Two years ago, the Australian winter was marred by vandalism of statues commemorating notable figures in the country’s history. Statues vandalised around the country included representations of Captain James Cook, Captain James Stirling, governor Lachlan Macquarie and former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott.
The vandals insisted that each statue depicted a figure whose opinions, political views or historical roles dishonoured or demeaned aspects of Australian identity – especially any that concerned Indigenous Australians. As such, statue-toppling protesters ruled that history had to be corrected and the stigma of colonialism and invasion eradicated.
These protests represented “decolonisation” campaigns that are sweeping Western countries – and those in the Anglosphere, such as Australia, in particular – and expressing moral concern about colonialism.
However, critics argue that decolonisation activists no longer regard history as a means of pursuing empirical truth; they use it instead as a weapon with which to achieve certain political objectives. These political objectives fall within the scope of an area of inquiry known as postcolonial theory, or PCT. This theory attempts to describe the historical processes of the decline of “empire”, asserting that problems faced in an earlier age are inherited and persist today.
In the case of Australia, PCT generates interpretations of the present that are often thoroughly distorted, leading to condemnation of the country as being for ever, and irredeemably, racist.
This distorted representation of contemporary Australia conflicts directly with the country’s widely recognised status as a cohesive, multicultural society.
PCT wages its campaign of reformation against Enlightenment conceptions of reason, tolerance and liberty in the name of redressing the immorality of the past. But this reformation, which weaponises history, poses real dangers that threaten the integrity of intellectual and historical enquiry because it is fuelled by the postmodern idea that knowledge is always a construct of power.
PCT is a form of postmodernism arguing that forms of knowledge deemed “Western” – such as science, mathematics, literature, and history – are oppressive and are deployed by the West in ways intended to perpetuate its ongoing exercise of “colonial” forms of power.
As such, PCT seeks to displace anything that smacks of colonial or imperial hegemony and to replace it with “decolonised” curricula and forms of knowledge that deconstruct Western ways of knowing. This is why “decolonisation” and rejection of Western ways of knowing feature so prominently – and controversially – in our educational institutions.
There are two significant dangers revisionist postcolonial accounts of so-called “power relations” pose. First, they hold that today’s generation of contemporary Australians continues to bear guilt over, and always bears a moral responsibility for, deeds perpetrated in an earlier age of our history. This burden of guilt, which is transmitted from one generation to another in perpetuity, can never be discharged.
Second, they insist on attaining a standard of justice that will redress the moral omissions of that earlier age. But this standard of justice is a utopian ideal that calls for unobtainable perfection.
The question of how we think about the past is an important one. Certainly, history confronts contemporary Australia – as it does every nation – with events and actions that need to be considered and addressed. However, the claims PCT makes about the legacy of the past, the attribution of guilt, and the realisation of justice are unwarranted and corrode social cohesion.
To what extent should citizens of a country bear responsibility for wrongs perpetrated by their state, whether those wrongs were committed in the recent or distant past?
In Australia, for example, the political project of “reconciliation” with Indigenous Australians depends upon the extent to which contemporary Australian society is willing both to assume and acknowledge such responsibility – and to respond to the sufferings of those who were wronged. This is the very issue that goes to the heart of contested arguments about the morality of celebrating events such as Australia Day.
However, repeated public expressions of apology, alone, do little to address existing social and economic hardship endured by some Indigenous Australians, especially those living in remote communities. Apologising for the past is morally vacuous if it does no more than attack the historical record, while leaving untouched injustices of today.
Contemporary Australians, many of whom came as migrants, must weigh the extent to which they can be responsible for actions perpetrated after settlement in 1788. Certainly, we must reckon with the past; but we must also recognise that our ancestors did not necessarily admire the principles that we value today – and this means we must not invest history with a moral value it is not capable of bearing.
Today, secular, liberal societies face a serious threat from the “reforming” fundamentalism of PCT. This threat is real because PCT nurses ancient wounds, blames reason for colonialism, and replaces tolerance with cultural relativism. Its unattainable vision of the perfectly just society imposes an increasingly heavy burden on the citizens of Western liberal democracies, such as Australia.
PCT activism makes no positive contribution to the wellbeing of Australian society but simply fuels denunciation and dissension. It is time to expose and discard the flawed ideology of PCT from Australian educational, social, and cultural discourse. For unless checked, postcolonial theorist reformers will, soon enough, denounce us all.