Decolonizing Activism | Phil Stewart

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*Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

 “Young white liberals love hummus.”

I had never realized that my personal enjoyment of a Mediterranean chickpea spread was, in fact, an identifier of my race, age, and socio-political alignment. According to my friend Denny, though, the prepackaged pretzel and hummus container in my hand was as unsurprising as it was incriminating. 

“You see, for young white liberals, the world is their oyster. So they love hummus and sushi and all sorts of things that come from somewhere else.” 

Denny is right to make such a pointed observation. Denny is Native American, and looks the part. Almost 2 meters tall, with copper skin and twin braids, he is highly educated in both Western and traditional curricula, and is acutely aware of the degree to which the latter is excluded by the former. He is sharply critical of many academic fields, especially history, economics, and archaeology. “Some of these things, it’s clear they just made it up.” Particularly in the case of anthropology, for which field the study of Native American groups is a popular pastime, he sees many Western, mostly white, academics self-congratulatorily reinventing the wheel without pursuing a real, honest understanding of the Native perspective. “They could just ask the Indians; we’re still here, you know?”

It is exactly this asking which is absent from the mind of the modern progressive. Educated, tech-savvy, and traveled, we take what steps we can to be allies to groups outside of our own. We marched with signs declaring “Black Lives Matter;” we used Facebook’s location settings to check in at Standing Rock; we retweeted #IllRideWithYou to help our Muslim compatriots feel safe. These actions are well-intentioned, even noble, and I do not intend to disparage or discourage active engagement in social movements that one strongly believes in. However, as in-group solidarity forms through the Internet, one risk of running in such activist circles is that we often fail to investigate some of our foundational assumptions and values, much less challenge them. When we march, protest, rally, and petition for the progress of groups which have been colonized, oppressed, and marginalized, we must be very cautious not to assume that our expectation of progress is shared by the groups who we claim to support. Even the goals and objectives of well-intentioned allies are colored by a complex cocktail of our own histories, upbringings, and educations.

The way in which categories of identity – race, gender, sexuality, class – overlap and experience varying degrees of exclusion is known in sociological circles as intersectionality. The reality of intersectionality is that it is messy. This fact is generally understood by most reasonable progressives, and was well articulated by South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg in an interview with the New Yorker. Buttigieg happens to be a gay man, and was questioned by interviewer Benjamin Wallace-Wells about his role as a leader in the LGBT community.

“I had noticed that, in his interview on ‘CBS This Morning,’ no one mentioned that Buttigieg could be the first gay President. I asked him whether he saw that as a measure of how quickly gay identity has become accepted. ‘Depends where you are,’ he said, thoughtfully. ‘You quickly get plunged into this world where you’re supposed to represent your community,’ but at that point he had little experience of the gay community. ‘Like, I will fight for the trans woman of color, but do I really know anything about her experience because I’m married to a dude?’”[i]

This is an appropriate, humble response from Buttigieg. He recognizes that belonging to minority social group does not necessitate that he can understand and speak for allminority social groups. Nevertheless, he also confirms a willingness to defend the rights of these other groups, even without perfect understanding of the experience of those belonging to them. This is the position all activists find ourselves in; it is no good to speak only for those who are just like me. This logic is perhaps best encapsulated in Martin Niemöller’s famous short poem which circulated after World War II:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

It is clear that we all have a moral, ethical, and social duty to stand up for our fellow human beings who are vulnerable and marginalized. Less clear is which values, if any, are actually universal, and the conversation concerning this problem is conspicuous in its absence from non-academic progressive discourse.

Are there values which transcend culture? 20thcentury Christian theologian C.S. Lewis certainly thought so, and he used his ideas of universal morality to build a case for the existence of God in his book Mere Christianity

“There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own…think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.”[ii]

Confident as Lewis is in his claim, his view is unfortunately narrow, and lacking real cross-cultural understanding. In fact, his final claim that selflessness is a universal value is directly contradicted by Randian Objectivism, which I have written about before. The idea that the value system of one culture should dominate others is directly antithetical to the socially conscientious mentality. Over the past century or so, the idea of cultural relativism has come into prominence, and rightly so; this idea partly motivates the very existence of activism. One easy example is the support for LGBT rights, resisting the idea that predominantly Christian values of heteronormativity should be dominant to the exclusion of alternative sexualities and gender identities.  

