Education, Philosophy
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The Case for Contrarianism

Another semester, another academic publishing scandal, complete with calls for penitence and punishment. This time the catalyst is “The Case for Colonialism,” a “Viewpoint” editorial in Third World Quarterly. In this essay, Bruce Gilley argued that “it is high time to question [the anti-colonial] orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts.” Gilley’s article has since been withdrawn due to “serious and credible threats of personal violence” made against the journal’s editor. This obviously troubling development should make us wonder: just what evil would this article have brought about if not withdrawn? The Streisand effect is in full display here. The article – detailed, abstruse, and not always beautifully written – has no doubt been far more widely read than it would have been without the controversy.

The publication of “The Case for Colonialism” faced criticism on several grounds: it was offensive; it was unscholarly; the journal did not follow its normal procedures in publishing it (now officially disputed by the publisher); the journal is a special venue for anti-colonial perspectives. This last one is particularly reminiscent of last spring’s Hypatia affair. As in that case, we should be skeptical of appeals to “academic standards” in political disciplines. Often such standards are simply substantive moral or political stances for which the field provides a “safe space”. In a representative attack on the article’s scholarly quality, Sahar Khan says that “the article seems like a bad joke. Can someone, a scholar no less, actually make a case for colonialism?”. A Change.org petition asserts that its “goal is to raise academic publishing standards and integrity,” but then calls on Third World Quarterly‘s editors to “apologize for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism”. And a letter of resignation from some members of the journal’s editorial board even suggests that “caus[ing] offence and hurt . . . clearly violates [the] principle of free speech”.

Notably, the “The Case for Colonialism” used a method called counterfactual history to arrive at some of its conclusions. This method is controversial, but since every philosophy of causality and explanation integrates counterfactuals, or “what-if” statements, in some way, it arguably deserves a significant role in historical analysis. Few of the attacks on the article specify where it goes wrong either in actual history or in counterfactual speculation, though Nathan J. Robinson at Current Affairs has attempted to do so. In particular, contradictions Gilley points out in the anti-colonial literature (p.3) seem to have gone unaddressed. Gilley could certainly have addressed at greater length, or with greater sensitivity, the actual history of murder and deprivation that accompanied colonialism. However, accusations of “whitewashing” tend to take for granted the falsity of his conclusion, which is that, counterfactually, a history without colonialism would have been even worse.

But what if the critics are right, and the article is no good? Is the furore warranted? Should the article have been retracted even without the threats, or is it enough, as Noam Chomsky thinks, to rebut it? How should we balance academic freedom and academic quality? Jacob T. Levy has argued persuasively that the concept of free speech proper does not have a place in academic discourse. In assessing, for example, the merits of a plagiarism case, colleges and universities do not at all take an offender’s speech interests or rights into account as a factor. Is there any other justification for the article’s existence?

Making the best possible case

We can distinguish two kinds of critiques of a paper. One claims that the paper’s basic project is fundamentally misguided; another suggests that it has stumbled, somehow, in trying to carry that project out. When the second critique applies, but not the first, the critic will be able to say things like: “A good paper on this topic is…” or at least “A good paper with this thesis would proceed by…”. None of Gilley’s critics have said anything of the sort. So it’s fair to infer that they all feel that part of the paper’s problem is that the whole idea of making a “case for colonialism” is misguided.

This conclusion should not surprise us. After all, Gilley himself noted that anti-colonialism is an animating assumption of the disciplines in which his paper would normally have circulated. (From his point of view, this might plausibly be because these disciplines eschew the method of counterfactual history.) What is surprising is the unease of Gilley’s critics at their animating assumptions being questioned. In many academic disciplines, an essential part of learning “theory” is developing an acquaintance with precisely these sorts of foundational disputes. New subfields, from string theory to evolutionary psychology to experimental philosophy, face rigorous audits for coherence, robustness, falsifiability, and so forth. The response suggests that the pedagogy of anti-colonial theory does not involve such a process.

So even if Gilley’s paper does as little to support its conclusion as its critics seem to think, it nonetheless might have provided a valuable service to the anti-colonial literature, by making a case at all. That would provide anti-colonial academics something to point to and say: “Here is the best case for colonialism available. It’s very bad, and so it’s reasonable to conclude that the case against colonialism is much stronger than the case for colonialism.” This helps actually to buttress the field’s theoretical foundations, especially as a pedagogical matter. Nor will it do for critics to say simply that the paper could find a place in a discipline with different foundations. If we hope to achieve with our intellectual inquiry even roughly objective knowledge of reality, we must go beyond having a field that assumes P and a field that assumes not-P – we must investigate whether or not P is actually true.

