Post-colonial colonialism?

Fiona Kate Barlow, University of Queensland

Pascal Bruckner The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010 (256 pp). ISBN 9-78069114-376-7 (hard cover) RRP $43.95.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard—

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

Rudyard Kipling, from The White Man’s Burden

Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden was published in 1899. Kipling wrote the poem for the United States of America upon their colonisation of the Philippines. The poem talks about colonisation as a burden necessarily borne by the White man—a result of his intellectual and cultural (and perhaps even biological?) superiority. But don’t expect thanks for undertaking this endeavour, Kipling warns. Instead, beware that colonisation is a thankless task. Those you colonise will grow to hate you, and when you return home, instead of accolades, expect condemnation. Cut to 2010, and public opinion has largely turned to agree with the colonised and critics of imperialism. It is widely recognised that the colonised peoples bore the largest burden—they surrendered, against their will and without compensation, their resources, labour and land.

It is here that Pascal Bruckner comes in with his book, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, a successor to his earlier volume, The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt (1986). The new book is substantively the same as Kipling’s famous poem. It bemoans the lack of gratitude shown by previous colonies and racial minorities, and lampoons Left wing critics of colonisation (and anti-African racism and Islamophobia; the list goes on). It has, however, a distinctly post-colonial flavour, extending Kipling’s shorter poem to call for cultural homogeneity and assimilation in European nations, an increase in military interventionism, and vigilant monitoring of Islam. Throughout the book, Bruckner’s case rests on a range of assumptions about how people experience and understand group belonging and group differences—assumptions that are largely contradicted by research in social psychology.

Bruckner begins by introducing the reader to what he sees as a canker on Europe’s psyche. That is, guilt about slavery, colonisation, and more recent treatment of ethnic and religious minority groups. In social psychology we term this feeling ‘collective guilt’: guilt felt on behalf of one’s ‘in-group’ (that is, a group of which one is a member) rather than one’s self (Doosje et al. 1998). People may feel guilty for wrongdoing for which they themselves were not personally responsible, but for which their group, either historically or in the present day, is culpable. In Australia, for example, White Australians have mistreated Aboriginal Australians in a number of ways. White Australians have forcefully taken land from Aboriginal Australians without compensating them, removed Aboriginal children from their families against their will, and denied Aboriginal Australians citizenship up until 1967. The benefits of such treatment of Aboriginal people persist today for White Australians, in property, inheritances, and capital built on unpaid Aboriginal labour. As a result, many White Australians who did not personally play a role in perpetrating any of these acts may feel collective or group-based (as opposed to individual) guilt about the mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians. This all stems from a knowledge that we, as individuals, do not exist in isolation from one another or our past. Instead, we are deeply connected to our families, our communities and our fellow countrymen. To put it another way, just as we in Australia might take pride in Don Bradman’s amazing cricket skills and Banjo Patterson’s lyric writing style, so too might we feel responsible for instances of brutal and unfair treatment of Aboriginal people during colonisation.

Individuals do not exist in isolation from one another or our past.

In line with Bruckner’s claims, collective guilt is an aversive, painful emotion. Accordingly, people are motivated to reduce collective guilt. They may do this in a number of ways, such as offering intergroup apologies, reparations, or political support for disadvantaged minorities (Doosje et al. 1998). As in Bruckner’s case, they may also respond by denying guilt altogether. Bruckner states that collective guilt stems from a morbid re-hashing of the past. The research suggests otherwise, however. Certainly there has to be an incident of group-based wrong-doing (for example, the treatment of Aboriginal people during Australia’s colonisation), and such wrongdoing may well be in the distant past. It is not this distant past, however, that predicts collective guilt. Social psychologists Adam Powell, Nyla Branscombe, and Michael Schmitt (2005) conducted an experiment in which White participants thought about either out-group disadvantage or in-group privilege. Contrary to Bruckner’s claims, these researchers found that when people thought about their present day privilege on the basis of their racial group membership, they felt the most collective guilt. These results indicate that the guilt that Bruckner so disparages may in fact be most salient to those who recognise their present day privilege instead of their ancestors’ past wrongdoings.

