Unforeseeable repercussions of our thoughts- a postcolonial impression
A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.
-John Stuart Mill
I recently had a conversation with a friend regarding the lynchings that have plagued our country and the fallout of it. We ended our conversation on a question, will we have an impact in history or will end up as a footnote. Will our generation be known for it silence when the people were being killed because of their attire or will be we the tide that will turn the whole society for the better? My thoughts for the next few days revolved around how many times in history has a person been framed or known for a lot different reasons and things that he hadn’t necessarily done. We leave footprints in the history, no matter how small, it is still of concern especially if we can cause harm in the longer run to a culture. To understand the impact of the past, we will analyse two incidents of the past. Incidents where seemingly harmless theories by philosophers were used to meet exploitative ends.
The rise of the mercantile class from the 16th century onwards led to the increase of the wealth and influx of money to their nation states. It corresponded to an age of extensive exploration and discovery which primarily crystallised in the form of the discovery of the New World and the sea route to the Orient. These two things became the driving force of the economy and political policies of the European powers from the 16th century onwards. During the initial stages of the discovery of the New World, there was an influx of gold and silver bullion to their respective states. This led to a sudden boom in the economy, especially those of Britain, Holland, France and Spain. There were more jobs now, the establishment of trade companies led to more opportunities for both poor and rich. The new class of merchants became the new middle class, the nobility then was forced to recognise this class as they became dependent upon them for goods and trade. This was the first generation of the class we now call Bourgeoisie. Now the overland trade to the Orient was minimal due to wars being waged against the Ottoman. This meant that the merchants were in a major position of power, something which was unheard of hitherto.
The New World was a land of opportunities for the Europeans. The laws of Europe did not apply here and this meant a certain level of freedom for the colonisers. The degree of ignorance at which the Europeans operated in the 17th century was staggeringly high, they were completely convinced of their racial superiority. Our generation has come to realise the importance of cultural relativity and how the failure of not having similar customs does not mean that it was absent in the first place. Such a thing was incomprehensible in early modern Europe. Europeans in the 17th century failed to realise that the lack of similar customs and ideals did not mean that it was absent. This thought led to the extinction of many cultures all over the world. White guilt and the idea behind it is considered to be too harsh, but have they ever apologised for disappearing those thousands of Native Americans tribes and enslaving African? Even the Civil Rights movement was met with opposition. White guilt is basically the Whites realising the kind of atrocious things that they did in the past and to absolve themselves of the guilt, they talk about it. Certain sections of the American society refuse to talk about this, as they believe that the actions which was taken by the settlers was completely justified. From the White Man’s burden to the White guilt, the world has come a long way in the past 400 years. The Colonial era was a time of flux and chaos. It was a race between the nations to colonise as much area as possible and use it to generate profit. This led to most of the nations to disregard certain elements of the ethical code of conduct in exchange for financial and economic benefits.
All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.
-John Locke in the Second Treatise of Civil Government.
Locke in his book, Two Treatises of the Government, proposed the theory of State of Nature, in which he mentions a point in history where, in a society, there were no rules, no social contract, no state structure, no property ownership as such he talks about the primordial form of anarchy. This idea was used as a thought exercise in the universities and intellectual safe spaces to understand the nature of barbarians and society might come into being. The State of Nature was a Darwinian paradise, which stated that only the strongest and most adaptive could survive and procreate. The Locke is considered to one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment era, being considered the Father of Liberalism. What is not known is that this same theory was used by the colonisers of North America. Holland, Britain and others were generating huge revenues from these areas, but they were faced with a problem which hindered their drive to generate revenue. Those regions already had people living on them. The Native Americans did not have the same concept of institutions as the Europeans had. For instance, some tribes were nomadic in nature as such they moved around during seasons, the route which they took or the places where they stopped for grazing were part of their designated lands, but for the Europeans, such a thing did not make sense. Cultural relativity was a concept that was not yet understood or even known for that matter. The Europeans had not realised that the failure of similar structure did not mean the absence of it completely. For the Europeans, the Native Americans did not have any concept of land settlement because for them proper utilisation meant settlement of people on a plot of land for long periods of time. This was interpreted by the Europeans as Natives not having any concept of land ownership. This is where Locke’s State of Nature came into play. The alleged lack of state structure meant that the white man’s burden reasoning to come up. This led to genocide, mass executions, displacement of communities and gendered labor. There was no concept of prisoner of war in this era and for them. For the British, these people were not equals and hence will never be given the status of prisoner of wars as such privileges were reserved for only other Europeans.
