Colonialism of the Mind

This post is going to be more personal. The thoughts I want to express come with a strong emotional flavor. And the taste is still somewhat bitter. I find it difficult to separate the two aspects, my thoughts and the feelings I have about them. I really would love if I could say these things with the distance that comes in time—maybe from a perspective I might have in 20 years or so. I will do my best to avoid the pitfalls that I sense exist, perceived from the receiving end. If I do not succeed completely—or not at all—my only defense is that I am human, and that I was educated “in the West”…

The emotional flavor of bitterness comes primarily from a memory. About half a year ago, I wrote a Facebook post taking a critical look at the incoming Biden administration. I had tried to imagine how the ideological divide could be reduced, by putting imaginary words of reaching out to Trump voters into President Biden’s inaugural address. I am copying my closing paragraph here.

I sense so much desire (on both sides) to punish the other side for their “sins”, and the other question I have is: how is that ever going to make things better? How does punishing one another end anywhere but in some sort of civil war…?

In response—in public comments, followed up by private messages—I experienced something that, on the receiving end, felt incredibly hard to swallow. What was going on? My intuition is this… Our style of public discourse includes habitually applying force. Whenever we believe we are correct, we are willing to condemn those who disagree with us. And our words, mine included, are then easily perceived as weapons. Put differently, we frequently behave in ways suggesting that others would be better off if they adopted our beliefs. That, to me, is a form of mental colonialism.

How does this matter?

While taking another course with Rebel Wisdom with the tagline of “How to Become a Live Player?”, I learned this: each and every time I demand that others change their views, I am acting a bit like an exorcist. I then consider another person’s belief as worthy of exorcism treatment. And while there may be a friendly conversation going on superficially, it seems like attempting to drive a demon of wrong-think from the world with proverbial holy water in the form of well intentioned words. On the receiving end this feels like a violation.

The worst thing? I myself have been communicating in this way for so long, it is difficult to perceive whether I am doing it right now. Am I writing this post to convince others that they are wrong? Maybe. Is that a bad thing? Who knows. Are there beliefs that need to be purged from the minds of the people I know and love? It is possible. And yet, I now believe that whenever I apply this invisible colonizing force of “if you do not believe as I tell you, then you are a bad, bad person!” I have left the path of wisdom.

With that, I would like to invite you to ponder with me the following question. How can people share with others when they feel that the beliefs or actions of the person they are communicating with contribute to pain and suffering, without applying this colonizing force? It would seem to me that if I can find a good answer to this question, I may be able to avoid running into the same wall again and again.

A conversation in which the two people talking grapple with that question, both on the content level and in the moment while having it, happened between Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke. Jordan’s repeated interruptions and pressing John to clarify felt difficult to watch at times. And John’s patience seemed to come with and from the very concept he explained, philia-sophia, the love of wisdom. If people are willing to exchange words in that spirit, they can reach one another’s hearts.

To my friends—both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum—I would want to say this: where in the past you felt that I have been demanding, I most likely pushed too hard. At least it seems I pushed harder than I now believe is good for the relationship between people. And where I experienced push-back coming from you, either directed at me or at other people you disagree with, I would like to invite you to think about this next question.

If you are willing to accuse others of being on the wrong side of history, morally speaking, while at the same time being willing to apply this force, how can you be sure that you are, indeed, on the right side of history?

There is an element of detached irony in all of this. The image I am using—mental colonialism—came to me after thinking about claims on the political left that suggest we seek a way out of the colonial past. Critical Theory adherents use words like postcolonialism. The more I think about it I find it somewhere between hilarious and deeply troubling that the attitudes I find present in myself and many of the people I communicate with still deeply stuck in that past.

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