Friday, November 28, 2014


I have come across a couple of decolonization proposals recently. Some aspects of the thinking around this strike me as teetering on the edge of confusion and therefore worth exploring.

Colonization and decolonization are all about us and them, right down at the foundation of dualism. At a relative conventional level, of course, it is common and even sometimes practical to divide people into groups or categories of one sort or another. Genders, races, nationalities, generations, classes, and professions: these are some of the most basic divisions.

Any sort of category system, any way of labeling phenomena, will have some more or less limited validity. One major challenge is how to deal with borderline cases. When we are attached to our concepts, we tend to deny phenomena that don’t fit them. One sort of denial is just to turn away, not to acknowledge their existence. Another sort of denial is an active intervention, to force phenomena to fit or to eradicate those that refuse.

Gender is of course a prime instance where reality often enough doesn’t fit the simple dominant conceptual framework and where every form of denial gets put into use. To deny the possibility of some way of being is clearly a form of oppression against those who actually embody that way, but it seems like a different pattern of oppression than colonization.

Another form of oppression that doesn’t seem to fit the term colonization is genocide, where the existence of some group of people is acknowledged, but no sort of living relationship is accommodated.

Colonization is the imposition of a particular sort of exploitative relationship, highly inequitable. The existence of the subordinate group is acknowledged to have value but that value is not inherent but merely a use value: its actual or potential use in benefitting the superior group one way or another.

Colonization is a complex process. For example, members of the colonized group often participate in maintaining the colonization in various ways. The colonizers can divide the colonized into classes, the most privileged of which might well then consider their relatively elevated position worth maintaining. But the colonizers can also impose such widespread social restructuring that even the most oppressed of the colonized can start to conceptualize themselves in the terms defined by the colonizers.

A difficult point, though, is that part of the process of colonization is the maintenance of the boundary between the colonizers and the colonized. As with any boundary, reality will always intervene to mix things up one way and another. It requires constant police work to repair the holes in the fence again and again.

What makes this point difficult is that one of the typical oppressive strategies of the colonizers is to deny the legitimacy of the existence of the colonized group. The way of being of the colonizers becomes the norm, while the colonized must make do with being abnormal, despite often being numerically superior. To examine the mere conventionality of the distinction between colonizer and colonized is not so different than denying the legitimacy of the existence of the colonized group. But the difference might be a key that opens a door to let in light and fresh air.

Within the United States we have a complex system of categories by which we group ourselves. The system doesn’t seem to be stable. Certainly the divisions of race and gender seem to remain well entrenched. Maybe the career of Steve Jobs will work to exemplify some of the instability. Jobs was a college drop out. Apple computers were the cool alternative to the corporate squareness of IBM and Microsoft. But of course by now Apple is as corporate as any other corporation. Bill Clinton supported the NAFTA bill. Are trade barriers progressive or regressive? Maybe that touches the nerve. Between the future and the past, which is the colonizer and which the colonized?

For Voltaire, the answer was obvious. The past was in power. The past was crushing the future. Enlightenment was a matter of empowering the future and dissolving the power of the past.

But for us today, progress smells somewhat rancid. The problems surely go back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution, for example the harsh conditions the workers were subjected to. The World Wars brought us the military-industrial complex. Now… just today I was seeing headlines about overly cozy relations between Google and the NSA. Perhaps climate change, though, is the deepest challenge to the direction in which we have been headed, where our towering prosperity appear very likely to topple and crush us.

If the future has come to colonize us, must we then free ourselves by rejecting its conceptual structures, of globalization, quantification, and mobility, and take up instead the alternative structure offered by the past, of localization, nationalism, ethnicity, and tradition?

It might well be worthwhile, though, to examine how the structure of this dichotomy is itself oppressive. It reminds me of high school. I was in the second class to graduate from Homestead Junior Senior High School, outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Our principal had constructed for us some traditions that we were to conform to: Senior Hall was one, if I recall correctly. The future constructs the past as a sort of boogey man with which to frighten us into submission. At the same time, the future is a marketing tactic of the past, enticing us to join forces with program.

The wisdom that frees us from the delusion of dualistic clinging is not nihilistic rejection, but deep insight into the relationships between the poles of the duality, relationships through which the poles create each other. Are the colonizers and the colonized the same or are they different? That question is trapped at the surface. The colonizers and the colonized are always growing out of each other organically. Insight grows out of intimacy: wisdom grows out of meditation. Intimacy requires respect but also close contact.

Humans have always lived locally and globally at the same time. It’s that interplay that creates life and meaning. If we run to the illusory security of the easy answer, the secure conformity to a stable conceptual framework, we will have bought into our own oppression.