Binary “Reasoning” and Decoloniality

I’ve been reading through excerpts from the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551 between Bartholome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda as well as an examination of it by Camille Reynolds. This “moral” debate took place over the brutal treatment of the First Peoples of the Americas. The wording of both sides and that of the Spanish Crown are quite revealing. That this debate seems to have been a template – if not the template – for debates and discussions on social issues right up to today, is why we in societies attempting to de-colonise must go through history with a fine-tooth comb and always, always seek to make connections to present events and narratives (by now you can guess that I do not see this template in a very positive way)

One of the things I liked about Donald Trump’s election and Brexit is they were both essentially revolts. Although these revolts was hijacked very early on – in the US by Trump and in Brexit by UKIP – they nonetheless showed that a great many people were finally expressing their outrage at Westernised binary political systems that for generations manipulated poor working people but ultimately left them no better off, while enriching already powerful controllers who view working people with contempt.

The term “Westernised” by the way is to be understood in the way scholars like Ramon Grosfuguel identify it. Prof. Grosfuguel points out that it does not matter if the educational institution is in Western Europe or the United States, once the country came under their influence, the model exists in some form or fashion. Trinidad and Tobago was colonised by Britain, people of African and Asian ancestry who aspired to move up in society were schooled and churched in British and French institutions and thus were made to adopt the ideals, dress and values of Britain and Europe. So their outlook often reflects Eurocentric grounding and that, unfortunately is how many look at world events, local crises and give prescriptions. They analyse and diagnose in ways that are elitist, disconnected; any real sense of equity or social justice is nothing but a farce and cynical, hollow lip service.

If one examines history and current events with a conscious mind, however, a much different picture emerges. From the perspective of de-coloniality, the Valladolid debate has a lot to teach us about avoiding binary reasoning.

Take the figure of Bartholome de Las Casas for instance. In primary and secondary schools all across the Caribbean Bartholome de Las Casas has been projected as the man who campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the native peoples who were suffering under the brutality of the Spanish settlers. In the Valladolid debate he spars with Juan de Sapulveda, a humanist who was deeply immersed in the philosophies of Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, supported forcible conversions of the First Peoples to Christianity and other firm measures the Spanish were taking.

Sepulveda argued, using Aristotelian beliefs of the “natural” inferiority of certain peoples and Aquinan/Augustinian ideas of “just wars,” that the First Peoples of the Americas were lacking in reason and so were incapable of ruling themselves. The little reason they did possess and what form of self-rule they did have was in no way equal to the forms of rule and order that existed in Christian Spain. As such they needed the firm hand of the Spanish authorities; any force or atrocity used to bring about conformity was necessary and indeed just. His justifications sound eerily familiar:

“[T]hese people are barbaric, uninstructed in letters and the art of government, and completely ignorant, unreasoning….are sunk in vice, are cruel..

“[They] are obliged by natural law to obey those who are outstanding in virtue and character…

“that if the Indians, once warned, refuse to obey this legitimate sovereignty, they can be forced to do so for their own welfare

From the Westernised way most of us have been conditioned in our education system, this is starting to look pretty clear-cut: Sepulveda and the Spanish government, bad guys, Las Casas, good guy.

But the position of Bartholome de Las Casas is no less eye-opening; Las Casas, who lived and worked in the Americas and personally witnessed the atrocities of the Spanish, was strongly opposed to this measure. He favoured instead, peaceful conversion of the Native Peoples largely through a system of welfare. Las Casas, while firmly opposed, drew from the same philosophies of Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas to argue that:

[I]t is unlawful to force the Indians to the faith by war, or by the misfortunes of war to make them hate the Christian religion…

But then he informs us that:

“[Pope] Alexander VI commended Ferdinand and Isabella’s proposal to subject the native and inhabitants to themselves and to lead them to the Catholic faith,…

“that they subjugate (that is, dispose) them for the faith in such a way in which one should subjugate a most civilised, sincere, naked, docile, decent and peaceful people..

“[I]t is very easy for our rulers to subject that people to their authority without the disturbances of war..

