Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Against Decolonization

The word "decolonization" has radically changed meanings since African nations achieved independence. During the independence struggle it meant throwing off European rule and creating new, African nations. Now it means somehow cleansing the mind and the culture of dubious European ideas and asserting the primacy of African languages, ideas, and institutions. This seems like it might be an extension of the earlier meaning, but I think it demands rejection of the actual words and ideas of the revolutionary generation. Men like Nkrumah, Julius Nyere, Jomo Kenyatta, and Nelson Mandela did not reject European thought. Most of them were Marxists, Nationalists, or both; many at least said they believed in the full equality of women; they all made use of European languages to spread their message across the world; and they explicitly rejected many parts of African culture, such as tribalism and fear of scorcery. What the woke are pleased to call decolonization is actually quite controversial among African intellectuals:

One of the most ambitious counterarguments to this movement is presented by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò in his provocative new book, Against Decolonisation. Táíwò, a professor of African political theory and philosophy at Cornell University, laments how a concept that once referred to escaping political and economic subjugation by powerful states has come to mean something far less precise. According to Táíwò, “because modernity is conflated with Westernism and with ‘whiteness’—and all three with colonialism—decolonisation (the negation of colonialism) has become a catch-all idea to tackle anything with any, even minor, association with the ‘West.’” Táíwò argues that such undisciplined uses of “decolonization” have a perverse effect, stymieing attempts to understand, let alone improve, the situation of formerly colonized peoples. 

In Against Decolonisation, Táíwò’s focus is on Africa. He traces the origin of a prominent strand of decolonization theory to the writings of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist and author of Decolonising the Mind (1986), a book whose thousands of citations attest to its global influence. It memorably recounted Ngũgĩ’s experience as a schoolboy in 1950s Kenya. Being caught speaking his first language, Gĩkũyũ, anywhere near school resulted in canings, fines and being made to wear signs saying “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey.” Given this history, Ngũgĩ argued that one of the most effective political acts of African writers is to publish in their indigenous languages. When it came to his novels and other literary works, Ngũgĩ had already switched from English to Gĩkũyũ. “This book,” he wrote in Decolonising the Mind, “is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings.” Henceforward, both his fiction and nonfiction would be available to English-speaking readers only in translation.

Ngũgĩ’s condemnation of Western languages as vehicles of African expression is representative of a larger African decolonization project, which goes beyond Mills’s comparatively mild version, and which sometimes characterizes engagement with Western concepts and values as a form of “epistemicide” or “mental de-Africanization.”

But, of course, writing in a language like Gĩkũyũ cuts the writer off from the huge audience he or she might have in English or French, and from most of the international debate about Africa's future. This review goes on to point out that while Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has indeed published all his fiction in Gĩkũyũ since 1986, most of his non-fiction has appeared first in English. Trying to earn your living as an intellectual comes with certain burdens.

Táíwò is also irritated by a tendency to see all of African history as dominated by its relations with Europe:

In opposing this view, Táíwò invokes a vast command of African philosophy and history. Against Decolonisation ranges over everything from Africans’ enthusiastic embrace of Christianity in the pre-colonial period of “informal empire” to the Fante Confederacy of nineteenth-century Ghana, whose founding document “ranks alongside the Polish constitution of [1791] as one of the earliest attempts at liberal constitution-making in the world.” These and other details are marshalled to support an alternative reading of African history, one that considers European colonialism “an episode, not an epoch.” Táíwò’s historical framing emphasizes the role Africans themselves have played in shaping contemporary Africa, a theme reflected in his subtitle, “Taking African Agency Seriously.” To exaggerate the influence of colonialism, Táíwò charges, can itself show disrespect to Africans.
But the real issue concerns what we might call modernization. In throwing off colonial chains, is Africa also supposed to dispense with western science, engineering, and thinking about human rights? In some parts of the world we have seen calls to teach native wisdom in parallel with western science, which seems like a dubious path toward modernity. Many activists have also dismissed European ideas about democracy and rights because Europeans did not practice them in the colonies, and they have sought to build free societies on an indigenous basis; but this has failed everywhere it has been tried. 
Táíwò is at pains to distinguish two different meanings of “decolonization.” The first, which he considers illuminating, refers to a colony achieving self-government. The second refers to the goal of avoiding any idea, practice or institution that “retains even the slightest whiff of the colonial past.” This broader understanding of decolonization is the one Táíwò opposes. Where the first definition identifies a crucial step toward African societies becoming fully modern, home to liberal-democratic governments that follow the rule of law, respect rights and ensure the well-being of their people, the second undermines that unfinished project by rejecting modern political goods as artifacts of colonialism.

