Will We Be Forgiven For The Violence We Are Perpetrating Today? History Has Answers

Posted by Kameng Kundilya in History, Society
July 7, 2017

“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

-John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty”

I recently had a conversation with a friend on the kind of impact that these incidents of lynching could have. We ended our conversation with the question- will we have an impact on history or will we end up as just a footnote?

Will our generation be known for its silence when people were being killed because of their attire or will be we the tide that turned the whole society for the better?

The thing is that we do leave footprints, no matter how small.

Our thoughts for the next few days revolved around a number of times in history when a person was ever framed for something they had not done. And, just like the present can impact the future, the past also has an impact on the present. To understand the impact of the past, let us analyze two incidents of the past. Incidents that were seemingly harmless theories by philosophers, but were used to meet exploitative ends.

The rise of the mercantile class from the 16th century onward led to the increase of wealth and influx of money to their nation states. It corresponded to an age of extensive exploration and discovery, the discovery of the New World and the sea route to the Orient. These two things became the driving force of the economy and political policies of European powers from the 16th century onwards. During the initial stages of the discovery of the New World, there was an influx of gold and silver bullion to the respective states. This led to a sudden boom in the economy, especially those of Britain, Holland, France and Spain. 

There were more jobs, and the establishment of trade companies led to more opportunities for both poor and rich people. The new class of merchants became the new middle class. The nobility was forced to recognise this class as they became dependent upon them for goods and trade. At that time, the overland trade to the Orient was minimal due to wars being waged against the Ottoman. This meant that the merchants were in a major position of power, something which unheard hitherto.

The New World was a land of opportunities for the Europeans. The laws of Europe did not apply here and this meant a certain level of freedom for the colonisers. The level of ignorance at which the Europeans operated in the 17th century was staggering, as they were completely convinced of their superiority.

Europeans were completely convinced that their culture was superior.

Today, our generation realizes the importance of cultural relativity, and how the failure of not having similar customs does not mean that they were absent in the first place.

Such a thing was incomprehensible in early modern Europe. Europeans in the 17th century failed to realise that the lack of similar customs and ideals did not mean that it was absent. This thought led to the extinction of many cultures all over the world. White guilt and the idea behind it is considered to be too harsh, but have they ever apologised for disappearing those thousands of Native Americans tribes and enslaving African?

Even the Civil Rights movement was met with opposition. White guilt has not been understood till date or it has been used to plead the victim card by the White. From the White Man’s burden to the White guilt, the world has come a long way in the past 400 years. The Colonial era was a time of flux and chaos. It was a race between the nations to colonise as much area as possible and use it to generate profit. This meant that most of the nations were willing to disregard certain elements of the universal moral code in exchange for monetary and financial profits.

White guilt has not been understood till date. From the White Man’s burden to the White guilt, the world has come a long way in the past 400 years. The Colonial era was a time of flux and chaos. It was a race between the nations to colonise as much area as possible and use it to generate profit. This meant that most of the nations were willing to disregard certain elements of the universal moral code in exchange for monetary and financial profits.

All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.
-John Locke, “Second Treatise of Civil Government”

John Locke in his book, “Two Treatises of the Government”, proposed the theory of State of Nature, in which he mentions a point in history where, in a society, there were no rules, no social contract, no state structure, no property ownership. This idea was used as a thought exercise in universities and intellectual safe spaces to understand the nature of barbarians.

The State of Nature was a Darwinian paradise, which stated that only the strongest and most adaptive could survive and procreate. Locke was one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment era, he is considered the Father of Liberalism. What is not known is that this same theory was used by the colonisers of North America. Holland, Britain and others were generating huge revenues from these areas, but there was a problem which caused hindrance in their drive to generate resources. The problem was that those regions already had people living on them. The Native Americans did not have the same concept of structures as the Europeans had. 

John Locke’s book that introduced the concept of “State Of Nature”.

For instance, some tribes were nomadic in nature as such they moved around during seasons, the route which they took or the places where they stopped for grazing were part of their designated lands, but for the Europeans, such a thing did not make sense. Cultural relativity was a concept that was not yet understood or even known for that matter. The Europeans had not realised that the failure of similar structure did not mean the absence of it completely. This was interpreted by the Europeans as Natives not having any concept of land. 

