Why We Should Not Demonize Oppressors (For the Sake of the Oppressed)

There is a trend in the Cultural Left which bothers me. It is the fashion of painting “the Western, White, European world” as bad and “the Indiginous cultures and First Peoples” as good. My problem is not only that it gives an over-simplified account of the colonizing culture, but that (what I wish to focus on) it is not even a healthy representation of the colonized.

When we act like the pre-colonial cultures of Native Americans and Africans were utopian paradises, we are merely reverting to the stereotype of the “noble savage” rather than seeing them as fully-human. As an example of healthy representation, take the work of Achebe, often considered the father of modern African literature because of the way he truly and authentically represented Africa and African people. Achebe wrote against the stereotypical image that all Africans were savage and inhuman. However, Achebe did not fight against this racism by portraying all Africans as perfect angels. Most famously, Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart often beats his wife and children — hardly something a perfect angel would do. The question is, why would Achebe write Okonkwo this way? His answer was, because he wanted his story to be “real” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHF_w0gkyiI). The fact is that nobody is all good or all evil. Human beings are morally complex. That means that if we view a people as all good or all evil, we are portraying them as non-human.

Furthermore, there is even the (perhaps unconscious or unintentional) insinuation that the reason colonialism was bad was only because the colonized cultures were actually good; that is, if the Native Americans had really been “problematic”, then their eradication would not have been any great loss. By positioning the moral status of colonialism as dependent on the “quality” of the erased culture, we are merely playing into the game the colonizer wants us to play. When the colonizer asserts that “If our culture is better, then we have the right to subjugate theirs” we should not play by their rules, by arguing that their culture is actually worse; we should instead reject their logic outright and say that “No culture has the right to subjugate any other culture — period”.

I do not mean to suggest in this essay that there is nothing we should learn from or respect about Native Americans, Africans, and other colonized peoples. For example, the acceptance and incorporation of “Two-Spirits” (i.e. transgender people) within Native American tribes is admirable and worthy of imitation. But we should not from this alone conclude that Native Americans were perfect people or that Native American culture was perfectly good. Additionally, just because Western culture has traditionally oppressed transgender people (which, to be absolutely clear, is a grave injustice), we should not paint all of Western culture as inherently evil. We should be critical of injustice in whatever culture we find it.

CWR

“Thinking is the best way to travel”