Virtuous Circles, Vicious Cycles

My work is predicated on complexity. As a scholar of French colonialism, I advocate moving away from simplistic binaries of colonizer and colonized. I insist that we must rethink these categories and unpack the range of interactions and the spectrum of subjective agencies in the processes of empire and colony. Nothing, after all, is ever simple.

Then, I read this. Commenting on an article on India’s lifting of the Raj-era bans on “buggery,” as it was then known, a young Briton wrote:

“Ultimately… if not us then who? It’s not like India (which didn’t really exist as a political entity until we created it) would have been left to muddle along on its own. Another power would have imposed itself and I’m pretty confident they’d have been worse than us. The British Empire in my opinion was probably better than any likely alternative, a net benefit to India and the least damaging in Africa.”

It makes me want to scream from the rooftops: “COLONIALISM WAS NOT A POSITIVE FORCE, STUPID!!!”

As a historian, I spend a fair amount of my time trying to convince my senior colleagues (and sometimes even my partner) that colonial relationships were infinitely complicated. I am far from the first scholar to say this; Ann Stoler and Julia Clancy Smith blazed that trail years ago. In my field, however, too many scholars fall into easy schemas of East and West, China and Europe, Asian and European. Indeed, I’m guilty of doing it myself, for the convenience of vocabulary.

Yet, for all my efforts to differentiate among nations, classes, individuals, to argue that European power was scant, and to show how indigenous actors were always part of the process of ruling colonies, I have nothing but this visceral reaction to that comment. Every nuance I’ve ever tried to bring out collapses in my mind, back into the nasty imperialists and innocent locals that, I normally maintain, did not exist.

Because, in a way, they did.

They existed in the racist discourse that the perpetuated the expansion of empire. They existed in the laws that forbade the colonized from entering white space. They existed in campaigns to convert, to save, and to educate, in which the actors were of one kind and the acted upon, another.

They exist today, in the minds of those who can’t imagine why the colonized so despised imperial rule and who dream of extending it again by building hospitals, roads and schools in the “undeveloped world,” by telling Muslim women that they can’t be free until they accept secular restrictions on their clothing, in the fears that the brown fruit of colonization will tarnish la patrie.

There were historical exceptions, of course. They were the Khans, Shahs and Maharajas who took the waters in European spas and sent their children to boarding school, and the merchants who profited by trading opium, tea, and people. Intellectually, I can stand by my argument of complexity, because I see it in my sources. For instance, Parisian seminarians seem to have respected a learned Chinese priest, even if they dismissed his pagan countrymen. A French diplomat’s wife saw a common plight among all women, seeing the parallels between shuttered concubines and her own restricted freedom.

Nevertheless, none of these examples can erase a pervasive discourse of difference. It circulated among the nineteenth-century subjects of my research, and it circulates today. That discourse produces the difference; the category of colonial exists because colonizers created it, and placed themselves in opposition to it.

Their word was made flesh. In India, British civil servants, historians, ethnologists, and sociologists codified the caste system, turning what had been a flexible corpus of guidelines into a set of firm social divisions. In Africa, British attempts to ban genital cutting ultimately encouraged the practice; it became a mark of communal belonging and an act of defiance against colonial coercion.

The practice was far from unique to Euro-Americans empires of the 19th century. The inscription of colonial categories on the bodies of the colonized has long been one of the preeminent technologies of Empire. Look at the nationalist queue-cutting in Manchu and Republican China, forced name changes (Turks in Bulgaria, among others), ethnic cleansing, population exchanges, forced conversions (take your pick) and forced marriages (Alexander the Great, I’m looking at you).  It might be a slippery category, but the very questions, “who belongs?” and “who doesn’t?” inevitably seem to entail desperate attempts to define, separate, and “civilize” the Others.

The impulse hasn’t gone away.

In a recent joint interview, Tony Blair declined to comment on Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s support of a law criminalizing homosexuality in her nation.

I was appalled that Sirleaf discussed the law in terms of time-honored tradition. It was unsettling to realize that  colonial powers had so successfully impressed Victorian prudery that it now passes for local custom. I was deeply troubled by how such legislation would affect gay Liberians. Make no mistake: the criminalization of homosexuality is indistinguishable from the oppression of homosexuals. It is oppression, a legal pogrom against a minority. It disgusts me.

Yet I also fear that every time someone like Tony Blair (or better yet, Hilary Clinton) promotes gay rights in the Global South, the idea becomes yet another European or American imposition, another imperial demand to be resisted. By assuming a latter-day White Man’s Burden to “civilize” the “savages” the North invites the South to push back as an articulation of its independence.

So I find myself in a horrifying position: I am glad that Tony Blair kept his mouth shut.

Euro-America can’t erase its imperialist past by engaging with Africa in an imperialist manner. When domestic movements for change and liberation arise in the erstwhile colonies, local authorities can easily dismiss them as the products of outside interference, forces to be resisted lest they fall once again under the control of the part of the world that still thinks it is better… and that resistance will convince it that it is right.

Ultimately, every potential course of action seems unbearable; one legitimate demand for justice seems irreconcilable with the other. I am paralyzed.

Some days I despair for humanity.

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