Much can be learned, too, in the examination of a bad argument: where exactly it goes wrong, why perhaps its author was unable to see its flaws. In seeing why a case for colonialism is impossible, a student might learn more general lessons about putting together good cases for other conclusions – including, of course, cases for anti-colonialism. Of course, there are limitations to this; correcting genuine historical inaccuracies doesn’t really help anyone with anything. But if the paper does have other problems, more specific and better-worked-out criticisms than “academic standards” or “fails to engage relevant literature” should be made (which standards? which arguments from which papers?), in order to provide a teaching moment for readers and for researchers.

Unpopular publications and prediction markets

One good model for aggregating many people’s expressions of their beliefs is a prediction market. Halfway between a stock exchange and a sports bookie, a prediction market allows investors to buy and sell shares which pay out if certain real-world eventualities come to pass. In such a market, if one is reasonably certain of something relevant which all other participants find highly unlikely, one can invest in that belief with little risk and with great possible reward. For example, on election night last November, PredictIt.org shares in a Donald Trump victory were briefly sold for under ten cents each, for a payout of one dollar; shares in a Hillary Clinton victory correspondingly cost over ninety cents at the same moment, for the same payout.

What’s worth emulating about a prediction market is that it turns the expression of unpopular beliefs into a low-risk, high-reward enterprise. In the real, social world, it is often very costly to dissent from a dominant view: friendships can be lost and careers ruined. But it is not costly at all to assent to a dominant view; on the contrary, conforming in this way is helpful and often necessary both socially and professionally.

Now, consider the situation of someone who believes, for instance, that the dominant view is just as likely to be false as it is true. Normal incentives push such a person to go along with the dominant view, and they may feel perfectly comfortable about it. But the incentives of a prediction market would push a person in the opposite manner. They would push a person, who believes the dominant view is actually a 50/50 proposition, to invest in the belief which has a higher reward – that is, the less popular viewpoint. The distribution of this market ends up more rational over time simply because the dominant view is not artificially inflated by people playing it safe.

Without such a process occurring, outsiders will be unable to look at the market and garner any reliable knowledge about the state of the world. Normal incentives would determine that the dominant view is overwhelmingly expressed, even if it is only weakly preferred by most investors. Since the development and dissemination of reliable knowledge is one of the primary purposes of the academy, it is academically crucial for rationalization to take place. In the case of “The Case for Colonialism”, where other scholars have called not just for the retraction of the paper but for the revocation of its author’s degree, it’s clear that the unpopular view was incredibly expensive to express. Such a discipline cannot be a systematically reliable source of knowledge for the outside world.

Conclusion

Even granting for the sake of argument that “The Case for Colonialism” failed to meet academic standards, and that there are no “free speech” interests at play germane to the article’s publication, there are at least two good reasons academics and academic journals should be hesitant to call for retraction. Firstly, articles like this promote dialogue about disciplines’ fundamental assumptions. Such questioning is necessary for the health of any academic field, and for fields that are up to the task, can provide legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the academy – and of the public.

Secondly, in order to accurately estimate how likely various beliefs are to be true, a system must first either lower the cost or vastly raise the reward of expressing unpopular beliefs. Making it cheap to express unpopular opinions makes it easier for outsiders to gauge what the average viewpoint of a group of scholars might be. And when an article causes a controversy, calls to uphold a field’s standards should be met with some skepticism, especially when those standards would prohibit the publication of the unpopular opinion in the first instance. After all, if academic freedom doesn’t mean the protection of unpopular and disruptive minority views, what could it possibly be for?

Oliver Traldi
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Oliver Traldi

Oliver Traldi is a writer living in the United States. He has a bachelor's degree in classics and a master's degree in philosophy.
Oliver Traldi
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Filed under: Education, Philosophy

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Oliver Traldi is a writer living in the United States. He has a bachelor's degree in classics and a master's degree in philosophy.

18 Comments

  1. When opponents of an idea go to such lengths to prevent an argument for that idea being made, it suggests that the argument being made is a good one.

    • No, not really. It merely suggests that the argument is controversial. Whether or not an argument is intellectually “good” (note the quotation marks around “good”) is to be determined by measures of what constitutes empirically and methodologically sound reasoning, not by the extent to which the core ideas it puts forth are controversial.

