By Audra A. Diptee. I stumbled across the above quote a few years ago. It moved me when I first read it. It has moved me every time I have read it since then. In my mind, it should serve as humbling to any person that self identifies as an educator, academic, or intellectual. I imagine some might read it and be inclined to keep its meaning contained within the context of the aberration that was the holocaust – a historical moment of exceptional evil. But were the atrocities of the holocaust truly exceptional? Or should they be seen as a culminating result that was produced after a long history of other atrocities committed by the educated and the self-proclaimed “civilized”?
The answer to the latter question is a resounding “yes” – at least if one puts any credence in the words of Aimé Césaire. In his provocative and polemical essay Le Discours sur le colonialisme (1950), this widely celebrated Martiniquais intellectual suggests that before Europeans became victims to Nazism “they were its accomplices.” For Césaire the horrors of the holocaust were intimately linked to the horrors committed under colonialism. It was the acts of barbarism committed under colonialism, he argued, that served to “decivilize” colonizers and so made them capable of bringing the “violence, race hated, and moral relativism” back to Europe. In other words, the chickens had come home to roost. Césaire writes that Europeans “absolved it, they shut their eyes to it, [and] legitimized it.” The “it” to which he is referring is the barbarism justified in the name of purportedly advancing civilization.
There is a long list of colonial atrocities, of course, but it is the genocides committed against the Herero and Nama in the early twentieth century that make the link between colonial barbarism and those of Nazi Germany most apparent. In German South West Africa (present day Namibia), in retribution for an uprising against German colonial rule, both the Herero and Nama people were either murdered or driven out into the desert where many of them drank from wells that had been poisoned by the Germans. The death count for the Herero is roughly 65,000 people. The 15,000 that survived were put in concentration camps and were tattooed “GH” which stood for Gefangene Herero (imprisoned Herero). They stayed in those camps until 1908. The Nama were originally from further south, but had fled their homeland to avoid extermination by the Boer settlers. They numbered approximately 20,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their numbers had been reduced by 50% by the time German colonialists were finished with them. Survivors from both groups died in large numbers in concentration camps as they starved, fell ill from the inhumane living conditions, and were forced to do hard labour. Rightfully so, Namibians have been calling for reparations. While Germany has proven resistant to offering reparations, they have been quite forthcoming in making concessions at the symbolic level. In 2011, at an official ceremony, they returned the skulls of 20 victims of the genocide that had been stored at the Berlin Medical Historical Museum …
On the historical trajectory of European committed atrocities, the Herero and Nama genocides come before those of Nazi Germany, but after a long list of other acts of barbarism including the decimation and alienation of indigenous peoples, the dehumanizing slave systems of the the Americas, and the countless number of absolutely horrific acts committed throughout Asia and Africa – acts which were undertaken in the name of advancing civilization. Unfortunately, barbarism committed to “civilize” is still nothing more than barbarism, and since there is no such thing as the “barbaric civilized” it seems that Césaire might have been on the right track when he suggested that these acts were committed by the “decivilized.”
Regardless of how one might feel about Césaire’s narrative, one thing is certain, as Corey Robin reminds us in his recent article “When fascism comes to America, don’t look to the professors”: academics were deeply implicated in Nazism. In his references to the diary of Victor Kemplerer, a Jewish professor in Nazi Germany, Robin highlights one particular quote in which Kemplerer expresses his utter disgust for academics and intellectuals. Kemplerer wrote that if he had the power to decide on retribution for all that unfolded, he would “let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders …[But he] would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.” Damning words indeed!
One of the great claims made by academics – articulated in a variety of ways – is that universities produce citizens who contribute to society in positive and meaningful ways. Implicit in this statement is the assumption that academics can do so because they themselves are particularly committed to contributing to society in positive and meaningful ways. In fact, the ivory tower is often defended as a societal necessity that allows for debate and facilitates “progress” in both the science and the arts. In the humanities, which is under reinvigorated attack in recent times, the great defense is that scholars in subjects such as history and literature, serve to produce better citizens who can “think critically” and will, arguably, through their ability to imagine, discern, and debate, heighten the moral conscience of society. But do they?
In response to Corey Robin’s cynical view – one that I admittedly share – I can already hear the self-righteous statements of defense. The most simplistic of these would be grounded in assertions that Nazism was a moment of exceptional evil and that it would be unfair to judge academics today by the standards of yesterday. Unfortunately, if we take a long hard look at our track record, what universities purport to do and what they actually do are two different things.
