I was reminded yesterday in conversation with guests of the theory that the loss of language and culture for the Irish people contributed to the seeming lack of will of spirit in facing the great famine.
That’s seemingly the same that’s behind the issue of the Residential schools, the methodical breakdown of the spirit of a people by taking away their clothing and dressing them in something quite foreign to them, cutting their hair, denying them their language…even in some schools, how many of them?, that siblings were not allowed to talk with each other.
Now the residential school system was presented to the dominant culture population as civilizing a savage people, as was the notion for dealing with the Irish or a host of indigenous peoples who lived in territories where Great Britain, and other colonists, coveted the people’s wealth of resources. And of course, colonial powers who were powerful enough to take all the resources they wanted from anywhere. And felt superior enough as a People to justify it to themselves.
The dominant culture of 19th century Britain was highly sophisticated with good education, higher learning, the best and brightest. The economy was strong enough that a large portion of the society could feel independent, feel that they were able to choose and shape a life. And it would seem too, that the majority of the people if one was to meet them in their sitting rooms would seem good people, believe in some kind of right order, in other words, would be citizens who believe in a moral and just society.
So how does that society, those otherwise educated, critical thinkers, come to believe so much in its own virtue and celebrate its own success, and honours its leaders for enabling this paragon of a decent and admirable society? How when what resides beneath it all is the exploitation and abuse of other peoples? For thirty years the British parliament debated and studied and debated and studied and debated more, in the voices of most eloquent of speakers of the time, the question of the emancipation of slaves all the while knowing full well over those 30 years the day in and out inhuman treatment of slaves on British ships. KHow could they be those decent people knowing that weak slaves were thrown off ships to drown before landing on shore because, if dead, the company could make a claim of loss with the insurance company that the company couldn’t if they arrived in harbour with (alive) unsalable slaves.
I’ve argued before that our condemnation now of leaders such as Egerton Ryerson who set policy for the residential schools may be misplaced, not wrong in our condemnation, but not honest. Ryerson was only a good bureaucrat. He performed very well in the interest of the Crown. Sure we can tear down a bronze statue of him because who actually admires bronze statuary anymore, and who really cares about him anymore. But if we are asked to question our Head of State, that symbol of our nationhood, and ask why the very same symbol of Crown, all that it stands for, remains the representative of our values to the world, the question is harder to face. I know, the Queen is a nice person who people, and most of my family and friends, like. But it’s the Crown I ask about. In fact, many would be upset with me for even suggesting that the Crown be replaced with an Indigenous elder as a symbol of two nations in reconciliation over the land. I’m only saying it seems to me, as we tear down these statues and change the names of streets and universities, that let us look in the mirror at our own allegiances and think that better than the historic crown to represent out values, let our values be represented in the office defined by Indigenous values. Why not have an elder of the first peoples stand for the cooperation of the two nations, and be Head of State? Better yet include too the indigenous Inuit peoples. Especially today. It is the crown that ravaged land and sea. The crown that went into the North and in 20 years decimated the whale population the Inuit had lived with for thousands of years in harmony. Which represents who we are today, or need to be today.
The difference between condemning Ryerson and dispensing with the Colonial tainted Crown, is that the Crown, thanks to the very effective reimagining of Royalty by Elizabeth II (as she likes to call it, her family business) is newly embedded in our identity as celebrity, our entertaining, rich friend.
It is very hard for us to deny our identity. Look at the laborious work of counselling, the effort and time to come to terms with some cognitive dissonance. The disruption that leads to change has to be deep, a tragedy, a deep pain, some overwhelming experience, or a long time for letting go, decades of analysis, even then with no guarantee for a reimagining of one’s identity.
That identity is shaped in childhood. As is said, we spend the rest of our lives living with it. It’s complicated. How does the way we were raised match with our personality and temperament; what are the circumstances of who we meet, who helps us, or what opportunity falls our way? Each person is a unique mix of internal and external factors that become a particular concoction for the living out of our lives, and that personal chemistry is contained in the beaker of our identity. Break the glass and what happens? We can’t imagine. Well, don’t really want to either.
It’s telling that people will go to great lengths to not be wrong: they will lie where they are usually quite honest, they will obfuscate, deny, avoid, blame others when they are normally decent people -but will do anything to avoid feeling in the wrong. Research into the dynamics of counselling psychology shows that a client who has a poor experience with a counsellor will most always report being helped by the counsellor because, as the researchers suggest, the client who chose the counsellor and committed to that counsellor doesn’t wish to project to the researcher that she or he had made a mistake selecting that counsellor. And so the counsellor gets a good report.
Advertising and promotion – yes, social and political propaganda – help us feel good about ourselves. We tend to think that advertising tries to control us, but I expect in large measure it comes more down to us allowing advertising to control us. If we thought about the logic of most ads we’d think them silly, but we don’t, in fact, think about it. Thinking about it would give us a problem, like the counsellee, we’d have to question our judgement. I’ve mentioned elsewhere about the ad I showed students on the first day of one of the courses I taught. It’s a smiling face of a coed, a young woman about the students’ age, holding a bottle of coke with the caption ‘Open Happiness.’ I ask them if they see anything odd in the ad. Only after some prodding about the message do they realize that drinking a coke probably won’t make them happier people. And they get the stupidity of the idea, but not right away because they, like all of us, want to believe the ad. It makes us feel good about ourselves. We want to believe this world of products we live in is our happiness, that we are happy in this life. This is especially true for the ads that make us feel good about our cultural and political standing in the world, as I’m sure the 19th century British and Canadian populations thought, messages from the authorities that made them feel good about the stature and nobility of their society, a society that bought and sold slaves, slaughtered indigenous people, and ravaged their rubber, furs, spices and cottons.