Indeed African dictators have often insisted that things like elections and a free press are remnants of colonialism that Africa must leave behind, with predictable results. Not, mind you, that I think Parliamentary democracy is necessarily the best system for every African nation right now, but neither is cynical Afrocentrist dictatorship. In recent decades many African thinkers have drawn from European apostles of freedom, from John Stuart Mill to Bakunin, to argue for their own rights.

To me it seems obvious that the way forward for humanity is to take the best from every part of the world, or the parts we like best, and build a future from all those blocks. Rejecting the vast heritage of the west is not going to help anyone move forward.


David said...

The ideas that Táíwò is writing against remind me of some prominent aspects of Russian nationalism, as well as critical race theory in this country (especially the idea that ideas like hard work and individual thinking are artifacts of white culture that shouldn't be part of school for black students).

On one level, I'm torn about many of these issues. I'm essentially an antiquarian, and I get sad when things I regard as cool, different, and old die. I like it that there are still exclusive speakers of tiny, remnant languages in the world. But, if I'm honest, I'm also happy I'm not one of them, since I also enjoy the wider experience that being an English speaker opens up to me. In the final analysis, I would probably identify better with the young African who was intrigued by science or video games than with the elder who yelled at him, "What are you, some kind of traitor? Is what I've taught you not good enough for you?"

On another level, it does seem to me that the kind of theory or attitude that Táíwò is writing against is essentially a form of nationalism, part of the kind that I find dangerous, frightening, and all too common. I absolutely do NOT say this to take a hostile jab at John, with whom I've debated nationalism in the past (and, I think, tried to do so in good faith, for all that I admit I can be snarky). But there's a Mazinian, modernizing, cosmopolitan nationalism, and there's exclusionary blood-and-soilism.

John said...

I certainly agree that there are different kinds of nationalism. I think a weak sort of patriotic, we're great nationalism is extremely helpful in holding a country together, while fearing a harder-edged nationalism that is always looking for enemies. In Africa of course this is complicated by the arbitrariness of most national borders, which makes something like Kenyan nationalism hard to sustain. But anyway nationalism is certainly an important part of the African political discourse, so dismissing it as a colonial remnant is not likely to be helpful.

G. Verloren said...

To me it seems obvious that the way forward for humanity is to take the best from every part of the world, or the parts we like best, and built a future from all those blocks. Rejecting the vast heritage of the west is not going to help anyone move forward.

The Japanese pride themselves on being masters of exactly this.

Of course, they can only do so because of their specific historical happenstance and the overwhelming victory of Japanese modernists over their traditionalist counterparts. I can imagine a world in which the conflict between those two factions ended inconclusively, and the two remained at odds for over a century afterward, miring the nation in the kind of challenges other nations face today.

I see certain "counter parallels" to this in America, in the muddled legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, where Lincoln's desire to "bind up the nation's wounds" led to the Confederates being treated comparatively gently, allowing their cause and their values to persist for generations afterward, directly contributing to the serious cultural divides that still plague us in the present day. I can't help but wonder if we had acted more like the victorious Meiji and thoroughly (and at times quite inexcusably brutally) rooted out the opposition, how different might things be now?

To be fair, it's not a stance that is foreign to us, after all - we did essentially that to both Japan and Germany in the wake of World War II (and it's arguably what we should have done in Iraq if we were going to bother to invade and depose Saddam). Sometimes it seems absolute victory and the total destruction or incapacitation of the enemy is necessary to prevent future conflicts of the same sort re-igniting.

Then again, that kind of absolutist "rooting out" of an opposing faction or ideology also produced things like Mao's China and Stalin's USSR, so clearly it's not a clear or simple prospect to consider.

David said...


I've come to think that the transformation of the Axis powers after WWII was quite probably a unique, one-time phenomenon. There was a remarkable concatenation of factors: total, absolutely undeniable defeat, utter devastation, deep and fairly realistic fear of Communism, acknowledged complete dependence on the United States (both for protection against the Soviets and as a lifeline among understandably embittered regional neighbors), longterm US commitment to the project (almost unimaginable now), and probably most important, a pre-war cadre of indigenous liberals who had long wanted to embrace a non-militarized, largely commercial model of their country's future, all played their part. I'm skeptical that we could replicate it anywhere now.

Anirudh Silai said...

A lot of this boils down to a form of cultural essentialism. E.x. some people think that democracy, individual rights, experimental science and gender equality are exclusively "Western" concepts just because the West tends to use them a lot, hence they are not fit for Africans. It's basically the mirror image of Western racists saying that Africans/South Asians/Latin Americans don't deserve democracy or individual rights or won't be able to understand science because, since these are "Western" concepts, it won't work on those people. In reality, though, they're universal values that can complement any culture. Saying that any particular idea is exclusive to any particular culture is usually faulty reasoning because there's no reason for it to be.