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On the Incoherence of “Decolonizing” the Academy

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Ideological pressure and political conformity in the workplace, professional organizations, industry, and public institutional life are so pervasive that identity politics has all but ruined social tolerance, meritocracy, and the pursuit of excellence.”

“Colonialism” has become a dirty word. It signifies all that is bad, despite imperialism no longer existing as it once did. The decline of imperialism is—no doubt—a good thing when it comes to the development of our shared humanity. However, Western civilization, despite its transgressions, brought the world invaluable fruits from the printing press to medical breakthroughs to the masterpieces of the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. Although we should never forget lessons from our sordid past, we should also be mindful of the values and benefits of the present. Unfortunately, anything deemed “Eurocentric” or “white” is increasingly being vilified in the academy and society at large, and extreme measures are being taken to counteract these alleged ills. 

Along with the call to “decolonize the curriculum” in university education, we see illiberalism on campus, the cancelation of professors, institutional capture, and an assault on free speech and academic liberty by silencing debate. The politicization of race, diversity, and gender is not only weaponized but is encouraged by Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucrats.

A goal of decoloniality is to problematize, disrupt, deconstruct, fracture, and redefine social norms in the service of liberating society from Western norms and values. Given that many decolonizing efforts challenge logocentrism, science, objectivity, and reason itself, this postmodern project sets out for itself an impossible task. To “decolonize” social reality completely would mean to purge it from its historical facticity and material locality, which is unimaginable. Should we stop speaking and writing in English? Should all Americans, Canadians, and Brits be required to quit their jobs, move, and give up their homes and land to descendants of Indigenous peoples?

We cannot escape our thrownness into history. Given that all cultures and identities have historically infiltrated geopolitical space and been integrated into the social fabric through contemporary globalization, any attempt to negate or displace our archaic primacy in the process of civilization is a futile endeavor that is logically impossible to achieve. One can no more decolonize history and the Western world than one can deconstruct the laws of physics through some fanciful language game.

From tearing down statues to renaming schools, concerns about diversity optics are present on every platform, and this is to the benefit, of course, of racialized capitalism. Hiring criteria that are no longer based on merit but solely on representation or tokenism, as new affirmative action policies become mandated, are a sure way to keep skilled talent out. Ideological pressure and political conformity in the workplace, professional organizations, industry, and public institutional life are so pervasive that identity politics has all but ruined social tolerance, meritocracy, and the pursuit of excellence. 

As more and more universities do away with college entrance exams because test scores are purportedly “culturally biased” and standardized testing protocols are constructed by “white men,” students become increasingly ill-prepared for the real world of the labor force. Social psychologists correctly observe that we are coddling the youth by not forcing them to grow up and accept responsibility for their lives. Instead, many young people have grown accustomed to getting whatever they want on demand and throwing a temper tantrum when they do not get their way. Protecting youth from the harsh realities of the world and not making them accountable for their own successes and failures—such as giving “accommodations” in school and at work for those diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, or depression—is most irresponsible. The public has become duped under so-called medical authority—or simply because a quick fix is desired or has been implicitly promised. We have been manipulated into thinking that all we need to do is take a pill whenever we have the slightest degree of normal stress, the new headache. 

Cancel culture has adopted the tactics of illiberal authoritarianism where punitiveness, de-platforming, moral grandstanding, and organizing campaigns to get academics and scientists fired is all too familiar. Some professionals have even been threatened with violence or death or otherwise made to feel unsafe. Some have resigned from their jobs for this reason (if they were not already forced out or fired). And when they decide to stay, cancel culture may orchestrate secondary boycotts, in which colleagues, employers, and administrative personnel pressure others not to associate with the targets of their scorn. This can result in the spreading of lies and character assassinations, including defamation. Some targets, tragically, have committed suicide

Authoritarian tactics are not the exclusive domain of any one political faction. The aim with such tactics is always to suppress, control, and forbid opposition. Social media—or more appropriately, antisocial media—has become the new abnormal, chock full of incompetent commentators playing the role of credible journalists and Internet trolls peddling the next conspiracy theory. Sound bites and echo chambers have become the New Babylon as users constantly consume YouTube, TikTok, and X (formerly known as Twitter) content or listen to Tucker Carlson’s horselaugh as he dismisses whichever inconvenient truths he cannot bear to hear. The goal is winning at all costs, even if that means dismissing objective reality. Left, Right, or Center—all spin doctors evoke the hermeneutics of suspicion. Academia and higher education, like life itself, are about learning, questioning, and embracing discomfort, whether we like it or not. But rejecting everything deemed Western will only serve to foster a new colonization based on grievance, resentment, and dissent. If we heed the lessons of history, it is not destined to be successful. 

Jon Mills is a Canadian philosopher, psychoanalyst, and psychologist. He is an honorary professor in the Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex and is the author of over 30 books in philosophy, psychoanalysis, psychology, and cultural studies, including most recently End of the World: Civilization and its Fate.

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