      In this case, the article in question was neither empirically nor methodologically sound, which is echoed (if only “for the sake of argument”) in the conclusion of this piece.

      • Machiara says

        I think the problem is that we haven’t heard any specifics on what this empirical or methodological unsoundness might have been.

        • A slightly above average knowledge of the principles of academic research will evince the empirical and methodological issues on first reading of the paper in question, but let me point out some of them if you are unfamiliar with those principles:

          1- The author (rather conveniently) selectively picks parts of research done by scholars who researched how national narratives of some West African states were influenced by colonisation, and proposes the replacement “good governance” agenda with a “colonial agenda”. This research concludes that such national narratives are moving from the emancipatory calls of post-colonialism toward “a post-racial form of cosmopolitan nation-building,” which combine anti-colonial sentiments with the modern conceptions of nationhood in these nations. The author ignores the complexities researched and acknowledged in the paper he cites, and only focuses on the resurgence of colonial heroes as evidence of the failure of anti-colonial rhetoric. Cherrypicking arguments that fit into your own theory is simply bad methodology.

          2- The author intentionally (or arguably worse for an academic whose mother tongue is English, unintentionally) mischaracterizes the concept of “cosmopolitanism” and again, selectively uses the incorrect meaning of the term to serve his theory, completely ignoring a vast body of post-colonial scholarship in the process.

          3- The author claims that colonisation was a “sudden” event. Again, this is just bad scholarship. Read the colonial histories of India, Indonesia, Algeria, or even Egypt and various African nations to know that this is simply an unforgivable dismissal of a well-established post-colonial body of knowledge.

          4- The author attributes the abolition of the slave trade to colonialism, which in addition to being not only a silly claim to be made by a university professor in his field, is factually and historically incorrect.

          There is a lot more in the paper to be picked apart, but I encourage you to read it and judge for yourself.

          If you want to argue against why any of these aren’t evident weaknesses in methodology, I ask that you reciprocate the specifics.

  2. LukeReeshus says

    What is surprising is the unease of Gilley’s critics at their animating assumptions being questioned. In many academic disciplines, an essential part of learning “theory” is developing an acquaintance with precisely these sorts of foundational disputes. New subfields, from string theory to evolutionary psychology to experimental philosophy, face rigorous audits for coherence, robustness, falsifiability, and so forth. The response suggests that the pedagogy of anti-colonial theory does not involve such a process.

    In other words, there are no “foundational disputes” about the world-historical impact of Western colonialism in the academy. There is only one foundation, anti-colonialism. It is indeed an “orthodoxy,” as Gilley suggests, and quite an intolerant one at that. Why? Because to question it is to question the sense of moral superiority which those who subscribe to it—both academics and laypeople—derive from it. For them, opposition to Western colonialism constitutes much more than a pedagogical framework. The function it serves in their worldview often turns on the psychology of sacredness and taboo, not that of dispassionate reality-testing. In other words, it much more resembles a religious creed than a scientific theory.

    This is easy to notice when one notices the contradictions inherent within it: the double standard applied to judging Western colonialism versus judging other historical instances of foreign domination, e.g. Persian, Islamic, Mongolian, Ottoman, etc.; its unabashed belief in the Noble Savage myth, which, in its own way, is just as patronizing and dehumanizing as the worst Orientalist framework; the value system that follows, which places “authenticity” at the top of cultural virtues, no matter how authentically superstitious and maladaptive a culture might be (so that only white people get to enjoy the fruits of open inquiry and self-criticism); the willingness of its advocates to enjoy modern material prosperity while decrying many of the forces which made it possible…

    There are, of course, good reasons to question the goals of Westerners and the justifications they use while pursuing them. But same goes for the goals and justifications of everyone else. Anti-colonialists are zealous while doing the former and unrepentantly lazy when it comes to doing the latter. Such is the primary problem with their “theory.”

    • “This is easy to notice when one notices the contradictions inherent within it: the double standard applied to judging Western colonialism versus judging other historical instances of foreign domination”

      Where are these double standards? Among anti-colonial academics? If yes, would you care to offer some examples?

      • LukeReeshus says

        Where are these double standards? Among anti-colonial academics? If yes, would you care to offer some examples?