Bruckner states that guilt can be oppressive, self-indulgent and ultimately damaging to both individuals and countries. No doubt, guilt is unpleasant. In addition, social psychological research suggests that it may not be productive for either party—the guilty or the wronged (Iyer et al. 2003). Rather than urging people to swap guilt for recognition or remembrance, however, Bruckner questions whether Europeans really have anything to feel guilty for. As a Frenchman, a significant portion of his book concerns French imperialism and attitudes. In particular, he addresses the past French occupation of Algeria and calls into question whether colonisation really was bad for Algerians. For example, he says:

What did the crowd of young people shout to Jacques Chirac in 2004, during the first visit to Algeria since decolonisation? ‘Visas, visas’. A malicious wit might say: they drove us out and now they all want to come and live with us! … Europe got over the loss of its colonies much more quickly than the colonies got over their loss of Europe’ (p. 12).

Bruckner positions this chapter as a wake-up call. He warns the French (and Europeans in general) to stop feeling guilty and instead pay attention to outside threats, which from the outset he frames as primarily coming from Islam and immigration.

No doubt, guilt is unpleasant.

Throughout the book Islamic people bear the brunt of Bruckner’s scorn. The first few chapters almost exclusively limit their focus to Islam and Palestine. Bruckner claims that, at its core, Europe cannot come to grips with its persecution of Jews, culminating in its complicity with German war crimes against Jews during World War II. In painting Israel as the aggressor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bruckner argues, Europe can excuse its past treatment of Jewish people by redrawing them as the new Nazis. This leaves many Europeans sympathetic, not only to Palestine, but to Muslim people in general—something Bruckner warns is highly dangerous, saying: ‘with a suicidal blindness, our continent kneels down before Allah’s madmen’ (p. 47). It is not just terrorist extremists, however, that Bruckner sees as a threat. He also states that Islam in general, unlike Christianity, is violent at its core. How quickly he forgets that just like the Koran, the Bible has its fare share of aggressive passages, such as those in Deuteronomy that mandate that unwed women who are not virgins should be stoned to death by the men of the village. Bruckner predicts that ‘In Europe, either Islam will become one religion among others or it will collide with strong resistance on the part of free people for whom the yoke of fanaticism … is intolerable’ (p. 32). Needless to say, it is the second option that he supports.

African and Asian nations, as well as non-White immigrants also figure among Bruckner’s targets. Using familiar rhetoric, he claims that hand-outs and international aide have come to be expected by the previously oppressed: ‘there are states capable of recognising their barbarity and seeing it for what it is, but who are instead seeking in their former oppression excuses for their present malfeasance’ (p. 100). Unlike his guilt-ridden counterparts, he refuses to see colonisation as a contributing cause of current poverty and civil unrest in Africa: ‘It hardly needs to be said that Africans … are solely responsible for their development and can blame only themselves if they lag behind’ (p. 99).

French-Africans, and ethnic minorities in European nations are suffering from the same malaise, he claims, refusing to work for what they want. Instead, he sees them rioting, demanding government assistance, and expressing violence towards the nation that houses them. If this is so, then what is the answer? How do we then increase peace and prosperity among minority groups within Europe and disenfranchised or disadvantaged nations outside of Europe? The Tyranny of Guilt proposes several solutions. The first is an end to multiculturalism within Europe. He asks that ethnic minority group members living in France dis-identify with their cultural origins, and instead adopt French customs and traditions (an end to multiculturalism is something that Bruckner advocates in all European and Western nations). The French identity, for Bruckner, can be gloriously multifaceted—one can at once be Parisian, French and European. In contrast, ‘minority identity seems pathetically stunted’ (p. 149). In this statement, Bruckner seems to deliberately misunderstand the principle of multiculturalism. It is not that one adopts a minority identity to the exclusion of all others. If one can be Parisian, French and European, could not one also, for example, be African-Parisian-French-European? How many identities are too many? In fact, directly contrasting to Bruckner’s claims, recent research suggests that belonging to multiple groups (that is, having multiple group identities) can protect a person from the negative consequences of change and is linked to increased health and happiness (Iyer et al. 2009).

Islamic people bear the brunt of Bruckner’s scorn.

