The Not-So-Funny Joke of Progressive “Decolonization”

When it comes to how we handle the history of colonization, a choice between gestures of recognition on the one hand, or widespread social ignorance and non-recognition of past atrocities on the other, is no choice at all—the former is obviously preferred. So, politicians making speeches, passing motions, creating holidays, and so on to recognize and acknowledge Indigenous peoples subjected to atrocities, such as in Canada, shouldn’t be viewed with total cynicism. These things can provide a useful function and have positive social and cultural effects. 

However, the problem is that for many progressive circles and those that represent them, gestures and symbolism is where that road ends. They leverage radical terms like “decolonization” to describe what is often just moral signaling and performance by non-Indigenous people to make themselves and other non-Indigenous people feel better about the creation of colonial institutions and structures of domination generations ago—all while leaving much, if not all, of today’s perpetuation and maintenance of the same colonial cornerstones untouched and unchanged. The result is a very watered-down end-goal-is-really-just-reform-and-not-really-decolonization flavor of “decolonization” that barely scratches the surface of the spiritual and generational trauma visited upon Indigenous peoples.

A good illustration of the inherent stupidity of progressive “decolonization” was provided by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016. While still within his post-election honeymoon phase, Trudeau said his government would review federal laws and policies to “decolonize” Canada and its relations with Indigenous peoples.

The term “Orwellian” is overused. But it does warrant an honorable mention here. Like Orwell often demonstrated, you can disrupt a strong signal of truth, plain fact, and/or logic by simply changing a clear term to an obtuse one—bombing and killing becomes precision strike and neutralization. Or, one can make a certain term mean something not-so-certain—The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea is an autocratic dungeon. So, unless Justin Trudeau meant he wanted to dedicate his tenure to erasing any institutional or ceremonial ties the Canadian state has to England, dismantling everything about the state of Canada and it’s governing structures at every jurisdictional level, and resigning from his own newly-defunct position—all to return governance of the lands back to indigenous peoples and their means of self-governance —it really does seem Orwellian for the prime minister of a settler-colonial state to be talking about decolonization. 

Of course, that’s not what he meant. As an article featured by Canada’s public broadcaster written by an Anishinaabe author correctly points out—with perhaps just a hint of contempt, though we’ll never know—“the term decolonization can mean many different things, leaving the term’s meaning up to the person using it.” In Trudeau’s case, what he and his progressive political crew meant by “decolonization” was something more like the way he qualified it:

It basically means looking at the impacts of the wide swath of federal laws and legal frameworks to remove and to eliminate the elements that, instead of providing justice and opportunity, and opportunities for reconciliation, have been impediments for opportunities for growth and success of indigenous communities across the country [Emphasis mine].

That certainly sounds nice, but what’s extremely telling is how the prime minister also “stressed” that “the government was not planning to focus on re-opening the constitution to pursue those objectives.” So, not to worry everyone! There’s nothing on the table that really gets to the heart of certain arrangements with Indigenous peoples and the structures imposed upon them. The Canadian settler-colonial state will remain intact, mostly as designed over a century and a half ago. Government workers will enjoy a paid statutory holiday, and we’ll also play around with the name of government departments to make them potentially less offensive.

If we want words and the way we use them to have plain meaning, then a call to pursue “decolonization” in a way that makes already-existing processes, departments, and efforts more efficient by way of integrating Indigenous peoples and their needs better into the system doesn’t seem to be worthy of the name—rather, a more accurate description would be to say this is a call for improved or more humane colonization. After all, deforestation means clearance and removal of forest from a certain area, not pruning and maintaining trees or uprooting some in favor of planting others.

The purpose of progressive appropriation of a powerful term—like so many other appropriations by progressives—is to sugarcoat mild, end-goal reform with radical end-goal flavoring and aesthetic. In other words, it’s playing with radical language—pandering, really—with no real intention of pursuing radical end-goals. And, even if Trudeau and his fellow progressives could scrape enough competency together to execute their version of “decolonization”—and, many say they can’t even manage that—let’s be absolutely clear: Indigenous peoples would still be left with the same institutional arrangements, power dynamics, and contexts of domination that have been the root cause of countless injustices across multiple generations.

So goes the joke of progressive “decolonization” and their appropriation of radical language in general. They talk out of both sides of their mouths: one side adamantly decries the injustice inherent in current structures, while the other side either willingly or begrudgingly admits that serious structural change or removal of poisonous power dynamics is simply not on the agenda. All while prioritizing getting and keeping power in the very system they decry.

Progressive hypocrisy is a problem in and of itself, but it also has an insidious effect on the spectrum of debate and discussion. To witness progressive “decolonization,” you don’t have to look too far into many areas of Canada—especially urban ones—to see an event (e.g., a college graduation) that kicks off with a land acknowledgement. Nor do you have to look too hard to find that urban-progressive socially conscious type paying lip-service to the atrocities visited upon Indigenous peoples by the English and French empires and by settlers. However, again, lip-service, gestures, and symbols recognizing the creation and imposition of colonial institutions is one thing—facing the fact that those same institutions are alive, well, being perpetuated, and in many cases being strengthened, and doing something about it, is another. 

Slapping “decolonization” as a label on these performative and pandering apologies helps people feel as if they’re taking some sort of radical political position or participating in radical action when they’re really just filling in one square of their age-of-progressive-awareness-and-moral-signaling bingo card. 

That’s why speeches, motions, and holidays are often easy for so many in the public to digest. It’s relatively straightforward for a person with a decent moral compass to at least acknowledge the crimes of the past and point out the wrongdoing of others—namely, people long dead and gone. Yet, anything beyond mild reform or smoothing out the harder edges of the state and its oppressive institutions is generally a no-go zone for mass public appeal and circle-jerking. Going further requires a serious look at what’s happening today, and that’s hard to accept because it necessarily implicates those living with and benefiting from today’s institutional norms and injustices with some level of responsibility.  

Indeed, if colonization and the creation of settler-colonial institutions was unjust, then it follows that a basic level of honesty and responsibility requires going beyond mere apologies for the past. We must get to the heart of how colonization continues today, and what decolonization really means if we’re to take the word seriously. But, as is the usual story with progressives, if they were to be more plain-spoken about what they really meant and stop feigning radical notions, it would be a recipe for self-delegitimization. It turns out you don’t get into positions of power by delegitimizing yourself. So, if you want power, you need to ensure your own versions of radical words, like “decolonization,” are in play, and use those versions to guide policy and the public mind. 

In that sense, one can understand why hypocritical bait-and-switch rhetorical tactics are used. Perhaps the more important question, then, is what’s worse: the fact that progressives use the tactic, or the fact that so many in academia, the media, and the public intellectual sphere help them along as they do it.

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