The Europeans were convinced at the rationale that their culture is universally grounded and applicable which when confronted with a different culture, saw them as justifiably exploitable. This exploitation took many forms, one of which was gendered labour. Men were forced into labour and women were coerced into being housemaids, they were then denied access to lands which have been their right since birth. Locke further reinstated the idea of nature of state in those regions by proclaiming it to the masses saying that if there is not rule of law and they are open for exploitation. Locke’s State of Nature was as some scholars put it “ a sanitised intellectual racism that colonial European used in their expansionist policies.” The desire of the colonisers was never to seek equality for the natives. Rather for them, it was like the waterhole of resources, except the animals respected the waterhole enough to not destroy and the colonisers didn’t. For them, there was the absence of culture which could only be fulfilled by teaching them basics of the Civilisation.
I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.
-John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill is most famously known for his thoughts on Liberty. But except for those who have read Mill outside their political science courses, very few know of his thoughts on Utility. Mill’s thoughts on utility weren’t strictly philosophical neither was it completely economic. Like Locke, his philosophical thoughts were used in a manner to maximise profits. Before coming to Mill’s contribution to the murder of a culture, we need to understand the picture of the Indian Education in India before Macaulay wrote the Minute on Education(1835). Indian education was a primarily one where children were taught things relevant to the society they lived in. Education before the age of the Company consisted of two primary kinds, one where kids of the village would gather under a tree and learn the basics of math, science and society from the local teacher. The school would start from dawn and go up to late morning and then a small break where they would go back home and help their parents out with chores and then in the afternoon they would come back to continue. School back then meant a place for discussion and deliberation. The other kind was where a local teacher would come to the house and teach them, it was usually for the rich families such as zamindars. These were the traditional manner in which they people were educated in India prior to the entry of the East India Company.
Mill was an ardent follower of Utilitarianism as he was taught by Bentham and his father, James Mill, both of them renowned for their utilitarian ideals. He believed that only when an individual achieved the greatest happiness level will he be fully effective in his functioning in society. He was home-schooled by his father and Bentham, as such, he was taught to learn and further their school of thought. He was denied the right to study in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge due to his atheistic leanings, which is why he joined the East India Company at a young age of 17. He stayed on till the abolishment of the company in 1858. Mill propagated the idea of utility when he was part of the company. This was a time when the stance of the company was changing, as such, they took a utilitarian garb. This corresponded with the Minute on Education by Macaulay. It was then decided to abolish the rudimentary modes of education as it did not satisfy the Company’s needs. The Company needed profits which will only come from the obedience of the system and not by questioning it. They taught thousands of Indian youngsters the charms of the British way and the ideas behind it. How they were superior and were there to help them out by teaching. Mill was a follower of Bentham’s school, as such, he also believed in the theories of greatest-happiness principle. Here is the funny thing, Mill only applied the utility principle for the Company. He left out the part where he did not consider the happiness of the millions of Indians. The Company wanted to maximise their profit and they knew that to do this they had to get rid of the liberal educational trends. Their educations focused more on rote learning and clubbing of thoughts by not letting them be open to discussion. The introduction of a common and unified textbook system began. Yet again the Europeans were so sure of their culture that they refused to accept the ideas of the Indian system. He went on to further support the British imperialist policies by saying that India and China were once great nations but due to its stagnant economy and deplorable state of affairs, the British were there to only help them out. He called this Benevolent Despotism.
These might seem unrelated events and ideas, but what we haven’t yet realised the impact it had in our current society. The education of India still works around rote and mass production rather than a proper learning algorithm. the education system of India has such a point that students can no longer debate or discuss matters freely because of the fear of being call dissident. Rote learning has become such an intricate part of our system that we still can’t get rid of it. The impact of philosophical thoughts on the society in the long term is something that can’t be felt right away. But we can realise the basic problem behind a thought, can’t we? The Native Americans are still regarded as second-grade citizens and as such, they are not given basic rights. Still oppressed and struggling to get the recognition they deserve. They still only employed as helpers in most cases. The Thanksgiving Day is one of the most repressive festivals in the world.
Will we still believe that our wrongdoings will be forgiven in a few decades? Did we forget that the Nazi party was also widely accepted and thanked for their initial contribution to the economy and polity? Wasn’t Napoleon also received by the masses of the countries of his initial campaigns? Or are we too scared to compare ourselves to the National Socialist Party? Or maybe are we too proud that we think that we cannot repeat the same mistakes? Have come to a point of history that we won’t accept the idea of someone outside our customs? Are we being coerced into believing that every other sect of the human race is vulgar? Is this not what the whites during the expansionist era? Are the world historians as forgiving as the Ganges that washes away our sins that they will disregard our crimes? Will they be forgiving in the textbooks of our children?