Decolonise Your Self-Perception Is Liberalism an Agent of Suppression?

Is Liberalism an Agent of Suprression?
© picture alliance/PPE

Who is chatting?

Hengameh Yaghoobifarah (journalist), Atreyee Majumder (anthropologist) and Dina Makram-Ebeid (sociologist) discuss with you how people, governments and societies come to understand themselves as liberal. The experts debate about how this self-image is constitutive of a perceived superiority and power over other cultures – and they reflect on how we can dismantle this dichotomy.

Concept and further authors: Regine Hader, Elisa Jochum

 
On WhatsApp and Telegram #DecoloniseYourLife ends on 7.12.2019. Here you can continue to follow all chats, and discuss with us.
  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Hey everyone! I’m happy to moderate our weekly chat today. We want to discuss the colonial continuity of the Western self-image as being further developed and thus more liberal than other countries. Western societies are based on constructed dualities. There can only be a “West” if there is an “East”, and this division works best if these two poles are framed as opposites. While the West likes to think of itself as liberal in terms of women’s and LGBTI rights, the vast violence against these very groups is made invisible in Europe and North America. Femicides, hate crimes, structural and institutional discrimination against women and LGBTI people – but also against Black people, Indigenous people and People of Color – are deeply rooted in Western societies, reaching from colonialism until now. While the West is busy keeping up its liberal image to make itself come off as superior to the global South, reactionary and right-wing politicians make their way into parliaments, becoming a threat to democratic and liberal values. At the same time, the struggles of women and queers from the global South are being erased as the West frames them as victims of underdeveloped societies. How can we avoid the arrogant self-image of the West and its interdependent colonial gaze on societies in the global South?

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    We can begin by teaching non-Western thought in schools and universities. We are teaching various value systems which are perpetuating this arrogance in our thought laboratories.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    This is a hard question because the roots of such discrimination are economic and political. I think it’s crucial to discuss what this colonial gaze serves and then think about how to resist that.

    But I also agree with Atreyee: some things also depend on how we teach people certain thoughts and values from the beginning. 

    I worry that changing the texts we read without challenging the economic structures of education can make these texts almost exotic and could be a bit like paying lip service to the idea that the West is decolonising itself.

  • GI What exactly is "liberalism"?

    Liberalism promotes the freedom of the individual and regards it as the highest good of society. In contrast to socialism and conservatism, which have also shaped Europe since the 18th and 19th centuries, political freedom vis-à-vis a state power is at the core of liberalism and appears more important than, for example, social equality.
     
    It is particularly interesting for today's debate how two types of liberalism intersect: political liberalism, which nowadays stands for freedom of life in sexual, religious and legal respects and opposes the regulation of personal and social conditions; and economic liberalism, which demands market freedom as this market – this is the premise – regulates itself. Liberalism does not believe in measures or regulations that can reverse imbalances, create justice or security, but in the fact that societies and markets, if they have enough freedom, solve their own problems.
     
    Today we want to shed light on how, in a narrative of progress, individual historical achievements of liberalism are used to justify oppressive and paternalist behaviour toward other cultures. Since liberalism rejects clear-cut regulations, the lack of freedom and the power relations that it produces – for example, hierarchies based on how liberal cultures are perceived to be – are particularly difficult to dismantle, even if they contradict the fundamental liberal idea of individual freedom.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    The West is also not the actual West anymore. Greek and Roman civilisations are nowadays not the dominant voices in the West. Come to think of it, the West today derives its dominance from the last two or three centuries.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    I’m teaching the text that Audre Lorde wrote to Mary Daly years ago in the book This Bridge Called My Back. Lorde was telling Daly that it wasn’t enough mentioning her writings. She needed to engage with herself as a person and with the entire worldview she was suggesting.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    How can we change the economic power structures without drifting into white saviourism?

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    A first step could be returning land to the various indigenous communities that are being vaguely aesthetised but which do not receive their economic and political dues.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    I mostly think that we must simply ask from where this view of the liberal colonial gaze is coming. It often emerges because people in the global North see people in the global South either as in need of saving – and, hence, feel the need to load so many loans and debts onto them, as was the case after the Arab Spring in most countries – or as terrorists that we need to discipline and educate. In turn, the West uses these cultural stereotypes as a justification for so many actual economic and political interventions. Both are, of course, problematic but both serve structural purposes that people need to resist (they need to resist the involuntary indebtedness to certain countries and the specific political interventions, e.g., such aiming to stop immigration). Such action can more firmly root the question of how to change values in structural shifts.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    Think of a class in philosophy that teaches Chinese, Indian and indigenous philosophies as its base, and then brings in French and German stuff. It would reorient students entirely.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    @Atreyee and your comment on returning land: Yess!! Exactly, and stop forcing loans tied to economic conditions on people and stop building immigrant prisons in the global South to deter people from coming to the West. Our reference to this while we talk about decolonising our values means that we are already aware that these values don’t just emerge out of nothing. The colonial gaze on which these values are based justifies so much more violence.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    Absolutely. The economic and political arrangements support the arrogance of the Western gaze.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Very important remarks, thank you!
    Many of the required steps would have to happen on a larger scale, namely on a governmental base. With all the right-wing parties in the EU parliament, this seems unrealistic for now. Can we start on a lower scale, for example, in queer, feminist and leftist communities?

