Moral Judgments in Postcolonial Theory: Productivity and Inquiry in a World of Ethical Obligations

Modern Postcolonial Theory is in a state of flux. As it has moved from the hands of literary critics and into anthropology and history departments across the globe, concerns and interests of the loosely (and poorly) defined theory have shifted and changed. There are a great many issues and points of contention when taking an inventory of Postcolonial Theory’s critical toolbox and discrepancies between the world Postcolonial Theory attempts to describe and the world which the postcolonies reflect. However, putting aside those issues, there is a key problem burgeoning in modern Postcolonial Theory, the submission of modern Postcolonial theorists to notions of false neutrality and hegemonic common sense.

Much has been made of the notion of “obligation” when (usually white) students of Postcolonial Theory engage with, for instance, literature from the Caribbean nation-states. Many students describe the need to come to a particular “politically correct” conclusion about what the text is saying. The deployment of that term, already, reflects a “wrong turn” of critical thinking at a fundamental level. Certainly, there is no uniform philosophy of race relations or political justice between Kamau Brathwaite, Robert Antoni, Aimé Césaire, Wilson Harris, Jacques Roumain, or (gasp) V.S. Naipaul. The reasons for this are self-evident. These are diverse authors from different nation-states who wrote in different times and were colonized by different European nations. To attempt to make a clean, monolithic description of the social forces and political motivations for all these authors is absurd. Thus, particularly in the contentious case of Naipaul and authors like him, the text should be read for what it actually says rather than attempting to insert ideological motivated meanings via a philosophical backdoor. Certainly, some normative ethical judgments can be made about Naipaul’s racist viewpoints, but there’s no need for a “redemption” of his work to serve the end of decolonization. “Right” or “wrong,” Naipaul has a certain philosophy which should be accurately reflected when reading his works.

Naipaul is an excellent example of the uneven way ethical condemnations are dispensed by Postcolonial Theorists and how their implications shift. Naipaul, for instance, remains a subject of study and criticism despite his troubling viewpoints that (Postcolonial Theorists would argue) emerged in his later life and do not have an abundant impact on his early work. Though a desire to position Naipaul in a way that would be advantageous to the ideology of decolonization has produced some wrongheaded criticism of his work, there remains an extensive body of lucid criticism that does not forgo the ethical dimension of his work but also presents a clear picture of Naipaul and how he turned out so differently from, say, Sam Selvon.

The Naipaul case is one that might appear fruitless to discuss. After all, the way Naipaul is handled is (mostly) great in classrooms and in criticisms. My observations are pedestrian in nature in regards to his position in the Postcolonial canon. However, his positioning is a powerful counterpoint to the emerging ethical quagmire in modern Postcolonial Theory.

In a recent class on Postcolonial Theory, the class discussed Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education. The professor made a claim that Macaulay’s Minute is not frequently criticized or discussed among Postcolonial scholars. The professor predicated his claim on the notion that, because a harsh moral judgment was leveled against Macaulay, rightfully so, such a judgment has precluded meaningful criticism on the Minute. As a graduate student, I am unable to understand the full context surrounding the Minute’s position in Postcolonial Theory, thus perhaps my professor was incorrect in his articulation of the Minute’s position. However, taking him at his word, it seems that he has attributed the cause of the (alleged) dearth of criticism on Macaulay to moral judgment incorrectly. Furthermore, the professor’s stated goal seemed to be subverted by the way the moral dimension of Macaulay’s Minute was discussed. Instead of abandoning moral concerns all together, the class discussion attempted to complicate Macaulay’s (allegedly) prescribed position of “racist” by Postcolonial Scholars toward the end of bringing about some meaningful criticism on his Minute.

On the face of the argument, one can see that this endeavor makes very little sense. If the moral dimension of Macaulay’s Minute is irrelevant, why is it necessary to redeem him in such a fashion? “Well, he wasn’t a racist as we understand it. His heart was really in the right place. He didn’t want to abandon Indian vernacular languages, he wanted to use them as an avenue to propagate the language which had been accrued into English.” Only the final sentence is descriptive of the mechanism Macaulay used in the colonial project of Indian. The rest are prescriptive statements about his moral status.

And herein lies the rub. The notion of “even toned” or “clear” or “fair” criticism of an event is paired with a positive moral assessment of a historical figure and their behaviors. An unfair stigma has been assigned to a unfavorable moral assessment of a person. Modern Postcolonial Theorists seem to be pushing back against a perceived lack of criticism on certain figures and topics, mostly related to figures advancing colonialism, and incorrectly attributing that lack of criticism to indictments of those individual’s characters. The reality is this: an ethical measure of behaviors does not preclude or in any way interfere with a fully critical assessment of colonial projects. Macaulay can, and should, be branded as a racist self-serving individual who believed all other races were inferior to Anglo-Europeans. Nothing about that indictment inherently undoes or complicates a lucid assessment of the elaborate colonial machine that Macaulay was complicit in by way of appropriating Indian vernacular languages as vehicles for Anglo-English epistemology. A positive assessment of his character does little to enhance the understanding of such a machinations, as Macaulay’s intention was decidedly duplicitous and sinister. To evacuate Indian languages of epidemiological significance and impose upon their very structure the English understanding of knowledge and knowledge creation. What other purpose could that serve but the subjugation of a people? What noble intentions could lie behind such an elaborate scheme of an individual who, veritably, believed that all other races were inferior to Anglo-Europeans?

The strain of Postcolonial Theory that attempts to redeem Macaulay is fallacious and dangerous. Making a moral redemption of Macaulay and other figures a necessary condition for a valid interpretation of their behaviors and complete understanding of their colonial project is absurd. A prescriptive, normative ethical assessment of behaviors and motivations can (but does not need to - whether redemptive or condemnatory) coincide with a fully and complete sociological understanding of the methods of colonialism. The two are not logically connected. If, as the case is argued, moral condemnations have precluded full understandings of methods of colonialism the fault lies in individual critics rather than the mode of assessment. Perhaps, for the sake of the human affect, moral judgments should be separated from assessments of the methods of colonialism. However, hegemonic common sense teaches that being “middle of the road” is taking the side of the status quo and re-inscribing beliefs of the dominant ideology, which is exactly the trap modern Postcolonial Theorists are beginning to fall into.

Though the notion of moral obligation and ideological motivation can be a problem for some Postcolonial critics, one must remember that the true obligation of Postcolonial Studies, if any such thing exists, is to faithfully and honestly depict the very different worldviews and social forces of the inhabitants of the postcolonies. Entering a text with preconceived notion of what the author should think, or what moral judgments the critic should make of the author, is a misstep in critical thinking. However, this is not to say that moral judgments and complete assessments of mechanisms of colonialism cannot exist. Simply because many critics are scared of making judgments outside of an established ideology does not mean that moral judgments and complete assessments of mechanisms of colonialism are mutually exclusive. Even worse is the fact that when a claim of mutual exclusivity is made, what actually happens is a positive moral judgment is made and presented as a necessary condition to a complete assessment of those mechanisms. This notion of positive moral assessments as “fair” or “unbiased” is a holdover from hegemonic common sense and false neutrality which brands anger or dissatisfaction as somehow irrational or the enemy of fair, logical criticism. Though gallons of critical ink has been spilled to debunk notions of false neutrality which proliferate in colloquial debates, it seems that modern Postcolonial Theorists should spend less time thinking about how to redeem Macaulay and more time thinking about the relationship between ethics, obligation, and the mechanisms of colonialism depicted in criticism.


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