America’s novel experiment in multiculturalism and diversity continues unchecked. What seems outlandish today becomes the norm tomorrow as activists and agitators trip over themselves to prove their “wokeness” and social justice credentials. The most recent cause célèbre is the insistence that Americans ought to “decolonize” their bookshelves by removing white, Western authors and replacing them with minority and marginalized voices.
Because it wrongly portrays edifying literature as wicked by manipulating the public with identity politics and guilt by association, this idea is not only absurd but dangerous.
The “decolonize your bookshelf” mantra takes the form of a lecture about how America and the West’s literary and intellectual legacy is populated by dead white men who were imperialist, exclusivist, racist, xenophobic, and intolerant. Whenever there is a social disparity or injustice along ethnic, racial, or sex lines that leads to public outrage (whether real or imagined), advocates of “tolerance and inclusion” urge Americans who still read books to diversify their bookshelves through the act of “decolonization.”
What does this mean? As writer Juan Dival explains, “In essence, it is about actively resisting and casting aside the colonialist ideas of narrative, storytelling, and literature that have pervaded the American psyche for so long.” In other words, part of the reason American society is still so fractious and split along tribal lines is that we are reading the “wrong” authors, thinking the “wrong” thoughts, and failing to “enlighten” our ignorant minds with the riches of intercultural and international literature.
In other words, if we were just to replace Aristotle with the Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi, John Locke with the Afrocentric historian Ivan van Sertima, and Leo Strauss with the Latin American philosopher Leopoldo Zea, then somehow, racial and ethnic tensions in our country would evaporate and true understanding and harmony would become possible.
The premise of this argument rests on the ideas that there is such a thing as a “colonized” bookshelf and that this is bad. Even if you grant these presuppositions (which you shouldn’t), the idea is inconsistent.
Time to Take Off the ‘Wokeness’ Blinders
What people group in the world has not at one time attempted to conquer or colonize other groups or nations? Should we look to African, Latin American, Japanese, Asian, or Muslim literature to diversify our reading?
Too bad, for the history of each is riddled with imperialistic conquests: from the Barbary pirates of North Africa who captured and enslaved more than 1 million southern Europeans, to the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the spread of Islam under the Umayyad and Abbasids Caliphas, or the intertribal warfare of the Native Americans of North America, each group has committed its ample share of brutal acts.
For most of human history, conquest and colonization were endemic to the human experience and, sadly, widely accepted. No people group, nation, or continent were exempt. No matter how much you squint and try to pack your bookshelf with “marginalized” or socially approved groups, the shelf is bursting with authors whose ancestors were, at one time or another, intolerant conquerors and colonizers.
The real question we should ponder is not why all civilizations and peoples at some time or another lived according to the conquest ethic, but why the modern world — and especially Western democracies — have largely abandoned that ethic for one of persuasion, moral example, and international diplomacy.
America is the exception among colonizing nations of the past. Her founding foreign policy was one of non-intervention and she has not historically acted as a colonizing power (except with a brief stint in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, and, some might argue, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars). On this score, the best way to “decolonize” your bookshelf would be to read American authors.
Thus the first problem with the “colonize” epithet is that it relies upon a historically inaccurate and hypocritical double-standard that heaps scorn, condemnation, and ridicule upon America and the West for being imperialistic, while looking the other way at other national, ethnic, or racial groups that did the same.
Eternal and Transcultural Truth Is Out There
A second and greater problem with “decolonizing your bookshelf” is that the premise behind it is false. There is no such thing as a “colonized/decolonized bookshelf” because ideas are capable of being universally known and communicated.
Neither authors nor their books are determined or constricted by external, accidental, and unchosen properties like skin color, ethnic heritage, or native language. Nor is it true that the truth or falsehood, goodness or perversity, beauty, ugliness, or utility of an author’s work is determined by social location, ethnic customs, or international politics.
There are transcultural and objective standards for truth, morality, and aesthetics that should be our overriding concern when reading and evaluating various literature — not what approved, fashionable, or politically correct “identity” the author possesses.
There is certainly nothing wrong with humbly realizing no one person, community, or nation possesses exhaustive knowledge. Yes, learning about the world through the eyes of another can be extraordinarily beneficial. The demand that we “decolonize” our bookshelves, however, does not come as an invitation to add other good, beautiful, and true literature to our reading lists.
Instead, it is a zero-sum literary game that actively seeks to destroy the best of Western civilization. This is why the decolonizing argument is problematic and pernicious. It advances according to a relativistic conception of truth, combined with a Marxist version of environmental determinism, collective identity, and guilt. Ultimately, it is self-defeating.