How else can one explain the continued pattern of ambivalence practised by so many university administrations as they address the issue of sexual violence committed by students? Just in case, you actually need convincing about the extent of sexual violence taking place on campuses in Canada and the United States read this article in University Affairs. Or better yet, spend some time looking at an episode of the CBC’s Fifth Estate which investigated a particularly egregious case at the University of British Columbia in the episode “School of Secrets.” Here we have the Chair of the Department of History – a female faculty member ironically – refusing to accept the petition of students who wanted allegations of sexual assault by a male PhD history student on record with the department. The Chair would not allow the students to make a statement as it was “politically inflammatory” and “endangering to the department’s culture.” In the words of Paul Krause, another faculty member in the history department who publicly wrote about the incident and was interviewed for the Fifth Estate episode, administrators and faculty members were more concerned about “their corporate careers” than about the students. Judging from this case, it seems that neither ethics nor a heightened sense of morality are required for being a Chair in the Department of History …
Or perhaps we should talk about racism on campuses and the ways in which institutionalized racism has been embedded in the system. Or worse, the ways in which administrators work to hide, excuse, or justify the double standards that are in place. Need convincing? Try reading Racism in the Canadian University (University of Toronto Press, 2009). You might also want to listen to a short video clip in which Professor Anthony Stewart discusses his ideas about racism in the Canadian university system.
And so, this brings us to what I now think of as the “decivilized academic.” Racism and sexism, if we are to follow Césaire’s thinking, impacts not only the victims of such prejudices but it also affects those who perpetrate them. It means that they have abandoned the values inherent in a just society and have given into the lowest and most base of instincts. Hence, they have become, to use Césaire’s words, “decivilized.” When acts of misogyny have taken place, it is because there is an inability to see or value the humanity in the women to which the acts have been directed. When university administrations loudly declare their abhorrence about such acts but fail to “walk the talk,” their inaction makes it clear that they are complicit and have little commitment to a just society in which everyone’s humanity is valued equally. In so doing, they have not only abandoned the women affected by misogyny, but such administrators have given up a piece of their own humanity. They have become – again using Césaire’s words – “decivilized.”
The same applies for racism. If colleagues, hypothetically speaking of course, attempt to violate the collective agreement of their university and so – forgive my language – try to screw a visible minority colleague out of his job, then it suggests that they are incapable of seeing his humanity. It is clear evidence that they have no concern for how their acts of injustice affect his life or the life of his family. His humanity is of no relevance to them. Short of being white, the best he could hope for is to fall into their graces by behaving as one of, what V.S. Naipaul might call, the “mimic men” – and so reinforce their unconscious sense of superiority. His “humanness” is only deserving of empathy and consideration if he could successfully mimic them, walk and talk like them, and accept their outlook while abandoning his own understanding of the world. By not recognizing his humanity and giving into their most base instincts, however, these very academics have given up some of their own humanity. They contributed to their own devolvement into a “decivilized” academic.
Similarly, for example, if an academic, who has had all the privileges that come with being a member of the lily white old boys club, has not spoken to the visible minority colleague in his department for the first five years that he was there – despite having offices that were a few doors apart, then he has done nothing more than proven that he is incapable of seeing his humanity. He has also proven that he is little more than a “decivilized” academic.
Fortunately (!) university unions go along way to counter people capable of such prejudices, but such situations still beg some very important questions: Do universities truly produce better citizens? Will academics really fight for a just society? Is the emperor wearing any damned clothes?
This article started with a quote in which a concentration camp survivor asked educators to “make our children more human.” He was suspicious of education because he had seen “gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.”
Are academics up for the challenge? An absolute minority perhaps … When tenured academics have absolutely nothing to lose, and yet they are incapable of seeing the humanity in others, can we really expect them to stand up for a just society when the stakes are high? I truly hope that I am wrong, but I’m with Corey Robin on this one – when the fascists come, don’t look to the professors …
Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme, (Paris: Éditions Présence Africaine, 1955).
Hisham Aidi, “Forgotten Genocide: Namibia’s Quest for Reparations.” Aljazeera (Opinion) August 7, 2015.
Henning Melber, “How to Come to Terms with the Past: Re-Visiting the German Colonial Genocide in Namibia,” Africa Spectrum, Vol. 40 (1), 2005, 139-148.
Jeremy Sarkin and Carly Fowler, “Reparations for Historical Human Rights Violations: The International and Historical Dimensions of the Alien Torts Claims Act Genocide Case of the Herero of Namibia,” Human Rights Review, Vol. 9 (3), 2008.
Dan Stone, “White men with low moral standards? German anthropology and the Herero genocide,” Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 35 (2), 2001.