Decolonizing the Mind

Linda Tuhiwai Smith wrote "Decolonizing methodologies" (1999). Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote "Decolonizing the Mind" (1986). This is essential reading and the insights are numerous – from curricula design and literary critique to social transformation and liberation. In this post I focus on one of Ngugi's central and influential arguments about the power of language.

The author outlines how colonial and neo-colonial language policies and practices entrenched power and dominance, while simultaneously marginalizing and excluding the majority. Ngugi writes: "Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle" (p. 9). The legacy was more long lasting, more transformational, because "language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and the soul of the prisoner" (p. 9). Furthermore, language is "central to people's definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe" (p. 4). At the end, Ngugi concludes that while the book is about the politics of language, it is in fact about "national, democratic and human liberation" (p. 108).

The 'gentle' manifestation of colonialism and imperialism Ngugi calls the 'cultural bomb', which acts to "annihilate a people's belief in their names, their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples' languages rather than their own." (p. 3)

  • "African children who encountered literature in colonial schools and universities were thus experiencing the world as defined and reflected in the European experience of history. Their entire way of looking at the world, even the world of the immediate environment, was Eurocentric. Europe was the centre of the universe. The earth moved around the European intellectual scholarly axis. The images children encountered in literature were reinforced by their study of geography and history, and science and technology where Europe was, once again, the centre. This in turn fitted well with the cultural imperatives of British imperialism. In this book I have in fact tried to show how the economic control of the African people was effected through politics and culture." (p. 93)
  • "I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya – were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the languages of our daily humiliation and punishment. I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation." (p. 28)

What makes Ngugi a influential person is not just his words, but also his actions – this included engaging in community theatre to move beyond the bounds of academia as well as working to re-centre African languages and African literature in curricula. For his actions, he was imprisoned, barred from employment in Kenyan universities, experienced an attempted assassination, and had to live in exile for more than twenty years. It is also his self-critical approach to the question of language:

  • "The question is this: we as African writers have always complained about the neo-colonial economic and political relationship to Euro-America. Right. But by our continuing to write in foreign languages, paying homage to them, are we not on the cultural level of continuing that neo-colonial slavish and cringing spirit? What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages?" (p. 26).

For scholars and practitioners of international development, Ngugi presents a challenge well beyond educational policy and curriculum. His work should also challenge us to reflect upon the ways in which we replicate the enshrinement of foreign languages – languages not spoken by the people for who, or with whom, it is claimed that we work. As a bare minimum, we might ask, how many of our papers and reports are available in local languages? Ought not community members be given the opportunity to know what we have outlined in our proposals and reports, what we have found in the baseline and endline evaluations? Is neglecting to work in local languages disenfranchising the people we claim to be working to empower? In so doing, is it not the same paternalistic attitude of the self-determined 'experts' know best while community members are excluded? This does not even begin to grapple with the question of who ought to have the right to participate and who ought to decide what is done, where, for whom and why. Yet, even these bare minimum questions should be cause for serious reflection.

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Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few

Two of the prominent front runners of the US presidential election positions themselves as "anti-establishment" and campaigned to take away the power of the elites and return that power to the people. Reich's recent book "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few" (2015) took on many of the issues; essentially questions about democracy, power, law and justice. This book outlines what the rules that structure capitalism are, how they are used, and what impact they have. And, optimistically looks at how different rules better serve the majority.

Reich presents an accessible book, written for a non-expert audience, presenting how the 'rules of the game' of capitalism can benefit a powerful elite or the majority. And, it provides examples from the American context of how these struggles have been navigated in history. In general, the author presents a story of how the rules that govern corporate activity were adjusted to include the majority in the past (not always easily, but in the end). However, in the recent decades, these shifts / re-adjustments have not taken place. Inequality has rapidly risen, earnings (wages) have stagnated for average workers, and a minority of a minority has become extremely, unfathomably wealthy. "My solution" the author writes "and I am hardly along in suggesting this – has been an activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to get ahead, and redistributes to the needy… I've come to believe it overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs" (p. xii-xiii). The way forward: "the only way to reverse course it for the vast majority who now lack influence over the rules of the game to become organized and unified, in order to re-establish the countervailing power that was the key to widespread prosperity five decades ago" (p. xv).

Before delving into some of the specifics of Reich's arguments and evidence, based on the above summary I wish to make the following note: The author does an excellent job identifying the issues and providing concrete examples of what the rules of the game mean and how they are manipulated. While there are ideas about what new rules might look like, there are fewer ideas of how 'the people' will organize and unify to make change. Those that are presented (create/support third political parties, create/support unions) are ones that are difficult to establish because of the way the current system operates. For books that explore in greater detail how power can be disrupted and redistributed, one might read Green's (2016) How Change Happens or Alinsky's (1971) Rules for Radicals.

