A source of atrocity—or belonging? Two contributors advance opposing positionsby Elleke Boehmer and Tom Holland / November 8, 2020 / Leave a comment
Is killing other people bad? Yes. Is rapacious invasion bad? Absolutely. And so it must follow that empires are bad, as they typically operate through killing and invasion. Across history, empires have involved the imposition of force by one power or people upon others. That imposition generally involves violence, including cultural and linguistic violence, such as the suppression and subsequent loss of native languages. As Joseph Conrad and, more recently, Teju Cole have written, empires divide humanity into the rulers and the ruled, the wounders and the wounded. The rulers harm with guns and bullets, but also by using more subtle forms of destruction and domination.
There are few or no neutral parties in empires. No one is free of its psychological or physical harms. Its middlemen are in their own ways damaged, while being employed to rule through inflicting harm. The magistrate in JM Coetzee’s colonial parable Waiting for the Barbarians comes tortuously to realise that he is as much an instrument of imperial rule as the feared militia.
Everyone in the modern world is a product of empire in some way; we are shaped by the wars it propagated and migrations that followed, and the drawing and changing of borders that it introduced. We cannot unthink the process of our making, nor the conditions of domination. We are especially disinclined to do so when our own people have held the upper hand. Yet we should try, especially those of us whom imperial history has favoured, to think critically about empires of which we are all a part. For empire requires exclusion to operate. It separates communities on the basis of small differences which over time has major consequences, spawning wars and genocides, and restarting the vicious imperial cycle over again. The time of empire, as Coetzee’s magistrate writes, is a “spinning,” circular kind of time.
Empires create their own reality. An imperial state, if it is to flourish, cannot depend on military or economic muscle alone. It must also succeed in reconciling the conquered to their own conquest. Empires tend to endure, not by imposing obedience at the point of a sword, but by bringing subject peoples to…