Consider, though, whether we do not often conveniently overlook the real philosophical problems of cultural relativism. Our modern ideas of human rights have distinctly Western, Enlightenment roots, and are often formed in the context of specifically Western cultural assumptions. For example, we can all surely agree that all people, and particularly women, should be inviolate in their sexual autonomy, and that consent is an obvious prerequisite for sexual activity. But how explicit must this consent be? For Westerners in Thailand, this question is extremely pertinent, as there exists a completely different category of sexual encounter, halfway between explicitly consensual and rape:

“The word ‘blum [plum],’ which translates roughly as ‘wrestling,’ is how Thais describe unconsenting sex that a man initiates to make a woman fall in love with him. It is considered different from ‘khom-kheun,’ the criminal act of rape…”[iii]

It took me a while to figure out that plum is forceful seduction. A woman makes it known she likes a guy, but social mores make it difficult for her to take it a step further. A romantic Thai man thus takes the only recourse possible, he forces himself on the woman. The deed having been done, they can get on with having a relationship. So is it consensual? Now that’s a hard question. The woman may not be consenting, but once it is over, she has a bond or relationship with that man which is something she may have wanted from the start…Oh, did you hear that just then? That was the echoing sound of the gaping chasm between Thai and Western culture creaking, as the two cliffs shift even further apart, and the chasm plunges deeper.[iv]

In the United States, the phenomenon described above is known as date rape, and is unequivocally condemned by progressives. Should Western activists, then, insert themselves into social and cultural dialogue in Thailand? Should our notions of sexual ethics overrule the common practice in another country? Perhaps! But this does leave us in an uncomfortable place philosophically. What, then, is to be done?

            Well, we could ask the Thais. 

This is the crux of the whole issue. I have no doubt that the above quotations were highly uncomfortable for many readers; sexual assault is a deeply troubling subject. It is only to be expected that Western readers may have an immediate emotional response to the concept of “plum,” and desire to speak out against it. First, though, we must recognize that we live outside of the Thai context, and that our own activism rightly takes a backseat to the direction of Thai leadership on issues pertaining directly to them. It turns out that this is a controversial issue in Thailand, with many Thais speaking out against the representation of “plum” in soap operas and other media. Very well, then; our outrage is well-founded, and we have a channel for dialogue with our counterparts within Thai culture. Because we first asked, we now have an answer which builds solidarity and provides a barrier to inadvertently asserting Western values where they may not be welcome.

I have certainly been guilty of pretension in this regard. As a young person, I spent several years on a Native American reservation as a teacher. To even take on such a role presumes a great deal; first and foremost, that I had anything worthwhile to teach to Native American kids. Although I considered myself open-minded, progressive, and idealistic, the reality is that I brought with me to the Reservation a whole host of unconscious preconceptions, assumptions, and misunderstandings about Native American society, past and present. It took a process of years, living and working almost exclusively within the borders of the Reservation, to deconstruct many of these assumptions and misconceptions, which was a humbling experience. I am grateful for the patience of my students and friends, particularly my friend Denny, who answered many questions that I honestly had no right to be asking. The more I have learned about the people who took me in, the more I realize the depth of my ignorance, and I am less likely now to speak on issues pertaining to Native Americans than I was when I first came to the Reservation. Now, if asked about such things, I limit my response. Go ask the Indians, I say instead.

This brings us back to hummus. Young white liberals love hummus. And sushi. And pho. And tacos and guacamole and Pride parades and RuPaul and hip-hop and dreamcatchers and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We are more aware than ever of other people and other groups, and our world continues to shrink as globalization entrenches itself ever more deeply. We are delighted to have the fun and superficial elements of the dazzling array of human culture – but too often, we wrongfully assume that this also qualifies us to speak on issues pertaining to other communities, and even more wrongfully assume that we know the solution to the problems we identify (correctly or incorrectly). It is good to desire justice, equality, and acceptance for all citizens of our countries and of our world. The foundation for this desire is listening. Every person has a unique perspective, and every community is full of complexity, contradiction, and history. To assume that we have an understanding of the issues facing a community is presumptive; to speak in the place of that community is downright colonial. Let’s take the time to listen.

Phil Stewart is a historian and educator based out of Texas, USA. He is an advocate of free speech and human rights, especially in marginalized communities.



[i]Associated Press. “Thai Soaps Trigger Outcry Over Romanticising Rape.” NDTV.com. October 16, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2019. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/thai-soaps-trigger-outcry-over-romanticising-rape-680081.

[ii]Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

[iii]Associated Press. “Thai Soaps Trigger Outcry Over Romanticising Rape.” NDTV.com. October 16, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2019. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/thai-soaps-trigger-outcry-over-romanticising-rape-680081.

[iv]“Women, Clinch and Sexuality in Thailand – Perils of “Bplum” and the Eros of the Neck.” Sylvie Von Duuglas-Ittu – 8LimbsUs. December 13, 2015. Accessed March 20, 2019. http://8limbs.us/muay-thai-thailand/women-clinch-thai-perils-rape-bplum-neck-thailand.

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