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Intellectual anti-colonialism needs to offer an alternative ethics.

By Saturday 7 November 2020 No Comments

by: Ghassan Hage

I will not name the “leftist academics” whose comments in recent days have triggered this rant. But let me say this: If one’s first reaction as a commentator on the vile Islamo-fascist terrorist attacks in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and Nice is to rehearse the violent and racist history of French colonialism and post-colonialism, one is, willingly or unwillingly, perpetuating the very bankrupt ethics of the colonialism that one is attacking. But even if ethics doesn’t matter to you as a commentator, and you think you are being politically “hardcore left” by critiquing French racism and colonialism in this manner, let me say this: you are also perpetuating the politics of colonialism in the same way you are perpetuating its ethics. You also exhibit a rather naïve understanding of what politics entails.

Let us talk ethics, first, and then move to politics. Any ethical stance requires one to dwell on and in the death of the victims and the manner in which they have been killed in all its particularity. By rushing into drowning those acts of terrorist violence with a narrative about the continuing history of French racist and colonialist violence, there is a refusal to offer such an ethics. This is no different from the colonialists’ refusal to dwell in and on the death of the colonised.

Let me be clear that I am addressing myself specifically to intellectual commentators. I understand that such a refusal might be hard for someone who is always already practically and affectively caught in the French state’s Islamophobic reaction to the killings. This, however, is not the case with intellectuals and commentators whose job is precisely not to be caught in this way, and to offer an alternative to reducing the ethical domain into comparative victimology. Unless they are sympathisers, their job is also to refuse to legitimise the idea that a handful of vile terrorists with a history of fascistic domination in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, and with a trail of funding from suspect sources — which include Saudi Arabian and United States intelligence agencies — are actually acting in the name of the victims of colonialism.

If your reaction to this is, “But what about all those people who have died and are dying because of imperialist aggression against Muslims around the world?” — you are still not getting it. It is true that there is a long colonial history of over-valorising the death of white colonists and under-valorising the death of the colonised. The history of the colonisation of Australia, where I am writing from, abounds in examples of how the indigenous killing of one white person in the context of a long process of extermination and dispossession, often resulted in white outrage as if no history preceded such a killing. This resulted in so-called “punitive” raids against indigenous people, involving vengeful massacres of sometimes hundreds of indigenous people. It is also true that such a colonial history is being continued on a global scale today.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between keeping this history in mind, and instrumentalising it to refuse to dwell in the murder of white people, no matter how few they are. Dwelling means taking your time acknowledging — not just acknowledging in passing, such as, “I am sorry about the victims, but let’s move to something more important …”. Dwelling means inhabiting the awfulness of the event, and feeling it. If you can’t do this, you’ve got a serious problem. As an anti-colonialist person, I have no problem arguing that in the long run one needs to dwell more on the death of the colonised because there are many more of them and because they do represent a far more important history of injustice. But when I am facing the killing of white people in such a terroristic manner, even if I do it for a brief moment, I want to fully dwell in it. I find it ethically necessary to fully recognise it for the horror that it is without diluting it with a comparative logic.

The question, then, is not about whether it is true that French colonialism and post-colonialism have had, and continue to have, a racist and violently Islamophobic history. Of course that is true. But just as there is an ethics about lying, there is an ethics to the deployment of the truth. You can be truthful and unethical. For ethics requires one to know when and how to instrumentalise the truth. Just as you can be unethical when you use a truth to refuse to dwell on and in other truths. Colonialists and post-colonialists do this all the time. And you’re doing it, too.

Ethics requires you to have a fine sense of temporality concerning when, where, and for how long one needs to dwell in one truth or another. But so does politics. I know we’ve all grown up academically equating the radical political moment with “speaking truth to power”, but one has to have an incredibly impoverished sense of political efficiency if one fails to see that “speaking truth to power” is not just one action but a whole strategic field that requires knowing when and how to do so. Radical politics, then, is not just about the truth, but about knowing how to deploy it in order to maximise its effect.

Most importantly, politics requires a good sense of the plurality of the battlefields in which one is embedded. Colonialists versus non- and anti-colonialists is certainly a battlefield. But the people who desire to co-exist in the world versus the people who want a world of ethno-nationalist wars is also a battlefield. And while they certainly overlap and intersect and determine each other, sometimes you just need to know what to prioritise — not in absolute terms, but strategically at a specific time.

If I am to critique the French government, I want to criticise it for positioning itself too much within the “fascistic warring space” that the terrorists are part of. I want to criticise it in the name of those who desire a world of co-existence. I don’t do so because I am naïve about the many contradictions that such a concept or such a political space entails, or about the fact that I end up on the side of people with whom I don’t really want to end up. I do it because, ultimately, one has to choose the bottom line of what matters to oneself.

If there is one thing that differentiates the post-colonial from the colonial condition, it is the fact that the colonised and their inheritors find themselves stuck to living with their colonisers and their inheritors. The option of eliminating the colonised that some white supremacists still entertain is a recipe for perpetual war — war, not as a transition to something else, but as a continual state of affairs. But so is the anti-colonial idea of eliminating the white colonisers. While the idea of “co-existence” has a long history of acting as a liberal fantasy that perpetuates colonial relations of power, the need to reconceive co-existence and to think what a “radical co-existence” means is imperative.

Ghassan Hage is Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

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