The Legacies of Empire

I am neither historian nor sociologist enough to comment definitively on the legacies of empire but it’s obvious even to the most superficially observant traveller that affection and resentment jostle uncomfortably for dominance in the relationship between former colony and former colonial power.

Around fifteen years ago I visited Zimbabwe. Even then it was an unhappy country, ruled by a man in whose mind the battle for independence still raged, even though the real war had been won many years earlier. The white population, resented, increasingly uncomfortable, ever less prosperous and ever more insecure, was dwindling as the black population gained possession, rightly or wrongly, by decree, of the country’s agricultural and industrial infrastructure. And yet…at the Leopard Rock Hotel, somewhere in the Eastern Highlands, an institution resembling an English country house hotel, I played squash, a British Public School game, with one of the country’s ambassadors, presumably a man dancing to Mugabe’s ideological tune. Affection for some of the habits of the colonial past and resentment at the same time, a damaging, impossible, hypocritical, confusing, psychological condition.

Malaysia is another former colony but a different case in point. It was the extravagance of the affection for the old ways that surprised me, not resentment (of which, I think, there is little). This advertisement, below, for a ‘British Boarding School’ caught my eye at the airport. It’s Harry Potter in the tropics, at least judging by the lower half of the picture.

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Have a look at the Prince of Wales Island International Independent School website. It’s an uncritical anthem of anglophilia, and a paean of praise to a school system that throughout its illustrious career has been more often brutal and damaging than beneficial.

The fabric of the school certainly  looks impressive. Its architectural, as well as its educational values, are overtly colonial, though perhaps the building is actually more New England than England.

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In its Welcome on the website the school claims ‘The school was designed, equipped and built to bring the very best of the British education system into an authentic Malaysian context.’ If that isn’t squaring the circle, then what it? Surely you can’t be both authentically Malaysian and British at the same time. As for ‘best of the British education system,’ it seems to be assumed that what they’re peddling must be a very good thing indeed.

On the topic of boarding, which is generally what made British boarding schools the awful places that they were, the school states, ‘We know that children who board become more self-sufficient and independent...’ Does anyone stop for a moment to consider if that is a good thing?

There’s another cringe-making sentence that reads: ‘The Principal makes new boarders promise to sound miserable when they ring home for the first time; some parents are disappointed that they are not missed as much as they would hope.‘ As well they might be.  When a child is not missing his or her parents, something has gone badly wrong.

Education is big business, and, properly regulated, I suppose there’s no harm in attracting private finance for the construction and operation of schools such as this one. This school, for 800 pupils, has been going only since 2010, and must have cost millions to build..

But it seems odd to me that admiration for the British boarding school tradition should be so blatant and so unqualified. It’s surely memories of colonialism that have inspired this wish of the local elite that their children should acquire the talents of ruthless leadership that their former masters possessed?

I went to British Boarding Schools myself between the ages of 7 and 18. I concur with much of what the POWIIS claims for the system, except that I don’t agree it’s good that children should learn independence too early, that they should be denied the comforts and affections of home, that they should become distant from their parents, and eventually so deracinated that they can pop up anywhere in the world and rule.

If the British Boarding School is now a thing to be admired, it certainly wasn’t always so. Although during my time the excessive brutalities of Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall were a thing of the past, unchecked paedophilia, bullying, whimsical corporal punishment, discomfort and atrocious food still prevailed. I wouldn’t do it to a dog!

It has been said that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ And vast populations within the Empire were subjugated by a handful of braying schoolboys. But I see neither of these claims as any kind of recommendation.

 

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Killing for Self-Esteem

I am no animal rights activist and I do not believe that animals should be accorded rights equal to human rights. But that is not to say that they do not possess rights in some degree.

Morality and the concept of a right, whether enshrined in law or not, stem, I believe, from our human capacity to empathise with other humans as well as with creatures less mentally complex than we are. We know what it is for others to feel pain, to be denied freedom or opportunity, to have ambitions thwarted, and I believe we naturally confer rights on animals to the extent that they are mentally complex, and we can imagine and empathise with animal life.

We grant no rights to machines (so far), nor to simple organisms such as amoeba. We dispose of most insects without sentiment, but we live with and near many animals that are capable of pleasure, of anticipation, of pain, anxiety, and other forms of suffering. If we inflict suffering on animals there must always be justification, and, by and large, law and human convention reflect this.

As a child, of course, I killed insects without qualm, though I never pulled the legs off spiders or, as one boy at my school did, ate them alive. But as an adult I have become ever more squeamish about suffering and the casual extinction even of insect life. I would rather show a wasp the way to an open window than squash it against the pane.

Killing, and indeed any ‘use’ of animals for human purposes, always needs justification and must always, whenever possible, avoid suffering. We may kill animals when our own lives are threatened, when our well-being is threatened (by disease-carrying insects, for example), for food, perhaps even to enable the development of important medicines, but always with the intention of reducing suffering to a minimum, and always taking account of each animal’s differing capacity for suffering. Sometimes nothing will justify extreme mistreatment.

But killing for pleasure is always wrong. There is no right to pleasure, and the denial of pleasure is not suffering, so there is no calculus that delivers justification by giving balancing weight to suffering on the one hand, and the denial of pleasure on the other.

Which brings us to Cecil and the ‘trophy-hunting’ habits of the rich and powerful.

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Killing for sport, which is killing for pleasure, without any other justification, is always wrong. Granted, it may sometimes be a minor wrong, such as when fish are killed but not eaten by anglers. Fish are complex and often beautiful, but the mental life of fish, their capacity to suffer, is of a lower order than the mental life of primates (and lions). We cannot easily imagine, in fact, what it is like to be a trout, or a bat, but we can, to a great extent, imagine the perceptions, feelings and mental life of a lion, of a chimpanzee. We share enough, behaviourally, with such creatures to imagine their suffering, their capacity for pleasure and their zest for life in general.

So, what about Walter Palmer?

My first difficulty with this Minnesota dentist, paradoxically, is to imagine his mental life, and the mental life of trophy killers generally. I cannot understand why anyone would want to kill something beautiful, if it poses no threat. It seems as bizarre to me as if an art collector would buy great paintings in order to shred them.

I presume it must be about dominance, about self-esteem, but it is not as if the killing of Cecil were some primal conflict between man and nature, a struggle for survival, a case of a puny biped pitted against a powerful carnivore on equal terms. No, these are stage-managed killings, unequal in their starting conditions, and utterly predictable in their result.

I have, for decades, argued with one of my very best friends about fox-hunting and I am not entirely sure of my position. There is something that is always distasteful about taking pleasure in killing, but I am not sure if that is always enough to disqualify it. It seems to me that it is a technical question as to whether a) foxes must be killed for the greater good, and b) killing them by hunting them with dogs is as humane as any other way. But justification there must be. Killing foxes for sport and pleasure alone is wrong.

But the hunting of large, complex, beautiful (and often endangered) creatures merely for ‘sport’ cannot be justified and should be outlawed. Never mind that some ‘conservationists’ might justify controlled hunting through the money it raises for preservation. That end does not justify the means. To my mind it is always wrong, and must be forbidden.

Provincial dentists must find some other way to feel big and powerful.