Bite Your Tongue

10 May 2024
Bite Your Tongue - Featured image

British academic Doug Stokes’ latest book suggests the decolonisation movement makes itself look ridiculous by poking its tongue out at the West, writes IPA Research Fellow Lana Starkey.

Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West
Doug Stokes
Polity, 2023,
208pp

Writing in The Nation in 1997, American author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich and then ethnology graduate student Janet McIntosh relayed social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth’s recent experience at an interdisciplinary seminar on emotions. Ellsworth began her talk with a social history of psychological approaches to the topic and praised the virtues of the experimental method. Hands immediately shot up. The experimental method, audience members insisted, was “the brainchild of white Victorian males”. Acknowledging this, and that they “had done their share of damage in the world”, she patiently pointed out that the experimental method had led to, among other things, the discovery of DNA. The short-lived dialogue between paradigms ground to a halt. The audience was aghast: “You believe in DNA?”

For Ehrenreich and McIntosh this anecdote reflected a trend in anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies toward a ‘new secular creationism’ whereby biology was being sacrificed at the altar of ‘culture’. While this had begun in the 1970s as neo-Marxist and behaviourist theories of the tabula rasa, and quickly became the rallying cry of feminists in an apparent defence of freedom against the iron chains of nature, Ehrenreich and McIntosh argued it had found new and more radical legs with the arrival of intellectual movements lumped under the term ‘postmodernism’:

Postmodernist perspectives go beyond a critique of the misuses of biology to offer a critique of biology itself, extending to all of science and often to the very notion of rational thought.

Noting that the theory rejected the idea of any innate human traits and fixated on ‘power’ as the only force limiting human freedom, Ehrenreich and McIntosh surmised that “Glibly applied, postmodernism portrays evolutionary theory as nothing more than a sexist and racist storyline created by Western white men”.

For Ehrenreich and McIntosh this new climate of intolerance was not only ill-suited to an academic tradition rhetorically committed to human freedom, it also provided “intellectual backup for a political outlook that sees no real basis for common ground among humans of different sexes, race and cultures”. First, they came for the biologists. One now wonders if in 1997 they could have known just how glibly, and indeed, radically, postmodernism would come to be applied.

Decolonisation theory attacks academe itself.

We now live in an intellectual climate where the anti-liberal ‘political outlook’ observed with trepidation back then by Ehrenreich and McIntosh has morphed into something far more pernicious; where objective truth and empirical investigation are not only ‘Western constructs’ to be dismissed or ‘storylines’ that are optional ideas, but harmful ‘ways of knowing’ that the West has imposed on the rest of the world by a process akin to the colonial conquest of the past four centuries. This is the contention at the heart of the most egregious offshoot of postmodernism to date—decolonisation theory—and nowhere is it more pronounced than in the hallowed halls of universities.

While postmodern perspectives were once just that—perspectives that are part of a larger discussion at academic seminars—decolonisation theory attacks academe itself. Universities, seen as ‘historically deeply imbricated in the colonial project’ and a site of ‘Eurocentric knowledge systems’ must be ‘decolonised’ for their sins. The result is that there is now a syllogism seemingly accepted across university departments that in its most crude form runs something like this: Western knowledge is a product of colonialism; colonialism is an evil to be opposed; therefore, Western knowledge must be opposed.

We do not have to go far to see this new orthodoxy in play. Curtin University provides its staff with a series of decolonisation shibboleths in its guide on ‘approaches to Decolonising [your] curriculum and research’, and across the pond Māori folklore is now to be treated as if it were as scientifically valid as the body of empirical knowledge that everywhere else is called science. This is part of a revised New Zealand school syllabus, and although the attack on truth and the decolonisation movement has its roots in academe, it has germinated and spread to schools and indeed to a large number of our institutions.

In his latest book, Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West, British academic Doug Stokes examines decolonisation in its British context, where following the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and accusations that British universities are ‘systemically racist’, the idea that universities must adopt a decolonialisation process to ‘atone for slavery, colonialism, and the legacies of these forms of historical oppression’ has taken hold. Against this perverse ideology Stokes calls for a return to rational adjudication, academic freedom, and scientific realism, and he mounts a powerful and much needed challenge to the decolonisation movement’s narrative of grievance and racial discord.

First then, is Britain a structurally racist society? Not according to the stats. The European Union’s 2019 report on discrimination showed that the United Kingdom is one of the least racist societies in Europe, itself a tolerant society, and Stokes notes this goes some way in explaining the mass legal and illegal migration from across the world to the continent, but especially to the UK.

The reports noted white students as victims of racism.