This is the situation where Locke’s State of Nature was used. The alleged lack of state structure meant that the white man’s burden logic had to come up. This led to genocide, mass executions, displacement of communities and gendered labour. There was no concept of prisoner of war for them at that time. However, for the British, these people were not equals and hence will never be given the status of prisoner of wars as such privileges were reserved for only other Europeans.

The Europeans were convinced that their culture is universally grounded and applicable when put with a different culture, which they used for exploitation. This exploitation took many forms, one of which was gendered labour. Men were forced into labour and women were coerced into being housemaids, they were then denied access to lands which have been their right since birth. Locke further reinstated the idea of nature of the state in those regions by proclaiming it to the masses saying that there is no rule of law and hence can be exploited.

Locke’s State of Nature was “sanitised intellectual racism that colonial European used in their expansionist policies.” The desire of the colonisers was never to seek equality for the natives. Rather for them, it was like the waterhole of resources. For them, there was the absence of culture which could only be fulfilled by teaching them basics of civilisation.

“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them”

-John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill is most famously known for his thoughts on liberty. But except for those who have read Mill outside their political science course, very few know of his thoughts on utility. Mill’s thoughts on utility weren’t strictly philosophical neither was it completely economic. Like Locke, Mill’s philosophical thoughts were used in a manner to maximise profits.

Before coming to Mill’s contribution to the murder of a culture, we need to understand the picture of Indian Education in India before Macaulay wrote the “Minute on Education(1835)”. Indian education was primarily one where children were taught things relevant to the society they lived in.

Education before the age of the East India Company consisted of two kinds, one where kids of the village would gather under a tree and learn the basics from the local teacher. The school would start from dawn and go up to late morning and then a small break where they would go back home and help their parents out with chores and then in the afternoon they would come back to continue. School back then meant a place for discussion and deliberation.

The other kind was where a local teacher would come to the house and teach them, it was usually for the rich families such as zamindars. This was the traditional manner in which they people were educated in India prior to the entry of the East India Company.

Mill was an ardent follower of Utilitarianism as he was taught by Bentham and his father, James Mill, both of them who were renowned for their utilitarian ideals. He believed that only when an individual achieved the greatest happiness level will he be fully effective in his functioning in society. He propagated the idea of utility when he was part of the East India Company.

It was decided to abolish the primordial modes of education as it did not satisfy the Company’s needs. The Company needed profits which will only come from the obedience of the system and not by questioning it. They taught thousands of Indian youngsters the charms of the British way and the ideas behind it. Mill was a follower of Bentham’s school, as such, he also believed in the theories of greatest-happiness principle. Here is the funny thing, Mill only applied the utility principle for the Company. He left out the part where he did not consider the happiness of the millions of Indians. 

Is Utilitarianism really about the greater good?

The Company wanted to maximise their profit and they knew that to do this they had to get rid of the liberal reads. Their educations focused more on rote learning and clubbing of thoughts by not letting them be open to debate. Yet again the Europeans were so sure of their culture that they refused to accept the ideas of the Indian system. He went on to further support the British imperialist policies by saying that India and China were once great nations but due to its stagnant economy and deplorable state of affairs, the British were there to only help them out. He called this Benevolent Despotism.

These might seem unrelated events and ideas, but what we haven’t yet realized is the impact it has had in our current society.

The education of India still works around rote and mass production rather than a proper learning algorithm. The education system of India has come to such a point that students can no longer debate or discuss matters freely because of the fear of being call dissident. Rote learning has become such an intricate part of our system that we still can’t get rid of it.

Is it okay for us to believe that our wrongdoings can be forgiven in a few decades? Did we forget that the Nazi party was also widely accepted and thanked for their initial contribution to the economy and polity? Wasn’t Napoleon also received by the masses of the countries of his initial campaigns? Or are we too scared to compare ourselves to the National Socialist Party? Or maybe are we too proud that we think that we cannot repeat the same mistakes? Are the world historians as forgiving as the Ganges that washes away our sins? Will they be forgiving in the textbooks of our children?

The impact of philosophical thoughts on the society in the long term is something that can’t be felt right away. But we can understand the basic problem behind a certain thought, can’t we?