Throughout much of Reich's book, the author tries to break down the myth that the real issue is more/less government involved in the market. Rather, it is the rules that exist in either case. "The "free market" is a myth that prevents us from examining these rule changes and asking who they serve. The myth is therefore highly useful to those who do not wish such an examination to be undertaken. It is no accident that those with disproportionate influence over these rules, who are the largest beneficiaries of how the rules have been designed and adapted, are also among the most vehement supporters of the "free market" and the most ardent advocates of the relative superiority of the market over government. But the debate itself also serves their goal of distracting the public from the underlying realities of how the rules are generated and changed, their own power over this process, and the extent to which they gain from the results" (p. 6-7).

The book offers plenty of examples of how the rules of the game are rigged. I'll repeat one of them: "Monsanto has the distinction of spending more on lobbying – nearly $7 million in 2013 alone – than any other agribusiness. And Monsanto's former (and future) employees frequently inhabit top posts at the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, they staff congressional committees that deal with agriculture policy, and they become advisors to congressional leaders and the White House. Two Monsanto lobbyists are former congressman Vic Fazio and former senator Blanche Lincoln. Even Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was at one time an attorney for Monsanto. Monsanto, like any new monopoly, has strategically used its economic power to gain political power and used its political power to entrench its market power" (p. 35-36).

The problem is a shift of who has power, and the solution is re-shifting that power. Reich writes: "The underlying problem, then, is not that average working Americans are "worth" less in the market than they had been, or that they have been living beyond their means. The problem is that they have steadily lost the bargaining power needed to receive as large a portion of the economy's gains as they commanded in the first three decades after World War II" (p. 131). "The essential challenge" therefore "is political rather than economic. It is impossible to reform an economic system whose basic rules are under the control of an economic elite without altering the allocation of political power that lies behind that control" (p. 168). The book ends with:

"The coming challenge is not to technology or to economics. It is a challenge to democracy. The critical debate for the future is not about the size of government; it is about who government is for. The central choice is not between the "free market" and the government; it is between a market organized for broadly based prosperity and one designed to deliver almost all the gains to a few at the top. The pertinent issue is not how much is to be taxed away from the wealthy and redistributed to those who are not; it is how to design the rules of the market so that the economy generates what most people would consider a fair distribution on its own, without necessitating large redistributions after the fact. The vast majority of the nation's citizens do have the power to alter the rules of the market to meet their needs. But to exercise that power, they must understand what is happening and where their interests lie, and they must join together. We have done so before. If history is any guide and common sense has any sway, we will do so again." (p. 219)

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Orientalism

Few books have been as widely read and cited as Orientalism (1978) by Edward Said. Reading Orientalism now, it is hard to understand its importance because so many of Said's ideas have become part of a broader cultural and post-colonial critiques. Despite its influence, in a 2003 Preface, the author writes: "The disheartening part is that the more the critical study of cultural shows us that this is the case, the less influence such a view seems to have, and the more territorially reductive polarizations like "Islam v. the West" seem to conquer" (p. xxiii). More people understand the message, but it appears to carry less weight. One may disagree with the book, or specific points made within it, but it should be on everyone's essential reading list.

Said writes of a deep history wherein the study of others – specifically Arabs and Muslims – has entrenched ideas of superiority, and for centuries portrayed Arabs and Muslims as lesser than human, irrational, evil. "These contemporary Orientalist attitudes flood the press and the popular mind. Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose underserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being" (p. 108). Importantly, these portrayals are means of self-definition – what "they" are, and what "we" are not; what "we" are, and what "they" are not. Said begins his book in stating that the "Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience (p. 1-2).

At its core, this is a book not about portrayal of others, it is a book about what that portrayal means when the individual, group, nation or Empire conveying it has power and authority. "There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it established canons of tastes and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgements it forms, transmits, reproduces. Above all, authority can, indeed must, by analyzed" (p. 19-20). That power and authority, in the realm of ideas, can be reinforcing: "If one reads a book claiming that lions are fierce and then encounters a fierce lion (I simplify, of course), the changes are that one will be encourages to read more books by that same author, and believe them" (p. 93)

In the portrayal of others, Said argues, there is something more than incorrect information. These portrayals of others as lesser than human serves a purpose, it is a tactic and a tool that is intentionally utilized: "My whole point about this system is not that it is a misinterpretation of some Oriental essence – in which I do not for a moment believe – but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting. In other words, representations have purposes, they are effective much of the time, they accomplish one or many tasks" (p. 273). Consider the author's assessment of Arabs and Muslims in the media – and recall that this is Said writing in 1978, not 2016:

"the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. He appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low. Slave trader, camel driver, moneychanger, colorful scoundrel: these are some traditional Arab roles in the cinema. The Arab leader (of marauders, pirates, "native" insurgents) can often be seen snarling at the captured Western hero and the blond girl (both of them steeped in wholesomeness), "My men are going to kill you, but – they like to amuse themselves before." He leers suggestively as he speaks: this is a current debasement of Valentino's Sheik. In newsreels or newsphotos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world. Books and articles are regularly published on Islam and the Arabs that represent absolutely no change over the virulent anti-Islamic polemics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance" (p. 286-287).

