Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Not Children, Not Even Metaphorically (2018-11-20)
Ah the wonders of web search rabbit holes led me to Walter D. Mignolo's website a few days ago, leading to wonderful procrastination fodder which throws up just enough relevant material for my own work to leave me denial room if pressed. Mignolo is an important theorist and scholar of decolonialism and important critic of so-called "globalization" the latest word used to put a pretty bow on colonialism and exploitation. Two of his most famous books because they gore some important oxen via their titles just to start with are The Darker Side of the Renaissance, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, and of course, The Darker Side of . I am looking forward to reading them as well as more of his lengthy posts which include many relevant links and online references. Here though, I want to take up a striking reference he made, which led him to make use of a specific, and highly problematic metaphor.
The essay at hand here is Ukraine 2014: A Decolonial Take, posted in March 2014. Having discussed several relevant issues and approaching the end of his remarks, he takes up the question of sanctions and their use against russia. Mignolo has been drawing out the punishment nexus fundamental to "western" and I would say colonial cultures over the course of the whole post, working over indirectly the notion that colonial powers treat colonies, former colonies, and other than first world countries as children. Referencing Leanne Betasomasake Simpson's point about christianizing education he writes:
"Canadian-Nishnaabeg writer, activist and singer, Leanna Simpson, makes a point in marking the distinction between Christina idea of education and First Nations (Indigenous people of Canada). Christianity education is based on prohibitions and punishments. Nishnaabeg in nurturing, for the simple reasons that prohibitions and punishment encourages in a child violation of the prohibitions and revenge to the punishment. US implementing sanctions on Russia follows the Christian way of Western education."
The trouble here is the de facto acceptance of the notion that "the colonized" are like children. I haven't bumped into the source of Simpson's point here, which may easily have been focussed on childrearing or part of an overall discussion of the Indigenous view of the role of punishment in altering human behaviour and what sorts of punishment are effective for encouraging meaningful, positive, and persistent change. I have no doubt that both her Mignolo's point here ultimately comes out to, prohibitions and punishments encourage actions that break prohibitions and breach boundaries with the hope if not serious expectation to get away without punishment. But even getting caught still makes it all into a perverse show of power via rule breaking and enforcing attention from those doing the punishing. This is not specific to children, and in fact is a key structuring behaviour in patriarchal societies, to pick the obvious category example.
Ah, but here's the rub. How do you separate out the inappropriate metaphor that equates the colonized, the oppressed – anyone designated as lower in a hierarchy of oppression – from the real and undeniable point Mignolo is making in this specific post: sanctions are a goad to continue the unwanted behaviour, not a deterrent? Well, practically he could have written a bit more text, and then wrestled with the implications and questions it raises. For example, whether it makes a difference whether the sanctions were defined and imposed by governments or civil society. There is a strong argument that sanctions against apartheid south africa played an important role in delegitimizing it and helping end its worst excesses and begin the process of rebuilding by the majority of south africans who opposed apartheid in the first place. Civil society-driven sanctions are causing so much concern for some supporters of israel's ongoing destruction of palestine that they are trying to get even discussing them defined as antisemitic and hate speech. But then again, there the sanctions are being proposed and imposed from a different constituency and involve considerable grassroots pressure to make them happen. In contrast, sanctions of the type Mignolo is discussing, and that seem to be proposed or threatened nearly every day by the current american leadership, are not necessarily a response to broad-based citizen pressure at all.
The totality of Mignolo's essay clarifies this though, because he is taking issue with especially hypocritical uses of "democracy" as a practice, including the way in which nations with considerable military power and a history of colonialism have a habit of declaring any otherwise recognized democratic practice undemocratic when another nation uses it as a basis for doing something they don't want. He considers the notion of "democratic disconnect" which I think has also appeared in the guise of "democratic deficit" in other political science oriented circles, and how yes, accusations of lack of democratic process may be pointing at real lacks while being cynically deployed. Cynically deployed to invoke a metaphor of the colonized or "non-first world" nations as equivalent to badly behaved children who should be disciplined with violence. Which returns my own reflections here back to the beginning. For those of us with a decolonial, resistant turn of mind, we need to reject this metaphor every time we run into it, even in our lengthiest blog posts.