Race, Religion, Empire, Ethnicity, People

There are different ways of thinking about people as groups. Said otherwise, there are different ways of setting in/out group distinctions which help you recognize neighbor from stranger, friend from foe, known from unknown. Which ones can be considered legitimate? 

Race dominated thought in the 19th and early 20th century. After the 3rd Reich it is no  longer acceptable in the mainstream to divide people into “race”. We don’t think these categories exist any longer. Of course, some biological differences still exist between people, and to refer to them we say “ethnicity”, which is a mixture or racial and cultural difference. Somehow mixing race with culture makes it ok to talk about race again. A race, because it finds unity in biology or historical myth tied to metaphors about blood, need not share (but might) a religion or language or culture or geographical area.

Religion was probably the most important way of grouping people together in the ancient and medieval world. A religious group need not share culture, language, geographical area.

Imperial identity, being a subject of empire, was an important form of common identity in the middle ages. Your identity as a subject is defined by the mutual love between you and the emperor, who may or may not also be a religious figure, even a Pope-like figure. An empire need not share a language, culture, and may be distended over a very large geographical area. Usually they will share a religion, but not always.

Ethnic identity is grounded in a shared culture and history. Ethnic groups tend to be local and share a religion and a language. Usually people will look similar (although since ethnicity is much older than race, it can’t easily be said that they are strictly racial). Ethnicity is perhaps the most exclusionary form of group identity.

A People, although sometimes used to describe any of the types above, came into a distinctive use with the writings of Jean Jaque Rousseau, who used the idea to forget a new kind of political organizational idea in the Social Contract. The idea, which is now called Republicanism, is the thought that the political organization should belong to those who are subject to it. Thus we no longer call them “subjects”, but “citizens”. The political organization, normally a state, belongs to them and they are in turn responsible for it. This is a civic notion of identity because it is based in the civic sphere – the fact that people actually live together and have common interests. A People in this sense is as inclusive as it wants to be – it can be only as linguistically, culturally, religiously and racially exclusive as it actually is. In other words, it is only as exclusive as the sentiments of the general will of people in it.

Real existent “Peoples”, in the Rousseauin sense, are always a mix between ethnic and civic identity. And the values can be interestingly twisted. For example, in France today the right wing, which for years was anti-secularist and favoured a notion of French identity that was religious, which included Catholicism, is now explicitly pro-Republican. Why? Because it has become useful to use French civic values to attack Muslims in France, since the French tradition of secularism has always been more than a-religious, but has embodied a conflict between religion and laïcitéWhen that conflict was between the left and the Church, the right stood with the church. Now that the conflict is between the right and the Muslims, the right stands with the principles  of secularism.

In any place, the real existent “people” will more or less share some cultural institutions. Normally they will share a language. For example, French people speak French, Italian people speak Italian. But Canadian people speak many languages, so insofar as there is a Canadian “people”, and this is disputable, linguistic commonality is not required.

Sometimes they will share a dominant religion, but this doesn’t mean that minority religions will not be respected. For example, within the Palestinian people you will find many Christians, who are usually respected and there is no conflict between them and their Muslim compatriots. Sometimes there is conflict between extremist Muslims and Christians in Palestine, and this is because some branches of Political Islam precisely reject the notion of civic nationality and find themselves closer to advocating and ethnic nationality.

Thinking about what a “People” is, or if you want, the different things “people” can mean (If you insist on using it as a term for all the forms of group identity I enumerate above), can help you prevent from making equivocations, false comparisons between things that seem to be of the same type, but are not of the same type. When you say “American people”, rather than assuming you know what you are talking about, try to clarify the concept – in what sense is there an “American people”? What institutions bind them together? How much do they share? How do they allow people to become included, how do they manage to keep people out? You will find the answers to these questions are slightly different to the answers that hold for “German people”. Because, for example, being born in Germany is not adequate to being part of the German people – to becoming a citizen. And for this reason there are, I believe, third generation migrants in Germany who still do not have citizenship and are excluded from the country’s political and economic life. Even more different, obviously, would be the idea of a “Christian people” or “Muslim people” – these “peoples”, if you insist, do not share a language, a culture, a geographic area. They share some religious beliefs, which are at the fundament moral beliefs, so if they meet from across the world they will likely not have difficulty dealing with each other. But they are not “a people”, they don’t require a political organization to liberate them, each of them already exist in political organizations arranged along one of the other forms of group identity.

Along this scale between ethnic and civic identity, the civic variety is on the side of freedom. However, when you are a member of a group that needs to liberate itself against oppression, sometimes it is the ethnic sense which wins out because inside it you find the most powerful narratives, the strong stories which create shared emotion and self-sacrificing actions. Therefore, it can’t simply be said that civics is on the side of freedom. However, what can easily be said is that a group which liberates itself using an ethnic notion of itself becomes pathological if, once peace and security has been ensured, they maintain the ethnic conception and instead of liberating themselves from their oppressive sense of self, they continue to fabricate and to encourage enemies to remain at war with them, in a never ending war for peace and security, which terminates not in freedom but in self destruction. Those who live by the sword, often die by the sword.


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