Decolonisation, racism and being woke

By chance, the other day I heard an explanation on the radio by the author Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò of his views in his recently published book “Against Decolonisation”. Nigerian by birth and education, he himself is now a professor of philosophy at Cornell University. His work is an attempt to explain why the current vogue for decolonisation is both intellectually vacuous and, at the same time, damaging for the African continent.

Independence was sought and largely achieved in the various countries in Africa in the twentieth century. Decolonisation theory, a phenomenon of the twenty-first century, however, takes things one step further. It presumes that even after independence there are aspects of the colonisers' influence which remain and that, whatever they may be, they should be extirpated.

Decolonisation takes aim at the supposed universality of “western knowledge” and its role as an instrument in the “colonial matrix of power,” and so requires removal from African thinking. The decolonisation struggle against ‘western hegemony’ necessitates a rejection of the occidental world-view and its lingering influence among the colonised in favour of “indigenous knowledge systems.”

But, according to the writer, decolonisation is simply a mindless slogan used by many liberal activists, activists who are mainly found, ironically, in the former colonising countries in the West.

Decolonisation is part of the ‘Woke’ agenda. And, consistently with woke group-think, no consideration is given as to whether the remaining influences introduced by the colonisers are actually good or bad. There is an unshakeable, doctrinaire presumption that they are bad and so should be replaced with something ‘authentically’ African. This, even though ’authentically African’ is as without substance as ‘authentically European’.

Many decolonists talk of democracy as requiring change in favour of a political system more reflective of the sort of decision-making processes formerly used in some African villages. Usually, however that meant that some families would be more important and have more authority than others. Their accretion of power might have been kept in check to some extent by the nature of village life, but with so many people now living in cities this makes little sense. And, In its more modern iteration, a shadow of its past, it can easily lead to dictatorship.

Others call censoriously for the decolonising of the curriculum, museums, geography and anthropology. There is even a call to decolonise mathematics, and to decolonise universities, coupled with the abandonment of the scientific method and its replacement with traditional African approaches to seeking knowledge. As if any of this makes any sense or could produce more reliable knowledge or better science and engineering.

As the author points out, there is no corresponding criticism of countries such as China or Japan which over the last century have clearly adopted and also adapted Western ways, much to their benefit. Neither is there a suggestion that another former British colony, America, should be decolonised. To suggest that all attempts to benefit from Western culture are wrong is, the author tells us, simply to infantilise Africans. It is an attempt to impose on them someone-else’s sentimentalised vision of how their societies should be run: in itself, I would suggest, a form of colonisation.

In fact, I would argue that the idea of decolonisation actually gives support to the whole concept of race, a word which until recently had no useful meaning except to racists. It certainly cannot be supported on any genetic measure and I would suggest that even from a sociological standpoint it has little or no meaning.

Yes, there are broad differences in our facial features - many Victorians wasted much time carrying out studies in physiognomy to try to establish that the ruling classes could be shown to be in a different category to the working people, and that criminals had a particular ‘look’. But, whichever region or background we come from, there is in fact no essential difference between our ability to make, do or understand things, to laugh or to cry. We all share a common human inheritance.

It is an unfortunate fact therefore that the absurd idea of race, formerly a way for those of the self-designated ‘superior race’ to feel, well, superior, has now been appropriated by those who would, in the past, vociferously complain about such an attitude. In their hands it is now used as a means of distinguishing Africa from its former colonisers.

But, as the author points out that, in turn, involves implying that somehow the historically extremely varied continent of Africa is to be regarded as a homogenous group of people. As Professor Táíwò points out, well before colonisation pretty much every religion under the sun was represented in Africa, along with the influence of masses of immigrants from millennia past from countries around the Mediterranean and well beyond. And of course Anthropologist tell us that we are all the descendents of African forebears. We all came ‘Out of Africa’.

The day before I heard the interview with Professor Táíwò, Salman Rushdie had been attacked on stage in America because of his ‘blasphemy’. The fatwah was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, who held the sort of extremist religious views which hadn’t existed since the 8th century, but which are now again resurgent.

Unfortunately, however, it is not just extremist religious groups which have adopted hatred and violence as part of their culture. Although in theory, woke culture is designed to encourage people to be nice to each other, it doesn’t seem to work out like that.

Instead, modern social media commentators have themselves caught up with the 8th century. We see the effect on Twitter and other social platforms where death threats to those not holding the ‘approved’ moral opinion of the moment are all too common. Such irrational and deeply entrenched attitudes permeate much of ‘woke’ thought, of which, as noted above, decolonisation is a significant part.

Differences in supposed ‘culture’ have become very important in the woke world. Culture though is simply, with ethnicity, a replacement word for racial difference (increasingly narrowly defined) at a time when, in my view, we should instead be looking at what we have in common.

And, with some inevitability, the woolly thinking behind the ghettoisation of supposedly racial characteristics has gone further and entered the realm of gender.

Already we have an outcry if a white actor plays a black or Asian part, but now we may no longer have heterosexual actors playing homosexual characters. Presumably, therefore we may not have anyone other than natives of Verona portraying either of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen or Romeo and Juliet or, indeed, homosexual actors playing heterosexual roles.

Which demonstrates the obvious nonsense that is its foundation.

It is astonishing to realise that Blasphemy law is still in existence in almost 70 countries. You would think that, gods being gods, they should be capable of defending themselves. But the law is not really there to defend them. It is used to defend a state-supported faith and the priests of that faith through fear.

Amongst the woke, whether decolonists or those fighting against cultural appropriation, obviously blasphemy as such cannot be invoked. They have therefore gone about things in a different way to achieve the same end.

Their making of threats in support of, for example, trans rights, is justified by the mantra: ‘words are violence’. For them, JK Rowling’s assertion that you cannot change your sex, as opposed to your gender, ‘literally’ puts trans lives in danger. The question of truth is an irrelevance. And criticising someone-else’s views means you are ‘literally arguing’ they shouldn’t exist. And so all of this justifies in the eyes of the woke their threats of actual physical violence in order to defend others.

We saw from the research on conspiracy theorists that their motivation is largely that of acquiring kudos amongst their on-line chums through their posts and so seen as important within the conspiracy movement. I suspect that it is similar with woke indignation. The louder and more often you shout about increasingly narrowly defined ‘aggressions’, or make calls for more purity in attempts to decolonise, the greater will be your status in the woke community.

This is perhaps underlined by another newly fashionable woke phrase ‘Silence is violence’. We must all get on Twitter to protest loudly at injustice wherever we see it or be accused of supporting it - violently, apparently.

Which all goes to show the power of catchy phrases. Even when their very brevity should warn us that they hide an intellectual vacuum.

18 August 2022

Paul Buckingham

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