In the 2003 Preface Said speaks of a responsibility – not of one's choosing but of "force of circumstance" – of those who cross boundaries and can transmit and translate ideas between worlds: "For those of us who by force of circumstance actually live the pluri-cultural life as it entails Islam and the West, I have long felt that a special intellectual and moral responsibility attaches to what we do as scholars and intellectuals. Certainly, I think it is incumbent upon us to complicate and/or dismantle the reductive formulae and the abstract but potent kind of thought that leads the mind away from concrete human history and experience and into the realms of ideological fiction, metaphysical confrontation, and collective passion" (p. xxiii).

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Pathologies of Power

Paul Farmer's (2005) "Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor" is a "physician-anthropologist's effort to reveal the ways in which the most basic right – the right to survive – is trampled in an age of great affluence" (p. 6). However, Farmer covers much more than the right to survive, this book "is about the struggle for social and economic rights, the neglected stepchildren of the human rights movement. Because social and economic rights include the right to health care, housing, clean water, and education, they are sometimes called the "the rights of the poor."' (p. xxiv). It is highly recommended for academics and practitioners, and I also highly recommend Farmer's book Infections and Inequalities.

For those new to development studies, academics who assume development practitioners are non-reflexive positivists, and for practitioners looking to be more critical of the processes within international development, Farmer's books are essential reads. In the opening pages he sets the tone: "It was not the silence that rankled. It seemed to us that the exercise was demeaning – the participants, having survived genocide and displacement, were now being treated like children. They were being asked to respond to an agenda imported from capital cities, from do-gooder organizations like ours, from U.S. universities with the "right" answers to their every question. No harm done, perhaps, and the topic was important – but how helpful was this exercise, with its aim of changing the mentality of the locals, who were, after all, the victims of the previous decades of violence? A change in mentality was needed, certainly, but it was needed in the hearts and minds of those with power – and they were not here" (p. 3-4).

It is not just the 'others' with power; as a physician, Farmer writes that many "physicians are uncomfortable acknowledging these harsh facts of life and death. To do so, one must admit that the majority of premature deaths are, as the Haitians would say, "stupid deaths." They are completely preventable with the tools already available to the fortunate few" (p. 144). Yet, it is not simply more "development" that is required: "Developmentalism not only erases the historical creation of poverty but also implies that development is necessarily a linear process: progress will inevitably occur if the right steps are followed. Yet any critical assessment of the impact of such approaches must acknowledge their failure to help the poor" (p. 155)

Weaved throughout the book, Farmer expresses his concern with a changing set of norms and values: from rights, respect and dignity to costs and value for money. He writes: "many of the concepts currently in vogue in public health – from "cost-effectiveness" to "sustainability" and "replicability" - are likely to be perverted unless social justice remains central to public health and medicine. A human rights approach to health economics and health policy helps to bring into relief the ill effects of the efficacy-equity trade-off" (p. 18). This view is not just challenged as an opinion, but as an affront to the practice of health care: "the flabby moral relativism of our times would have us believe that we may now choose from a broad menu of approaches to delivering effective health care services to the poor. This is simply not true. Whether you are sitting in a clinic in rural Haiti, and this witness to stupid deaths from infection, or sitting in an emergency room in a U.S. city, and this the provider of first resort for forty million uninsured, you must acknowledge that the commodification of medicine invariably punishes the vulnerable" (p. 152). This book was published in 2005, and parts published earlier, and Farmer foresaw a challenge that has grown (while also shifting names from cost-effectiveness to value for money, to assessments of quality-adjusted life years, and as metrics in results and impact reporting): "As international health experts come under the sway of the bankers and their curiously bounded utilitarianism, we can expect more and more of our services to be declared "cost-ineffective" and more of our patients to be erased. In declaring health and health care to be a human right, we join forces with those who have long labored to protect the rights and dignity of the poor" (p. 159).

For those who work with marginalized and vulnerable people, who voices are excluded, it is challenging to convey experiences to others. In Farmer's earlier book Infections and Inequalities he used vignettes of people's lives as an attempt. In this end, however, "the experience of suffering, it's often noted, is not effectively conveyed by statistics or graphs. In fact, the suffering of the world's poor intrudes only rarely into the consciousness of the affluent, even when our affluence may be shown to have direct relation to their suffering. This is true even when spectacular human rights violations are at issue, and it is even more true when the topic at hand is the everyday violation of social and economic rights" (p. 31). It is both a depressing conclusion – the reality of a lack of concern – and a call to action. The systems that create and entrench poverty, as well as those that ignore suffering when plan to see, will continue lest things change, and change necessitates informed, critical engagement.

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Logan Cochrane

logan.cochrane@gmail.com

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