THE ONTOLOGY OF PEOPLES AND THEIR DECOLONISATION

Once upon a time there were peoples living in North America who were as different from one another as were the peoples living in Europe from one another at the same time. As in Europe, these peoples spoke different languages, ate different foods, lived in different kinds of houses, honoured their several gods in diverse ways, and delighted in killing each other with the same moral reluctance that constrains any other pack animal competing for territory.

Post-contact the Europeans called all these newfound peoples Indians, but they didn’t call themselves that. Not for the same reason there are no Italian restaurants in Italy. They didn’t think of themselves as Indians any more than Italians thought of themselves as Italians until Italy became Italy, which wasn’t until the 1860’s, about the same time Canada became Canada. Only post-contact did the Blackfoot become Indians, and at that Indians first and Blackfoot second. Why? Because they were treated by the occupier as Indians, and as Blackfoot hardly at all.

In what-would-become-Italy some what-would-become-Italians invaded, conquered, colonised, displaced, assimilated, or exterminated other what-would-become-Italians. And later on, some nation states, like Germany, did the same to other nation states, like Austria. Well, not surprisingly, the same thing happened among and between what the Europeans would one day call the Indians. 

So to insist, for example, that the Beothuk were the indigenous people of Newfoundland, or that the Blackfoot are the indigenous people of southern Alberta, makes as much sense as saying that the Normans are the indigenous people of England. It makes sense only if we allow that by indigenous we mean those who were here when we got here. So indigeneity is an indexical term, i.e. one the referent of which is indexed to the speaker.  

Put another way, “A people P is indigenous to some territory T” is not (what philosophers of language call) a well-formed formula. Wellformedness requires an indigenous-to, or a from-the-perspective of, another people P*. The Anglo-Saxons were the indigenous people of England to the Normans, just as the Blackfoot were the indigenous people of southern Alberta, but only for us settlers

Some SJWs find this upsetting. But “nature red in tooth and claw” offers no exemption for human beings. In fact Antarctica aside, there isn’t a square inch on this planet that hasn’t seen one people invaded, conquered, colonised, assimilated, and/or exterminated by another; and then that other by a yet a third, and so on. So complaints about colonisation are a bit like a boxer whinging about being punched. In the film God on Trial, one inmate reminds the others – they know they’re all about to be gassed – that this must be what it was like for the Amalekites.  

And this, in turn, raises the question none of us wants to think about, namely in what sense are Blackfoot and settlers still Blackfoot and settlers, but Anglo-Saxons and Normans are no longer Anglo-Saxons and Normans? After all, there isn’t a Blackfoot alive who doesn’t have as much blood in his veins that came across the Atlantic from Europe as came across the Bering Strait from Asia. 

Is he Blackfoot because he thinks more like his Blackfoot ancestors than he does his European ones? Perhaps, but how do we quantify thoughts? He thinks in English, not in Blackfoot. He warms himself with natural gas, not buffalo dung. He dresses in fabrics imported from India. He buys processed food from the supermarket. He drives a car made in South Korea. And he has his head buried in his smart phone twelve hours a day just like everyone else. 

In fact the only things that distinguishes him from, say, a Jewish Canadian, are 1) the particular myths he tells himself about the beliefs and exploits of his ancestors, and 2) how he’s treated by other Canadians. That is, we Jews never crossed the Red Sea and neither did the Blackfoot joust with dinosaurs. Some of his grandparents were consigned to residential schools. Most of my relatives were gassed there. But other than that, he has no more in common with his ancestors than I have with mine. As Wittgenstein observed, if a lion could speak we couldn’t understand him. And if I could speak with Moses I’d think he was retarded.

When two peoples meet, regardless of how asymmetrical the circumstances, they exchange things, all kinds of things, including genetic material, diseases, things they know, know-how, concepts, words, religion, dress, cuisine … Worse ideas get replaced with better ones. Some changes are imposed, others embraced. Flush toilets and central sewage treatment are just better than individual holes in the ground. And once you’ve had a good curry, there’s just no going back to the leather and mush that once passed for Sunday dinner.  

This no-going-back is doubly the case with the mind. Every belief sits in (what W.V.O. Quine called) one’s web of belief. And so every input, be it from other members of one’s community or from contact with the Other, irreversibly alters the entirety of that web. So to suppose we can ‘decolonise the mind’ is to betray a totally jejune understanding of how the mind works. Take away from the Blackfoot every input contaminated by his understanding of the world having been colonised, and what would be left would be the tabula rasa of the infant. With what would the decoloniser like to fill it up again so this lobotomised infant could function as a human being? Since whatever it might be will be foreign to him, in what sense would he not simply be being re-colonised? 

So what your ‘decolonising his mind’ really amounts to is you’d like him to believe things you’d like him to believe. Well of course you would. As would I. So tell you what. You offer him a course in what you claim to be indigenous wisdom, and I’ll keep offering him my Introduction to Western Philosophy. “Let a hundred flowers bloom” said Mao. “Let a hundred schools of thought contend.”

Of course it turns out Mao didn’t mean that. And neither does the SJW. The flowers Mao didn’t like he mowed down with a scythe. As, to be fair, did the colonisers who ran those residential schools. As, to be honest, do I when I insist my students write in intelligible English.

But I don’t force them to take my classes. I operate on “If you build it they will come.” Which, some have argued, is what the coloniser should have done. Well, with a coulda woulda shoulda and 35 cents one can make a local phone call. I just do western philosophy and leave the rest to the local gods to work out. 

Western philosophy is a conversation. If you want to join the conversation, then do. If you don’t don’t. But give me the same option vis a vis whatever conversation is taking place wherever you’re talking. As it happens I don’t tend to tune in, because the wisdom you pretend to be resurrecting is gone, and now you’re just making shit up.

Well maybe I am too. But there’s an asymmetry here. If we question your putative wisdom, we’re racists. If you question ours you’re doing philosophy. So, racist or not, I think I’ll just keep doing what I do. 



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. “complaints about colonisation are a bit like a boxer whinging about being punc”

    Then dive into blood quantum?

    This is dumb, sorry to have read any of it, sorry for your students

    Like

  2. Patrick, you haven’t made the connection between your question/comment and the quotation you’ve cited explicit. It’s not apparent to the reader what blood quantum has to do with the quote. Will you please add a few lines?

    Like

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