        Like, specifically? I thought this stuff was so pervasive it was obvious—that it’s the intellectual water we swim in. If you want me to dredge up specific written instances of this sort of thing, I can, but for now allow me to continue speaking in generalities.

        Consider the main target of modern anti-colonial outrage: Israel. Contrast the treatment it receives (from groups like BDS) with that of another nearby state which came into being a few decades earlier: Turkey. Consider the wrongs committed by these states during their formative years. Consider their victims. Now, wonder how it is that Palestinians garner so much more Western sympathy and support than, say, Armenians and Kurds. Wonder why “Palestinian genocide” turns up 2.7 million results on Google while “Armenian genocide” turns up just 426,000. One must wonder, because those numbers are not proportional to the lives involved. (Actually, they are, but in the wrong direction.) Why does “Kurd self determination” turn up one and a half million results, while “Palestinian self determination” turns up 47 million?*

        It’s a puzzle. The only satisfying explanation I’ve come across, which explains so much else, is that Westerners hold Israelis and Turks to different ethical standards.

        *I realize sampling the zeitgeist by doing Google searches isn’t exactly scientific, but hey, there’s gotta be something to those disparities.

        • Specifics are always nice. The reason I asked for specific examples is that I certainly understand there are double standards, but that’s where my agreement with you ends. As an academic from the “global south”, I see such pervasive double standards in opposite directions to how you see them, especially in the frequent re-writing of history to downplay the lingering effects of Western colonialsim. Make no miskate: Western colonilaim is not historically unique – as you mentioned in your earlier comment- yet it is so fresh in the memory of the global psyche that debates on it’s contemporary reprecussions will justifiably take centerstage in the intellectual waters you mentioned.

          I also understand how you can draw comparisons between the Turkish and Israeli agressions. I fully agree that there should never be different ethical yardsticks to judge the horrible crimes committed by humans against fellow humans in difefrent places of the world, including the Turkish crimes against Armenians and Kurds, and the ongoing Israeli brutality against the Palestinians. That said, Israeli occupation is a form of hyper-aggressive *settler colonialsim*, and the fact that it is current and on going, again, warrants the pervasive attention to Israeli aggression. The lack of adequate historical comparisons between these two examples, as you claim, does not mean that the current and continuous Israeli settler colonial aggression does not deserve international condemnation.

  3. Grumpy Liberal says

    All this kerfuffle about the pro-colonialism article. I wonder how many pro-socialism articles are published every day? That wasn’t exactly a great system either (referring to actual socialism, not liberal societies with welfare states).

    • Thanks, Neil! Lots to mull over here but wanted to say at the very least that your catch on the (non-)use of “primitive” is really very good – hadn’t come close to noticing that myself, and it’s extraordinarily telling.

  4. Pingback: Author of article on “the case for colonialism” withdraws it after death threats and social-media mobbing; academics are mostly silent « Why Evolution Is True

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  6. To quote John Stuart Mill in an article or essay pleading for freedom is the literary equivalent of quoting Heinrich Himmler or Leni Riefenstahl in an article or essay pleading for Human rights and Racial equality! He’s known as the most tyrannically oppressive anti democratic mill from the most anti democratic floss!

    Anti democratic ideas like pro colonialism or tyranny and oppression have been perennially opposed by the oppressed post colonial freedom loving democrats, when was love for freedom and loathing of nazistic ideas like gilley ever against the”mores of the moment”? Your defence for a tyranny loving gilley is more valid proff that whites eurotypicals are the biggest threat to freedom and democracy, and not just because the German EUmericans are the largest group in the US but becsuse the White Eurotypical EUmerica is a 4th Reich!

    Did they ie (those freedom loving democratic anti racists) threatening a nazi like gilley try to rob him!? Thugs are thrives and robbers, not freedom loving democratic anti racists, think you’d better use a hindi dictionary before you start using words without knowing their meaning, in any case ,it’s a racist term in this context , so it’s a democratic duty to rick nazis who use freedom and democracy to destroy freedom and democracy.

