Furore after academic makes case for colonialism

It is easy to build a narrative after colonising a territory that the ‘natives’ are better off for it

Prof Bruce Gilley argued that colonialism should not be considered the great evil we generally think it to be

Prof Bruce Gilley argued that colonialism should not be considered the great evil we generally think it to be

 

Within the realm of academia, having one’s published work reach outside the narrow world of academic journals and into the public consciousness is not that common.

Most academic specialties necessarily involve knowing an awful lot about a very narrow area, often an area so technical or abstract as to be inaccessible or simply boring to those outside. Usually, academic research or findings cause controversy outside in the world only when they appear to overturn some widely accepted knowledge, or when they press on an area tenderised by political or moral sensibilities.

This happened recently, when an associate professor at the department of political science at Portland State University, Bruce Gilley, had an article called “The Case for Colonialism” published in a respected and decidedly anti-colonial journal, Third World Quarterly. In it, Gilley argued an extremely unpopular position, namely that colonialism should not be considered the great evil we generally think it to be and he put forward a very bad “ends justify means” argument.

The furore was enormous. Though it had published the article, much of the editorial board of Third World Quarterly resigned and a petition demanding the article’s retraction garnered thousands of signatures. You can find several good engagements with Gilley’s article online, pointing out its errors – there are many. It is not very well argued and fails to acknowledge the extent of the legacy or moral reprehensibility of colonialism, which is precisely why Gilley has found himself vilified. Perhaps the one good thing about his article is that it has resulted in many others setting out precisely why his conclusions are so incorrect, and reminding us of what a despicable moral quagmire colonialism is and was. It also provides us with an opportunity to consider the thought processes which can lead to such morally indefensible and self-entitled action by those with power.

This is a convenient way of masking a sense of entitlement to take something

The glaring error that jumps out right away is Gilley’s reliance on what he calls “likely alternative past”. This is a lazy way of thinking that we have all engaged in at some point (hopefully mostly as children) when our bad actions are challenged. It involves presuming that, in the event that we hadn’t taken an action, the alternative would have been worse. An example might be to say “If the British hadn’t taken Ireland, the Irish would never have developed modern healthcare and would probably remain warring factions under provincial chieftains”. This is a convenient way of masking a sense of entitlement to take something (because one can) as altruism. By Gilley’s logic here, we can decide on whether colonialism is defensible or otherwise by looking at these likely alternative pasts (which is of course an exercise in biased guesswork); conveniently, this makes the burden of justification retroactive rather than proactive.

It is easy to build a narrative after colonising a territory that the “natives” are better off for it, leading to an “act first, justify later” mentality. By this logic, all roads lead to the retroactive justification of colonialism. When we act in this way – from consequentialist and utilitarian principles – the role of intent is also drastically minimised. If I invade your garden; indeed, if I invade expressly out of self-interest, my actions still cannot be immoral, because I’m doing you a favour in the long run, by bringing you into modernity, or civilising you, or whatever. I can kick your dog and help myself to your spuds if I paint your fence while I’m at it.

Does any person or body have the right to compel me to opt for the more effective treatment? 

The reader is left with one important (unintended) question by the article: what right do governments (within or without) their own territories have to coerce people’s free choices? Voodoo is evidently less effective in the treatment of cancer than chemotherapy, but does any person or body have the right to compel me to opt for the more effective treatment? Doing so is infantilising, patriarchal and directly contravenes my right to self-determine, or make bad decisions if I want to do so. If I were compelled, it would be “for my own good”, and by Gilley’s consequentialist logic, would be the right thing to do. However, if compelling free agents against their will is immoral on principle (this is partly why we so detest colonialism as a practice), should we not be free to decide for ourselves?

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