If all ideas of the world are generated by time-bound, socially determined, and self-enclosed communities that can only advance one particular perspective of the world, then this very idea is itself an utterly subjective and relativistic perspective without any necessary connection to objective and universal truth. Yet it presupposes its own veracity and universality in order to impose its version of “reality” on everyone else. Talk about sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.
The thorough-going “perspectivism” the decolonizers push is, as Nietzsche understood, really the admission that both truth and God are dead. Without God or truth, all that is left is power — the will to power — for this is the only way any person or community can see their perspective triumph.
This is why leftists who champion social justice, multicultural diversity, and identity politics are so quick to embrace the tools of power, such as silencing dissent, destroying property, tearing down statues, and intimidating and threatening any who might oppose them. This movement, at its core, is a godless, morally relativistic, ahistorical, truth-defying, and self-destructive intellectual and spiritual pathology.
It All Goes Back to Marx
Behind the idea that any author who is part of a colonizing nation or “dominant culture” necessarily reflects the ideas and values of the colonizers is the Marxist claim that material conditions determine identity, beliefs, actions, and possibilities.
This was part of Karl Marx’s materialist conception of history whereby all things progress through a dialectic of class struggle. The emergence of different classes, their beliefs, ideas, problems, and solutions were all products of the “modes of production” such as property, capital, work, and money.
In other words, for Marx, class conflict is inevitable, and so is the division of the world into oppressors and the oppressed. Humans are not free agents with the capacity for rational deliberation, voluntary action, and moral decision-making. They cannot take responsibility for their own lives, beliefs, and actions, but are determined by their social environment.
Only by removing human agency, and its tendency to disrupt the grand and futuristic visions of intellectuals, was Marx able to project a vision of a radically egalitarian and utopian society.
A Marxism conception of human nature and political society says that if you are born white and into a white world, then this is your assigned and inevitable identity: you can’t not be white. You must, therefore, think white, experience white, talk, walk, and drive white, embrace white norms and white values, and exude whiteness in all you do — including being an oppressor.
You are not really an individual with thoughts and feelings common to human nature and experience but reduced to a part of a whole that is not merely an aggregate, but a distinct moral entity. Thus, if one part commits a crime against humanity, then all those who are associated with that part — even if the original offenders are long dead — are guilty as well.
Great Literature Is About Ideas, Not Identity
Yet the ideas, dialogues, debates, worldviews, and lives found in great literature cut across racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, and cultural barriers. What does an olive-skinned Greek from the fourth century B.C. (Aristotle), a dark-skinned Muslim from the tenth century (Al-Farabi), a light-skinned Jew from twelfth-century Morocco and Egypt (Maimonides), and a light-skinned Christian from thirteenth-century Italy (Thomas Aquinas) have in common?
Nothing, according to the decolonizing shtick. Yet each of them was able to think, reason, and contemplate for themselves the nature of life and come to many points of agreement (albeit with unique contributions) by using the metaphysical, ethical, and political frameworks sketched by Aristotle. Studying Western literature reveals two things: we find shared beliefs across many cultures and yet at the same time a single culture can generate great diversity in thought.
Good literature teaches us that artificial identities that outsiders impose upon you do not define you. Your social location does not determine what you can know or the beliefs you choose to accept or reject. Your approximation to the righteousness or wickedness of others does not make you good or evil, for each person will be judged according to what he has done, not by what others who look like him have done.
Unchosen and natural characteristics we are both with or the cultural patterns of our community do not function like unavoidable lenses that force us to see the world in a certain way or blind us to the truth. Although all of us have unique origins and experiences that make for a rich and complex life when shared, it is precisely the universal gift of logos (reason or language) that allows us to transcend our differences and fulfill the vision of the American motto: E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one.
To read a book — or not — based on the color of the author’s skin, ethnic heritage, or country of origin is not only inane and offensive but insulting and dehumanizing toward the author. It communicates to her that her ideas and hard work are only worthy of being read because she just happens to possess the desired characteristics that our society currently cherishes. The content of her character and the contents of her book matter not.
So, don’t “decolonize” your bookshelf, and don’t fall prey to the deceptive and hollow philosophies that hide behind it. Instead, seek out a rich, deep, and rewarding education that won’t pigeonhole you according to artificial “identities.” A good place to start is to read the great books of Western civilization or attend a university where they are still taught. But be quick about it — because the chance to read them out in the open may be running short.