Turning to the universities, Stokes takes up Britain’s 2019 Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) reports which purported to show that racism is endemic in Britain’s higher education sector. These were picked up by media outlets worldwide and became central to the broader moral panic about racism across UK campuses. Their subsequent effect on university policies cannot be understated and Stokes is damning in his analysis of the EHRC’s reports, which he takes pains to show are rife with emotive reasoning, concept stretching, and ‘mathiness’. The latter concept comes from the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer and refers to “emphasising statistics to push an ideological agenda by using mathematics to disguise intentions”.

One of the key metrics that claimed to ‘prove’ this racism is a degree attainment gap between BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) and white students, as well as an alleged under-representation of ethnic minority staff and students. Stokes delves deeper into the figures and finds ‘ethnic minorities’ is too large and varied a category to serve as any useful instrument of analysis. People from a range of diverse backgrounds are all lumped under one generic ‘black’ or ‘brown’ category. This obscures important differences between Afro-Caribbean and African heritage students, for one. What are we to make of the fact that while 10.7 per cent of black children now go to the top universities, only 5.4 per cent of black Caribbean pupils do, compared with 13.2 per cent of black African pupils?

In the early 1980s, French writer Pascal Bruckner (right) charted the European left’s allegiances with anti-colonial movements in the Third World. Now British academic Doug Stokes (left)
has examined ‘decolonisation’ in its British context.

Moreover, the contention that there is a ‘degree attainment’ gap between ‘ethnic minorities’ and white students loses much of its rhetorical power when it is consistently shown that the lowest participation rates at universities are young men from white working-class backgrounds. What of degree outcomes if you cannot even get to university in the first place?

Such realities were and continue to be lost on the leaders of the UK universities who took the EHRC’s claims of ‘structural racism’ at face value and rushed to implement a decolonisation agenda across the whole university sector. The main culprit here is Universities UK (UUK), the UK’s preeminent body for university vice-chancellors, which not only kowtowed to the EHRC reports but doubled down by asserting that an “epidemic of racism across British campuses” benefits “white people, who as a collective group benefit from structural racism overall”. Their solution? Greater Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracies and micro-management of campus cultures, of course.

UUK’s November 2020 report, Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education, stated that universities must take steps to improve “awareness and understanding of racism, racial harassment, white privilege and microaggressions among all staff and students, including through anti-racist training”. Stokes writes that this sent a “powerful and unmistakable message to university vice chancellors that hardwired the decolonisation agenda into British universities”.

Stokes goes through both reports forensically and shows how the UUK effectively cherry picked from the EHRC to sustain the narrative of racism and moral panic. While the selectiveness of ideologues and the tendency of the woke left to claim victimhood by any means has been pointed out many times before, never has it been done with such force. Stokes notes that in the EHRC reports “no disaggregation was undertaken between ethnic groups regarding the ‘perpetrator’ of the alleged racist incidents” and indeed, the reports noted white students as victims of racism. Despite this, the UUK responded with training programs aimed at ‘fixing’ the ‘problem’ in the white-ethnic majority. Reading line by line from the decolonisation theory playbook, the UUK asserts whiteness is ‘structural’ and ‘white privilege’, ‘white fragility’, and ‘microaggressions’ must be addressed by what is effectively re-programming. Stokes notes ‘unconscious bias training’ as particularly egregious and he takes down these unscientific and uncharitable concepts with ease and verve:

Microaggressions are a classic case of emotive reasoning. I feel that something was racist, and my feelings are evidence of that racism. Therefore, the act was racist.

The concept of ‘whiteness’ that the UUK has uncritically taken up is even further divorced from reality, and Stokes shows how it is linked to decolonisation theory’s postmodern roots and its account of history. ‘Whiteness’, in the postmodern view, is not a concept rooted in biological foundation, but defined by social meanings, and is said to be a social discourse that “helps structure a hierarchical binary between white and non-white groups that privileges the former”.

The ‘Indigenous Perspectives’ initiative of Curtin University Library to ‘indigenise and decolonise our collection and services’ won a 2023 Library Board Award.
Photo: Curtin University

The UK’s leading critical race theorist, Kehinde Andrews, has applied this idea to the history of race relations in the UK and sees ‘whiteness’, or racism, as “hardwired throughout British society”.

