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Whose words are these words? Subaltern, indigenous, victim, oppressed…who are they used by, why and for what purposes? Taken out of their immediate and parochial political context can they convey more general analytical purchase? Questions like these can be unsettling, probing as they do the very heart of any number of critical scholarly projects. We invoke with language but with every invocation we also exclude. Representation, in the Spivakian sense, is not always undesirable, but it is risky, the subject always mutable and mutating. These then are some thoughts on how we might pursue what other contributors to the CPD workshop called a critical ethic of engagement.

First, we must be more willing to call out racism and paternalism for what it is. When the forces of the far right can claim to be speaking for ‘indigenous rights’ it becomes clear that even language claimed by critical scholars is not unproblematic. When peoples dubbed ‘indigenous’ are reprimanded by paternalistic scholars and/or activists for appropriating elements of ‘modern’ economy and technology, we know that labels can be used to subject rather than liberate. Of course, when the subjects of racism, paternalism and oppression claim the subjectivity of indigeneity, victimhood, or (much less likely) subalterity, in order to amplify and pursue their political demands then that is another matter. But here is precisely the point. Racism and paternalism are racism and paternalism. When those subject to such prejudices decide to appropriate the language of indigeneity or subalterity in how they respond to such impositions then contingently supporting and thus learning from such endeavours can be a mode of ethical engagement for critically minded scholars. When those scholars start to decide who and what counts as indigenous, subaltern, and so on, then the risk of creating far more problematic modes of representation which silences and disempowers the very subjects whose (preconceived) liberation is being sought becomes much more amplified.

A second mode of comprehending a critical ethic of engagement with the subjects of racism and paternalism is to work on becoming parochial. But not a parochial form of parochial-ness! Being parochial is not about being local, glocal, or any other such spatial imaginary. Rather, being parochial is a call to decolonize our sense of selves as autonomous, liberal rational subjects, and to comprehend the social relationality and historicity which produces our contemporary selves. Such a comprehension is always an immanent work in progress, but one through which we can begin to work on ourselves, to develop more horizontal ethics of engagement which predicate against the tendency (especially in the academy) to see ourselves as sources of liberating expertise, a well-meaning but ultimately paternalistic route. How does my horizontally and historically constituted self, replete with its own oppressions and privileges, enable me (or not) to enact relationships of solidarity and empathy with other equally contradictory selves? What are the limitations of my empathy? When does my positionality turn away from enabling liberation to enabling new forms of oppression? Similarly, what new forms of relationality are opened up by my consideration of my self (selves) as multiple, historical and horizontal? How might this sense of self/selves allow me to dissolve modern distinctions of expert/subject, teacher/student, educated/uneducated, civilised/uncivilised, whilst still retaining a reflexive sense of my privilege to have the time and luxury to even ask these questions of myself?

By necessity, to be continued…