Updated: Oct 28, 2021
Imperialism was British policy just over a hundred years ago. This was post-’Enlightenment’. It dominated foreign policy even after the Slavery Abolition Act, even after the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the first women the right to vote.
The hubris of the British Empire is still stamped upon our psyche. We still hold onto the ‘glory’ days of Britain. We still want to make Britain great again. Imperialism is in our blood: that feeling that is was right to use our power to rule over another. And so justify draining their resources for our own gain, divvying up land and ripping apart lives according to what benefits us. That is our heritage.¹
But hubris is not all we have stamped on us: there is pain too.
You see, at root, imperialism rests upon the validity of an exclusion principle²: “You belong, you have worth, you have dignity only if…”. We couldn't tolerate our actions if we didn’t have this premise. If you don’t meet the criteria, if you’re not British, or not white, or not powerful enough, or not a threat, or not sophisticated enough, we can exclude you. Your voice, your welfare, your life, you do not matter.
Now, I do not claim to know the pain of having my whole being immediately silenced or othered because of my skin, gender, sexuality, dress, language, or nationality. Perhaps, though, I can know something of this pain. I do know the fear of being irrelevant, dismissible, and nothing in the world. The parts in me that found they were silenced, deemed weak, belittled and mocked know the pain of exclusion, a pain I hold within me - even as I continue to exclude, dismiss, belittle those parts everyday.
Can we free ourselves? Can we decolonise ourselves?
As a teacher, I was intrigued when I found a series of podcasts called Decolonising the Curriculum³ by the University of Edinburgh. In one of these podcasts, Shadaab Rahemtulla sets out a process of decolonising.
Firstly, Rahemtulla says we need to acknowledge our heritage and its colonialism. This, he says, is a step of deconstruction: of seeing the social, political and historical context that influences, constrains and even controls what we have come to believe is true. Thus, what was once taken as absolute, we can now doubt and question.
Secondly, Rahemtulla says we need to listen to the voices of those who have been excluded. The thinkers who, from their personal, historical, cultural position, are talking about the same subjects. This requires us to trust them: to concede that they have a wisdom, a voice, a validity we need to hear.
Perhaps these stages offer us a way of decolonising ourselves.
It’s my view that we all lived colonised and colonising lives. We have all learned to discount, dismiss and silence parts of us, parts of our natural exuberance, expression, potentiality and experience, because we have learned that these parts led to us being excluded, or were too much to bear, or made us weak and vulnerable. These parts live with the shame and pain of being silenced.
Firstly, we can start to investigate, explore and see the subjectivity of all the musts, the absolutes, the shoulds of the life and living we inherited. How our personal history, our family history, our social and cultural context shaped them far more than anything absolute. Then we can start to doubt them. Must we always be strong? Do I need to be a success - or a failure? What is success? Am I useless or unwanted if I’m not such and such? This gives space for other ways of seeing and being in the world: ways that may not lead us down the roads of mental and relational anguish.
Secondly, we can make it safe for those silenced parts of us to be heard again. Learn to seek spaces where they are not dismissed or belittled, but where they can be heard, valued and prized. I’ve found that actually listening to thinkers from excluded parts of society has helped me to get in touch with the voice of my own excluded parts. I have found this a relief for these parts to find words in the words of others. And then to be heard. Yes, this is painful too. We have to come close to the pain these parts hold. But it’s been worth it. I find a healing wisdom in them that my narrow imperialist self could not allow.
This all necessitates a non-imperialist approach to ourselves⁵. An approach where we don’t have a fixed end in sight for ourselves. Where we aren’t scavenging for resources within us to rob. Where we don’t view the local population disparagingly. Where we don’t come in with our technology - don’t seek to make ourselves better with this or that technique. This is an approach defined by trust⁴: that these parts have a validity, a voice, and a wisdom I need to hear, even if that wisdom is found in the pain. Even if their wisdom is uncomfortable. Even if their wisdom undoes much of our current life.
And this narrowing down of imperialism to the person’s psyche, to individual decolonisation, then flows outwards. The trust I have in people is that, as we get close to our excluded parts, and learn to hear and prize them, so we can get close to the otherness of others. We no longer have to keep them at arm’s length in order to keep our own pain down. And so the person has a tendency to move towards connection, empathy and compassion: tends towards an anti-imperialist way of being, where they no longer colonise or are colonised by the other. This process, the process of decolonising ourselves, I believe will be foundational to any real decolonising of our society.
I found Peter Frankopan’s, The Silk Roads (2016) helpful in explicitly laying out the story of this heritage.
What Rogers’ called ‘conditions of worth’. Indeed, perhaps it is the fear of becoming this - of becoming irrelevant and dismissable - that drives the hubris, along with many a political policy today.
See Rogers, C. A Way of Being (1980)