  7. Of course thats only to be expected, to celebrate colonialism is like celebrating tyranny and oppression, for post colonials its as psychologicaly damaging as an essay supporting nazism would traumatise Holocaust survivors!! true freedom loving democrats wouldnt and shouldn’t spare the Saxon naziface Kipling reading fascist! Would the Ashkenazi Jews spare a person defending Nazism!!? The gilley wanted to use freedom and democracy to destroy freedom and democracy, colonialism also rails against the so called founding ideals of america, freedom and democracy were the twin swords of mahatma gandhi and mandela that slayed the mother of nazism called the white britishit vampire! Here storytellers have the enduring image of white Britshit colonisers as demons and evil tyrants and their wives as ogresses who smear their breasts with poison to kill small indian babies, until a determined local hero rises and slays the white Britshit oppressor tyrant with his sickle and saves his town from oppressive white brutish destruction, many local village mothers get scared when they see a white woman cuddling their children, local legends also say that in the age of kali or kalyug, demons and monster children of Kali with pale white skin and red yellow hair will tyrannize and oppres the world with injustice and murder as their heros would be asleep while kali and her demon pale white children eat millions!

    Freedom and democracy needs to be reclaimed by post colonial indians and south Africans just like civil rights need to be reclaimed by afrcian americans!

    For instance ,The swastika which is a symbol of peace and festivity is used on sweet boxes on wedding invitations and festivals, but the white eurotypicals have defamed it and it’s now seen as symbol of hate, just like the whites have given a bad name to freedom and democracy by covering their christian crusading and racist motives by covering it with the noble name of democracy and causing a migrant crisis and nefariously manipulating the essence of freedom for their own tyrannical world domination agenda! White American majority are a tyrannical anti democratic facistocracy that uses freedom and democracy to destroy freedom and democracy!

    The founding fathers of non white countries wanted freedom FROM oppression but the founding eurotypical white ethnic racist fathers of America wanted Freedom TO oppress non white populations, whites championing freedom and democracy is like a prostitite championing moral chastity or a slave trader championing emancipation!

    White countries are as much champions of freedom and democracy as a slave trader who calls his slave ship with the name emancipation and when freedom lovers attack it to save themselves , the slave trader claims that emancipation was attacked and emancipation will be defended , the world doesn’t know that he wants to protect his slave ship with the name emancipation, the race of racists ie white eurotypicals politicize poltical science to further their own agenda of oppression!

    A colonizer denies democracy and national integration to the colonised nation just like a slave owner denies humanity to the slave , ie the colonier argues that the colonied nation is not a nation and so democracy is denied while the slave owner says that the slave isn’t human and so no human rights don’t apply to a property!

    A brave anti racist lover of freedom and democracy would do far more for freedom and democracy by thrashing this nazi to pulp then any piece of legislation! Uddham Singh was a lion of freedom and democracy who showed us how to deal with tyrannical oppressors like gilley!

    How is it that non white culture departments have only white “experts” but so called white culture departments have very few or no non white experts? Ans-academic neonazism!

    How is it that the US celebrates an independence day from white Britshit tyranny and oppression but also has a special relationship with the tyrannical white Britshit christian majority? Apparently for white eurotypical majority of America non white countries don’t deserve freedom FROM colonialst divide and rule oppression? Dont they understand that to call colonialsm as good for democracy is like saying poison is good for health? To argue for colonial benefits to the colonised is like arguing that the sun goes around the earth or that theory of evolution doesn’t scientifically explain human evolution or that nazism was good for Ashkenazi Jews!

    Indeed gilley is not the same as spencer just like KKK is not the same as Hitler’s Nazis, gilley is better as he’s more moderate in his white supremacy unlike hitler, hitler violently gassed the Jews in Auschwitz but the moderate KKK will just slowly poison them!?

    BTW thugs used to take from the rich and give to the poor, they were forced to become thugs to survive and not by choice, the white brutish colonials were confiscating the harvest of poor farmers many of whoom were dying of hunger and famines, the thugs decided not to become law abiding dead hungry people and broke the law and attacked some colonial caravans for some food grain and were thus labeled thugs!

    The colonisers were the real thugs who were making unjust laws that legalised injustice and moralized murder and loot! The white British stole farmers harvest

    Stupidity is inimical to rationaliy and Gilly is inimical to morality, the writer justifies the ban on an article about justifing slave trade and then says that colonialism isint that contempt worthy!

    Covert racist White femenists like Rodriguez and tina brown use femenism as a cover to further racist ideas, the whole fallacy assumes that white women can’t be racist towards non white men! That’s not true

  8. Teller says

    The most salient idea in the source article, the option of establishing well-funded “charter cities” in poor nations, as an example of good governance, is interesting, but it hardly deserves to be called re-colonization since colonization in its original form had the single-minded goal of extracting the ‘host’ region’s natural resources through the forced labor of its population.

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