The attack here on ‘British society’ or the West at large is the old postmodern attack on truth and the legacy of the Enlightenment tradition that Andrews argues was “essential in providing the intellectual basis for Western imperialism, justifying white supremacy through scientific rationality”. Perversely, Andrews considers ‘whiteness’ a “form of psychosis framed by its irrationality, which is beyond any rational engagement” and states white people use this to cope with the “reality that Western capitalism is built on and maintained by racial exploitation”. In other words, ‘whiteness’ and ‘Western ways of knowing’ are harmful forms of false consciousness. Any pushback against this position is of course impossible, and like the academics of the 1990s who considered DNA something one could ‘believe in’, the movement to decolonise ‘white, Eurocentric’ worldviews and institutions is not based on these theories or worldviews being empirically or factually wrong. For these radicals, any assertion of ‘fact’ or truth is merely another competing smokescreen for the imposition of power, and having rendered all knowledge relative, they insist it becomes politically acceptable to impose their agenda in the name of social justice.

Decolonisation theorists are playing a zero-sum game, and so while ‘whiteness’ is ‘irrational’ and ‘racist’ or Western ‘ways of knowing’ are not just philosophically optional, they are immoral, and claims made for Western culture are a form of racial prejudice. Andrews states that drawing attention to ‘whiteness’ can help focus “attention on how a broader racist culture shapes white people’s identities and brings to the fore the responsibilities white people have for addressing racism”. Andrews states that “by forcing white people to confront their complicity in the system, the aim is to make them reborn as allies to the dark oppressed peoples of the world”. For anyone who has had to sit through an equity and diversity training session and was suspicious of the underlying agenda, Stokes’ book will reveal these concerns as more than well founded.

As for the question of where the decolonisation movement came from, Stokes takes us through some of the ideas and theories that have underpinned its rise. Much of this will be familiar to the reader, with the names ‘Foucault’ and ‘Derrida’ having entered common parlance thanks to the ‘culture wars’. It is worth drawing attention to Stokes’ emphasis on the influence of Caribbean-born Marxist and anti-colonialist author Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), however, as it is from Fanon and his followers that decolonisation theory gained its moral impetus.

The left’s wager on Third-Worldism proved to be deeply misplaced.

Stokes notes that as the dream of Soviet-style communism gradually soured for the left in the 1960s, many transposed their allegiances to revolutionary insurgencies in the global South: Africa, Asia, and South America. Here, Third World anti-colonial movements were seen as “challenging both imperialism and a form of international hierarchy organised along racial lines” and the left placed their chips on the virtue and power of “the wretched of the Earth”—a phrase from the Internationale that was immortalised in the title of Frantz Fanon’s inordinately influential book. Stokes considers The Wretched of the Earth (1961) “one of the first major works to draw out the intersection between a politics antithetical to the West, forms of racial identity politics, and their instrumental capacity to act as a means of wider political mobilisation for revolutionary change”. For these Marxists, the West’s economic hegemony emerged from the exploitation of the Third World, envisioned as a “violent cauldron of slavery, colonialism, and the expropriation of land”, and while the anti-colonial movements inspired by Marxism did not turn into utopias based on human equality, and the left’s wager on Third-Worldism proved deeply misplaced, they simply took their chips and placed them on the new ‘postmodernism’, and ‘identity’ and ‘culture’ became the way to explain what they saw as the West’s continued domination of the global South, and inequality within the West itself.

The French writer Pascal Bruckner first identified the left’s seemingly inexhaustible need to find sins to atone for in 1983 when in a little read book called The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt he wrote that “Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West”. Like Stokes, Bruckner charted the European left’s allegiances with anti-colonial movements in the Third World, arguing they had a profoundly delusional quality and were an unmistakably Western act of collective narcissism.

Twenty years later Bruckner reprised his critique of the West’s self-recrimination in The Tyranny of Guilt, where he wrote that “it is as if the old saws from the 1960s were coming back to haunt us”—the West’s obsessive guilt had only further obscured important realities: “Remorse has ceased to be connected with precise historical circumstances … it has become a dogma, a commodity, almost a form of currency”. Against this Bruckner argued that while there is no doubt that the West has “given birth to monsters” it has at the same time “given birth to theories that make it possible to understand and destroy these monsters”, reminding us that while the West instituted the transatlantic slave trade, it also engendered abolitionism and put an end to slavery before other nations—it has no monopoly on evil.

American social commentator Roger Kimball regarded The Tyranny of Guilt as something of a sequel to The Tears of the White Man, and in the later book Bruckner most clearly shows how the West’s perverse need to assert ownership of the world’s ills denies the most vital legacy of post-Enlightenment thought.

Stokes’ book can be seen as something of an appendage to these two earlier works, and having exposed the decolonisation movement’s true agenda, he reclaims British history, emerging as something of an intellectual Robin Hood for reason, science, and, above all, truth.

This article from the Autumn 2024 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Research Fellow Lana Starkey.

Support the IPA

If you liked what you read, consider supporting the IPA. We are entirely funded by individual supporters like you. You can become an IPA member and/or make a tax-deductible donation.