It doesn’t really come as a surprise that Trinity College was involved in some shady business back in the days of British imperialism. As a result, Trinity recently launched a two-year–long investigation into the historic links the University possesses to slavery and colonialism, with former president Mary McAleese on the board of directors for the project. For example, one of Trinity’s most celebrated alumni, George Berkely, an Anglo-Irish philosopher is known to have participated in the slave trade. The motivation to this, according to Provost Patrick Prendergast, has been the current Black Lives Matter debates, and the public recognition for Trinity’s role in exporting colonial ideologies and the slave trade. While this is a step in the right direction and should be applauded for that, a simple tip of the hat to your colonial past is not good enough. Universities across the world are actively decolonising their curriculums and Trinity should follow suit.
You might be asking yourself the fairly justifiable question, “hang on a second, why are we still harping on about colonialism and slavery, they ended ages ago?” The ideas that underpin a lot of the statue–toppling and decolonising this or that we’re witnessing around the world comes from post-colonial theory. For the sake of brevity, we can broadly understand post-colonial theory to be critical of the coercive and oppressive power structures that remain in place even after the physical presence of colonial powers had gone. Power, understood through this lens, goes beyond any ideas of military, political, economic and the material; a focus is largely placed on culture and knowledge, or, more specifically in the case of Trinity, the production of knowledge. Widely popularised by sub-altern scholars like Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Gayatri Spivak, it is important to get to grips with the ideas put forward if Trinity are actually going to decolonise the University.
The ideas and assumptions that ground most modern–day, mainstream, political, economic, scientific, and social theories have their roots in the historical period of colonialism.
“Edward Said argues that ideas cannot be understood without their configurations to power also being understood; basically, people are never really entirely removed from the influences of the cultural, political and social practices of their time.”
The ideas that were generated during the time of colonialism do retain their traces to it, explicitly or otherwise. So, whether we’re looking at neoliberal microeconomics, liberal feminism, or even biology, the power structures in place at the time that these ideas were developed are influenced by colonial relations. On top of that, the production of knowledge primarily happened within institutions that were either directly or indirectly linked to systems of colonial oppression – a là Trinity College.
I’ve been studying in the UK the past year, any conversations with people from the UK I’ve had about colonialism in Ireland are usually embellished by statements like “I never knew it was that bad” or “We never learned about this in school”. Whether intentional or not, the history curriculum of former colonizers melts into this blissful ignorance and perceived cultural and scholarly supremacy. This is also the case with what we might call a “colonial amnesia” that is inherent in a lot of the social sciences. The underdevelopment caused by colonial expansion is, by and large, ignored in orthodox development theory. For example, the three dominant theories of the cause of poverty today – institutional economics, geographic causes, and global market integration – all skim over the impact of colonialism on developing countries.
Another vital aspect of post-colonial theory is that power is also derived from the ability of the colonizer to represent or know the colonial subject. Said and Spivak argue that the production of knowledge of the colonial subject was carried out by agents of colonialism and their institutions. This removes the agency of colonised peoples to represent themselves, and instead we see a false binary created between the civilised colonisers and the ‘savages’ that were colonised. This served as the ideological justification for the liberal period of colonialism under the guise of the “White Man’s Burden”. Alberto Quijano calls this the “hegemonic mind”, a form of Eurocentric racism that developed during colonialism and still persists today.
This theory does not exist in abstract isolation. The ideological remnants and power structures of the colonial period are pervasive in affecting the material conditions of billions of the most marginalised and oppressed people. Discourse and social practice are co-constitutive. What we learn, read, chat about or binge on Netflix shapes our understanding of the world and what we perceive to be true. This truth shapes and is shaped by our actions. The freedom to produce knowledge and culture allows people to define themselves. Irish liberation from colonial oppression was both violent and political but many would argue that the success of this would not have happened without the cultural revival that occurred simultaneously.
“If a people only see their identity as a subjugated sub-class, how can they imagine themselves free of tyranny and oppression.”
If in academia, Western knowledge has hegemony, cognitively or not, we infer a truth that Western thinking and/or people are somehow superior to those in the Global South. This process actively erodes the agency, legitimacy and autonomy of culture and the production of knowledge in the Global South. The process of decolonisation is to unlearn the social constructs and essentialised racism that were imposed during the colonial period. The result of this process is the relative autonomy of former colonies to produce their own knowledge and represent themselves – a reinstatement of their agency, right to self-determination and their intrinsic value as human beings.
With this in mind, Trinity’s new research programme is laudable but ultimately it falls short of the mark. The BLM debates are about more than just an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, active dismantling of colonial power structures is needed – including critical analysis of the ideas that we take for granted. You might turn around and say that it is simply daft to completely dismiss any ideas that were generated during this time, but that’s not what the decolonising movement wants. We don’t need to throw out the babies with the bathwater. In my opinion, it’s far more beneficial to supplement students’ understanding with sources that come from outside of the colonial legacy, and empowering those in former colonies to produce their own knowledge and represent themselves. It also generates a deeper understanding of the practices of imperialism that still exist today, and offers viable alternatives that can be generated in the Global North and the Global South to counter it.