming all these great black
who all read their Hegel and Marx and were born and bred in
Anglo-American universities), but I strongly support their call for two
main reasons: 1.
neoliberal academia’s “diversity” is empty and hollow, just another
name for internationalization. In that sense there is nothing unique
“diversity” of our liberal arts institutions. Internationalizing is
the corporate goal of any half decent university simply because it is a
business. 2. The challenge to the curriculum is refreshing in
renewing the attention to politics in academic practice – what a blessed
thing THAT is! Yes,
saying decolonizing is to annoy everyone, and it may not be the best
term in our supposedly post-colonial university/society, but grant you,
this is at
least a POLITICAL term that brings into sharp focus some highly
denied social and political realities. I welcome all possible forms of
current academic structure and content. That said, I think you and
Irit are right to point out their shortcomings too. More thoughts about
how to frame the
challenge of politicization and make it more poignant and relevant
I’ll have to share later on…