Colonial Attitudes in Contemporary Writing

It is not easy to convey the respect one has for the people with whom they work or with whom they conduct research. Similarly, it can be challenging to identify colonial and paternalistic attitudes. "I know it when I see it", a judge famously stated in seeking to draw a line within fuzzy grey areas. Recently I ran into one of these instances. I wanted to learn more about Pakistan, and randomly picked up "Pakistan: A Hard Country" (2011) by Anatol Lieven. The author is a professor at King's College and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.

For clarity: I am not arguing that Lieven is a supporter of colonialism or the subordination of the ideas and interests of others. The author describes a deep love for the nation. I use some selected lines of his writing to demonstrate how we can attempt to identify attitudes that do not convey respect, and may contain a sense of superiority. I hope these lines were made in error. Regardless of intentions, 'knowing it when we see it' helps us to critically engage with texts, authors and statements.

In explaining a particular point, Anatol explains: "to judge by my own interviews and those of other Western colleagues, an absolutely overwhelming majority not just of the Pakistani masses but of the Pakistani elites believe…" (p. 47). Note that his own experience and those of "other Western colleagues" are more valuable than any non-Western scholar, never mind a citizen of the nation. One might wonder what the author thinks of the people of the nation about which he is writing and claims to deeply love. Anatol continues, about encountering "more rarely, a sensible Pakistani" (p. 47). They are irrational. Illogical. Untrustable. Best assessed and judged by "Westerners", even by those that, like Anatol, do not even speak local languages.

It ought to come as no surprise, then, that at the outset of the book Anatol describes Pakistan as "divided, disorganized, economically backward, corrupt, violent, unjust, often savagely oppressive" (p. 4). For anyone wondering why such a portrayal is problematic, I encourage you to read Orientalism by Said (1978). For those wondering why valuing "Western" opinions as more logical, rational, true and right than those of the people themselves is problematic, I encourage you to read Chambers' Whose Reality Counts (1997). In our effort to uphold the dignity and respect of everyone, we need to confront paternalistic and colonial attitudes wherever we encounter them. We need not only to be able to recognize them, but to contest and challenge them.

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Logan Cochrane

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