Following the rise of industrialism in Britain and the loss of the American Colonies, it was important for the empire to expand and find new markets to sell its goods. This led to an explosion in cultural interactions with several “new” peoples with whom the British had yet to meaningfully interact. However, unlike the indigenous peoples of America and Australia, the British could not brush away burgeoning nation-states like India and China as mere “savages.” They possessed an identifiable culture, a religious theology and a developed state. Furthermore, if China and India were full of barbaric sub-humans, then that would mean the Crown would need to wage war and recolonize the territory rather than exploit the people already present.
This is a distilled synopsis of orientalism in 120 words, give or take. Does it offend or disgust you? Good, it should. These were the thoughts of the progressive men of the Enlightenment era. Yes, the progressive men — this was once liberal. Returning to the point, however, this mode of thought had several issues in its own consistency. If the “Orientals” (to borrow the language of the period) were not sub-human, then they obviously deserved rights and self-determination. That’s what the Enlightenment required — that “all men are created equal.” If they weren’t people, then Europeans couldn’t trust them to work in their factories, but if they were, they had rights which were clearly being violated. How was this to be overcome? Here enters social Darwinism.
Now, certain cultures could be wholly human but still less progressed than others. It is then obviously right for the more “evolved” societies to rule over the “lesser” ones. This was called the “White Man’s Burden” and was thought of as a progressive, liberal ideology once. Because the white man had discovered Enlightenment and come to the end of Hegel’s History, it was his job to teach the rest of the world how they too could reach this utopia. Non-whites were not sub-human, they were just children who had to be instructed on the proper ways to conduct themselves. Once they had learned how to become “civilized” they could come join the white men at the proverbial grown-ups table. Thankfully, we have grown out of this insipid, patronizing ideology and adopted more modern values. Right?
Unfortunately, not so much, I am afraid. While it is taboo to use this rationale to subjugate people based on their race or ethnicity, it is still a common occurrence to do so on their ideology. We — meaning, here, liberals — believe that we have found the Truth. The clouds have parted, God has spoken and the Tablets of Law have descended from Heaven into our outstretched arms. Now all we must do is preach the Good Word. It is up to us, the faithful, to ‘educate’ any and all who disagree with us. If that so-called education looks more like the oppression than discussion, then so be it. After all, discipline and punishment are necessary and proper when dealing with rebellious adolescents. Forced conversion to our liberal way of life is perfectly acceptable, because those who disagree are wrong. They are ignorant. They are children.
It has become a foregone conclusion that our way of viewing the world is right. And when we forego that conclusion, intellectual imperialism is a reasonable response. If we are right, then it only makes sense to make everyone else right as well. This patronizing, colonial mindset has found its way into the way we discuss free expression, both aggressively and passively. Like European colonialists, we assume that our “truths” are in fact reality and seek to spread that reality across the globe, by force if necessary.
We engage in aggressive intellectual imperialism when we shut down discourse just because we think we are right. When we arbitrarily decide that someone’s way of thinking and acting is ignorant or backwards because it is inconsistent with our world views. When we tell someone that they cannot say something because it is too controversial or offensive, we are stifling debate and depriving both parties from a chance to learn and grow. When we refuse to admit the very notion that we may not be right, or that there may be truth to opposing ideas, we are overtly censoring.
Similarly, we engage in passive imperialism when we assume that certain subsets of the population are too weak or timid to stand up for themselves. When we forbid discussion about tough or painful subjects because it might trigger or offend someone, we are sending the message that they are weak and need our protection. In this way, censorship is harmful to the causes we purport to defend on two entirely separate fronts. As I have said in a previous editorial, the only way to combat ignorance is through discussion, not censorship.
We have abandoned consistency and have placed our own ideology above even itself. In many ways our belief in liberalism is illiberal, our belief in reason irrational and our belief in science unscientific. Often times I am accused of not being a true liberal, because I insist the king is not above the law and that liberalism is not above liberty. In the same way that I am not pro-terrorism when I demand due process and an end to torture, I am not pro-bigotry when I say that bigots’ rights must also be protected. In a democracy, the rights of one are the rights of all, and we ought not sit idly by and allow us to baby-proof the world just because we do not think that certain people are capable of handling that freedom. To do so would be to spit in the face of over 300 years of history and prove that we are still self-righteous imperialists at heart.
Connor Crum is a College junior from Maryville, Tennessee.