[I]t is granted that subjection to their rule is fitting…still it must be proportionate and suited to that purpose, which is specifically the spread of the glory of the divine name and the conversion of those peoples…

All of this sounds a lot like some of the rhetoric you normally hear before the West went into many wars doesn’t it? Take your pick: the Spanish-American War, the 1914-18 “Great” War, World War II (it’s interesting that Hitler had no initial desire to fight England, a country whose colonial expansions he admired), Viet Nam, Grenada, Afghanistan, Syria…

Note too the tone of the instructions from the Spanish Crown to Sepulveda; note the directive:

to inquire into and develop the forms and laws to preach our Holy Catholic Faith in the New World” and

to examine how those people may be subjected to Us, without damage to Our conscience

Compare that to speeches made in the last 30-odd years from successive US presidents and British Prime Ministers to spread “freedom and democracy” to the same resource-rich countries wracked by conflicts often created or provoked by Europe and the US, waged by corrupt, brutal dictators who at one time or another were installed by Western powers after removing and/or killing progressive leaders who didn’t care too much about Western interests.

At the core of the Velladolid debate was the idea (that was definitely not debated) about the “right” of a European country to impose its will and ideas on that of the peoples encountered. Europeans arrogated unto themselves the “right” to exploit the resources of another place and subjugate the peoples who live there. It’s a theme that was already old by the 16th century; all one had to do with to strip the peoples of their humanity and any atrocity was permissible.

We see this hubristic theme played out over and over and over right up to today. Scholars like Walter Mignolo, Ramon Grosfuguel, ‪Sabelo Ndlovu Gatsheni, Dr Ama Biney and Dr Lwazi Lushaba are making us see the connections and similarities in the wording of this historic debate and statements made in the centuries following it as Europe and Euro-America sought to justify invasions, “police” actions and “conflicts” (because Korea and Viet Nam were not wars apparently) and interventions in resource-rich or strategically placed countries all over the globe. Some students of history forget that the 1914-18 war was fought over the issue of who got to own what resource-rich area in Africa. The seeds for that were sown in the Berlin Conference of 1884. And in what way was Sepulveda’s use of theology to justify “just wars” any different from the concept of “just war” advanced by George W Bush, Dick Cheney and carried on by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?

The attitude of both Sepulveda and Las Casas are exactly what we find in the reasoning of colonial and imperialistic/globalising powers: certain peoples are too violent, primitive or wedded to barbaric ideas and customs and for their own good and protection need to be placed under the authority of a superior way of life and thinking exemplified by us, the dominant power. Ms Reynolds’ essay is itself interesting and indicative of a certain (unconscious?) cultural attitude. Yes, the focus of the essay was to show how Sepulveda misapplied theological teachings for narrow political and avaricious purposes. She mentions Las Casas’ rebuttal charge that Augustine’s idea of a just war was misrepresented by Sepulveda – in Augustine’s treatises the waging of a just war was permissible in the face of injustice by an aggressor force however the aims were never for profit or gain, which was the primary purpose of the Spanish. It would have been good, however, to note a similar mindset in the arguments of Las Casas; among his arguments was that “just war” was only permissible if the native peoples refused to accept the Christian faith upon initial contact.

If we look critically we can see almost identical reasoning and narratives in the anti-slavery debates – it was certainly the line of reasoning adopted by William Wilberforce, another sacred cow who, as was taught to me and those of my generation, laboured tirelessly to end the barbaric slave trade. His results came to fruition when Emancipation was declared in 1834. Nice, ok. Funny how it was seldom mentioned that he believed that the:

“negroes were creatures like ourselves…but their minds are uninformed and their moral characters were altogether debased. Men in this state, were almost incapacitated for the reception of civil rights”.

Funny too how it is not pointed out that he condemned the Haitian Revolution. The expulsion of whites (except those from Poland who fought with them – another little thing left out of many historical narratives) and creating of an independent state filled him and many others with horror and disgust. And his views were by no means unique; many abolitionists who were thorns in the sides of pro-enslavement establishment harboured views just as racist as the ones held by the plantocracy. Only a few were as principled as, say, Thomas Clarkson.

Analysing Western left- and right-wing debates on such issues as foreign policy, donor aid, feminism, civil rights, criminal justice in a binary fashion is fraught with too much pitfalls. The core belief uniting the two sides of the Valladolid Debate – the “right” of a European culture to take what it wanted, when it wanted and impose its beliefs on peoples — is virtually an article of faith and was not open to question. Neither was it open to question during the expansionist exercises as European settlers expanded westward into North America. It was not open to question when the US military went into Haiti in 1915 and Cuba a few years before that and in Hawai’i before that. It was not open to question during the Scramble for Africa or even after World War II when Europe’s economies were shattered; the French, for instance, still insisted on its right to colonise Algeria and Viet Nam. All through this were a number of thinkers and speakers who were not necessarily against the exploitation of resources, lands and people for the economies of the West, they were just against the method.