Here’s one of the messages they would have seen in the 19th century, that without thinking too much they would have accepted as reasonable. What does the message convey? Residential schools is a good thing: look we’ve taken a peculiar looking primitive, a gun toting child even, and made them look like us, and how much better that young person will be, to be like us. It doesn’t matter of course that the indigenous dress is all wrong for that young man. They’ve put him in a woman’s dress. What matters for the message is not its truth, of course not. What matters above all is that the dominant society has a visual prompt to feel good about itself.
Only now do we learn what is behind that ad, find out about the cruelty, something told us by the indigenous peoples for decades, but only with the graves of hundreds of innocent children, did their voice actually cut through the dominant culture messages, to get our attention.
Now we begin to see the actual motive for destroying a culture, not to civilize a savage people but to expand and preserve the selfish interest of the dominant culture. If the host culture continued to exist, it could be a threat of resistance to the occupying colonials. As with the Irish. If the Irish were to keep their dignity of culture, they would hardly tolerate the invasive British. So the smart British implemented a very effective strategy all over the world to destroy the souls of people. Having suppressed, subservient people better enabled extraction of those indigenous people’s resources without resistance. Good British business.
And they were smart. The British were very good at what they did, conquering the world. Better than other countries who would wish the same. The British were at the top of their game. When Napoleon was negotiating a treaty with the Russians that included secret terms where the two countries would unite to attack India – source of Britain’s material wealth and power – the British knew about the plan and thwarted it. The British had a disaffected Russian nobleman hiding under the raft the French and Russians negotiated on, his feet in the water, and he heard every word, and reported it all to the British. The British were more shrewd than the French and bettered them, were smarter at war even better than Napoleon.
I think that’s a big reason why society finds it so easy to believe the messages of their authorities, not question them. If the actions of a country’s authorities are so smart as to provide security and ease and comfort and riches to the citizens, then yes, citizens will enable that authority and by extension that exploitation. Just a veneer of doing right and the citizens can reap the benefits. For the British population, they fell for “civilizing the world,” as the Crown proclaimed. Don’t question; fall in line; feel good about it all. As I wrote elsewhere, Canadians like to feel good about their virtue, a middle nation that brokers peace and advocates for justice in the world community. As I wrote elsewhere, west our collective ears to hear of Canadian companies, for example, that Barrick Gold, a staple of many secure pension funds, poisons local water supplies around their foreign mines, leading to birth defects in the local community. The paid, armed security of the Canadian company roughhouses any local opposition and the company bribes to the government allow this Canadian company to to do as it wishes in a foreign land.
We just don’t want to hear that. It shatters the beaker glass, kills the illusion of our pure Canadian identity. Instead, we listen only for what message that will defend us from feeling in the wrong. Any, even a lie. As the British knew for years about the abuse of the slavery business, we know about the climate crisis. When talking to people this summer and mentioning the Heat Dome as a strong indication we need to act on climate change, I was told over and over that ‘it’s out there. Not here.’ We can’t stop slavery it was pointed out. There are 4,000 jobs at stake. We invested heavily in infrastructure in the Manchester and Bristol ports. We can’t possibly stop now. Familiar reasoning?
Look. I am part of the problem. Writing all this might make me sound superior to it. NO! But I do want to understand how we give away authority, and how we negotiate our identity and how we might find our way around identity obsession if only to save our species from itself. That begins by asking where I am deluded in my thinking. Consider the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers; so many of them live in or did live in authoritarian regimes; many others have had run-ins with authority in Canada whether in education, healthcare, work… We easily dismiss those who distrust authority and we judgementally minimize the basis for their beliefs. Whether anyone is right or wrong, there may be some truth behind why that person holds her or his views, some human truth informing those beliefs, a stance they take, right or wrong, a spirit we might respect more courageous than any spirit of the rest of us just going along with things they are, not wanting to think about it. How hard is that for you and me to consider ourselves the culprit in someone else’s life. Many questions below the appearance of things might change the smugness of us knowing so much better. For me, the questions include how to cut through my own rationalizations, and through any self-assurances I have for feeling so right. I could be as implicated in my beliefs as the nice citizens back in colonial Britain enjoying the fruits of empire and feeling smug for being on top of the world, all the while supporting a national identity that pillages other cultures simply for material gain. How different is American hegemony that we profit by any less than British hegemony a century ago?
After finding that place of honesty, where would I find myself? In what place, in what way? On a cross? In a monastery? Walking the roads naked, barefoot as a Jain monk. How absurd we might say of the Jain monk, yet speaking for themselves, the Jain monks speak of their freedom and happiness. Unless we look at the world from upside down, we may not see the world for what it is.