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    I think another register of action can be the media – independent and large media.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    Yeah, totally, but I think queers, feminists and leftists should also combine the lower scale with the bigger scale. The bigger scale is not only for governments, otherwise I worry that we are just pushed to do liberal things that don’t address structural issues. I don’t want to sound dogmatic; I just think the things queers, feminists and leftists do on immigrant representations and rights are crucial to saying: look, people, we can talk about each other as equals and not as beings we want to change into people “like us”.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    These factions are doing great work in changing discourse. But their actions can easily be cast as marginal.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    State institutions and organisations that work on international relations could maybe take on some responsibilities as well?

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    Absolutely, and this should also be galvanised. It’s not enough to say we need to treat others as equals and stop seeing ourselves as saviours.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Yes! The idea of being more developed was also the historical justification for deciding the fates of other cultures. It legitimised, on the one hand, the exploitation of what colonialists perceived as “less civilised” people and, on the other hand, a White-saviour narrative.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    I think those who wish to really make a change could also push to reflect these values in actions, for instance, taking responsibility for plundering the resources of countries, etc. I think, for example, of the work some Scandinavian countries have done in acknowledging their contribution to odious deeds. This, to me, is being accountable. If you want to be de-colonial, you need to be accountable.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    I don’t think it’s about treating each other as equals. I would say the major thrust of decolonisation lies in changing the set of dominant assumptions about the world.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    Therefore, I worry sometimes about changing the curriculum to include non-Western readings in places where the majority of those who teach are still white. Or where job tenure requires publishing in Western journals and where researchers can’t consider publishing in other languages. Unfortunately, some merely use this change of the curriculum to pay lip service to efforts of decolonisation.

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    The non-West also carries the responsibility to establish strong institutions which would carry out the project of decolonisation. I say this as public universities in India are suffering under the current government.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    Yes, absolutely. I totally hear you on how that becomes a real issue under our governments as well. But it is also still a responsibility of ours.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Thank you for your thoughts!

  • Reader Question from a reader

    Salaam, I am happy to be part of this conversation your names are Persian, like mine, that is very interesting. Is this discussion also about Iran or is this just a coincidence?

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Hey! No, it‘s just a coincidence! What I know is that it is way harder to travel with an Iranian passport than it is with a German one – in terms of visa and racial profiling. As regards arrogance, I don‘t know as I never lived there. I guess the idea of Europe as superior is partly internalised and partly questioned there.

  • Reader Question from a reader

    Why do you mix the usage of the terms West and global South and what are “western societies”

  • Dr Atreyee Majumder Atreyee Majumder

    The West is a political formation that dominates the rest. It’s not so much the opposition between East and West as it is a relationship between the West and the rest.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Because if we use West vs the global South, it is more specific than saying White people – each society has their own White people.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    I think the West and the global South are still very rough and not very accurate ways to describe what at some point was called the First and Third World (or at the time of dependency, theorists more accurately spoke of the Centre and Periphery). So it is valid to ask: why do we use these terms? After all, it begs the question: South of what and West of what? Though, given just the general acceptance of these terms and the fact that they have come to symbolise important political inequalities, I revert to them.

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    A first step is to make room for people from the South, in a spiritual/philosophical/political way as well. Professors, curators, etc. can talk beautifully however much they want about the causes of the "misery" of Southern countries, but, in the end, they are only satisfying their WhiteSaviourComplex™. Cultural leaders and educators (i.e., professors, teachers, artistic directors, etc.) from these regions must get positions here. On the one hand, in order to achieve representation, and on the other hand, so that their points of view are distributed... (in the absence of a better word) as well and thus become firmly established in the long run.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    I agree. As I mentioned earlier in our discussion, I think the talk about the decolonisation of education and of values is very unhelpful without a reflection on the structural meanings of this. What does it mean to decolonise the curriculum when most of the faculty is White and the hiring/promotion criteria do not reflect the broad spectrum of experiences of people? So this is a start. Of course, at the end, those who get hired in Western academies are the elite intellectuals/artists from the global South and there need to be broader agendas to make knowledge more widespread and decolonial. But your suggestion is a good start!

  • Reader Question from a reader

    I think the most important thing to do to approach any kind of action is to develop an awareness of structural racism.
    This means that de-mystification and a constant presence of the issue in all circles of society. What do you think?

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    Before culture creators come to "the West", I think it would also be important to establish cultural centres outside Europe in order to stir up the Eurocentric cultural landscape and initiate a postcolonial discourse in the world.

  • Reader Question from a reader

    How can non-western universities develop their own, decolonised curricula?

  • Reader Question from a reader

    In these discussions I often read the argument that "the West" should stay out of the affairs of "the South/East". But wouldn't that include, for example, accepting or tolerating totalitarian regimes? After all, democracy is also a western/Greek system...?

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    The biggest difference is that European countries have colonised places that are not on the European continent. The Americas were colonised in a different way: the indigenous communities still live in the same countries today as the descendants of the colonisers. Of course, this creates other dynamics in society and makes it difficult to find an EU comparison.
    The adherence to “Western values”, however, takes place both in North America and in EU countries. That is to what I am referring.