The pattern is often so clear, often the only thing that changes is the name to provide the pretext. During the Valladolid Debate the question was whether the First Peoples had souls and how should they receive the Catholic (universal) faith. The same questions were asked during the abolition debates. As the West expanded into other people’s lands they were bringing “Christianity”, then civilisation,” then “democracy” (well, until countries like Guatemala, Chile and Iran became too democratic), then “freedom and democracy.” In the latest round of the civilising mission, debates and discussions revolve around “freedom, democracy” and “human rights”. So now we see armies and corporations invading on the very selective basis of whether or not a place exercises “human rights.” And on that score the rights of women are of late a particular selling point – as it has been trotted out from time to time ever since perhaps the Crusades. This notion seems to ride on a now largely unspoken idea of the need to “save” the “vulnerable” women of resource-rich lands from the savagery of repressive patriarchy. A noble idea of course, but how is it that women are always projected as a primary reason for the West rushing in to “save” yet whatever indigenous cultures exist that empower women and femininity are shunted aside, ignored, paternalised and often pathologised?

And furthermore, it’s astonishing how so many from the “colonised class” engage in discussions from the position of the colonisers and Western “globalisationists.” I am close to some wonderful, amazing people who are thinkers or activists for some noble causes. They see themselves as radical and in many respects they are. But how often are we, through trite arguments on what is human rights, who is a feminist, who is Africentrist, who is a victim… transferring Euro-American ideas of being and non-being from there to here? Don’t we realise that each and every time this was done, those categorised as “non-being” on the basis of being “tribal” or whatever, were being set up to be invisibilised and demonised so that when sanctions or bombs (or both) are rained down on them, it’s justified as being done for the greater good of “freedom and democracy” yet enriching some fat cat in Wall Street? Why are so many of us complicit in this? Just examine the wording of the debaters and the instructions of the Spanish Crown, see that the only significant change that has been made in 500 years or so is the justification.

Indeed, on the issue of demonising and invisibilising it would do some of us well to examine our own selves and see if we carry on this same mindset on a smaller, local scale. Some of us analyse depressed communities and how they should be dealt with to curb “crime” in the spirit of Valladolid. Since the 19th century certain types of crimes were understood in the context of social inequity – read the West India Royal Commission aka the Moyne Commission into the labour disturbances of 1937; read its description of living/working conditions and compare it with what’s written today by Dr. Ramesh Deosaran, any major difference? So how come our approaches and prescriptions are variations of old colonial policies of repression? How come we seek to impose the “Broken Windows” method – informed by old racist pathologising ideas of innate Black “criminality” here. We assign non-being to certain people living in Laventille, Morvant, John-John, Cacandee, Icacos, Moruga, Enterprise in Chaguanas (and many of them then internalise it themselves). How often do university graduates sitting in Parliament, Queens park Cricket Club, Country Club or the Chamber of Commerce “know” what is best for people in rural communities they have never visited (or couldn’t wait to run away from) and so build a highway through mangroves and communities or put down a rapid rail so more people could come to Port of Spain to conduct business as if the damn capital wasn’t congested enough as it is? No wonder MX Prime’s “Full Extreme” became all but an anarchist’s anthem among grassroots people this Carnival gone.

History is often messy and with many sides, all of which may be valid at the same time, and there often aren’t any good guys. The Valladolid debate shows us that. At the heart of that system lies a Left Wing vs Right Wing model that grows out of the same corbeaux (vulture) that was a very young bird in the 16th century. Many of our own see this and have been speaking about it: if Lloyd Best was too deep, Afra Raymond isn’t, go on his website “A Thinking Man’s Weblog”, listen to, say “The So-Called Political Divide,” maybe then you’ll understand why Lloyd Best used to say “Panning and Manday” to speak of the lack of ideological differences between the then Manning-led PNM and the Panday-led UNC.

Or go and listen again to some early Kurt Alleyne or Black Stalin’s seemingly timeless classic “Ism/Schisms”. Don’t say nobody warned you.


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