An end to multiculturalism is not the only way that Bruckner suggests that Europe be tidied up. He also proposes an end to immigration, arguing that ‘Europe … has to have the courage to say that it is full’ (p. 191). In addition to closing off borders and turning away refugees and immigrants, Bruckner offers another solution. He extends his ideas to the rest of the world, proposing that Europe could ‘help’ other nations, in Africa or the Middle East, for example, through expansion. He sees Europe as uniquely enlightened, arguing that it ‘differs from other cultures that have not, at least until recently, practiced this systematic challenging of their own convictions’ (p. 33). As such, he mourns French and European withdrawal from widespread military endeavours, urging that ‘Europe … has to … remain the singular voice that speaks for justice and law, and acquires the military and political means to make that voice heard’ (p. 107). America, Bruckner proposes, is doing what Europe is failing to. Although at times immature, it is leading the way through its commercial success and militaristic prowess.

Although never overt, one gets the sense that Bruckner favours a return to imperial France, via an expansion, not of the French or British Empire, but of Europe as a whole. He says that Europe should extend its borders rather than welcome more people through its existing ones. And while in the abstract this might sound nice, what he is talking about, in fact, amounts to post-colonial colonialism. But perhaps that is Bruckner’s point—what would be so wrong with that? As he says: ‘Anticolonialism serves as a substitute for Marxism’ (p. 130), and better a colonialist than a Marxist.

Throughout the book Bruckner is highly critical of those who criticise France, Europe, America and the West in General. He sees these critics as weighed down by useless guilt, self-indulgence and self-hatred. In his eyes, if you speak out about your country’s racism, discrimination, or colonial past then you are, in effect, a traitor who hates his country. But is this really the case? Social psychologist Dominic Packer (2008, 2010) has sought to understand people who criticise their own groups (for example, Australians speaking out against racism in Australia; French people speaking out against colonisation of Algeria). He has found, over a series of studies, that people who are ‘low-identifiers’ (that is, people who feel only distantly involved in, committed to, and positive about their own group) typically stay silent about group flaws. Instead, it is those who really love their group, who feel that they and their group are inherently and integrally linked (‘high-identifiers’), that speak out in dissent and disagreement. They do so to illuminate past or present failings of their group so that the group that they so love can be better in the future. I suggest that what we take from this research is the fact that prominent anti-colonialists and anti-racists are doing just what Bruckner is. These critics are ardent and patriotic people acting in accordance with their beliefs to improve their own group.

One gets the sense that Bruckner favours a return to imperial France.

Although Bruckner does not acknowledge this, he does think that an ability to think critically about oneself is a sign of European superiority. He just wants it to stop, or at the very least direct its gaze outward, criticising other countries for their human rights abuses or repressive governments. He thinks that it is an absurd sensibility (in Europe, Australia and even America), driven by guilt, that we do not cast our glare as ferociously on the Middle East or Africa as we do on our own soil. Social psychologist Matthew Hornsey and his colleagues, however, may be able to shed some light onto why this is the case (Hornsey & Imani 2004; Hornsey et al. 2002). Over multiple studies they have shown that people typically only accept criticism of their group if it in fact comes from an in-group member.

As Australians, for example, if we are told by another Australian that racism is a problem in our country, we may thank them for their advice and make attempts to correct collective behaviour. If told the same thing, however, by an American expert, we may react very differently—with denial and anger. In short, criticism from our own group is seen to be constructive and genuine, criticism from other groups is seen to be harmful and suspicious. We turn our critical focus on our own group simply because we are in the special position of being able to do so without having our motives questioned, and with the hope that productive response may follow. Likewise, we refrain from offering criticism to the same degree to those in other countries because we are aware that it may be counterproductive and offensive. Thus we talk of ‘working with’ rather than ‘moving against’ nations who violate our belief systems. What Bruckner conceives of as cowardice may in fact be the most effective way of creating non-violent, long-lasting change.

Bruckner’s book is stirringly written, well referenced and interspersed with quotes, and mini-essays that help him make his points. It is also repetitive, and self-contradictory. In each chapter Bruckner’s biases are put on display. There is one rule for him and those who he likes, and another for the ‘Other’ or the enemy. For example, almost in the same breath Bruckner condemns Muslim people (irrespective of nationality) and then censures those who criticise Israel and its treatment of Palestine as prejudiced. He despairs over the way in which people call mass killings ‘genocide’, dictators ‘Nazis’ and repressive governments ‘fascist’. We ought to be careful and limited in our use of these terms, he warns, so as not to minimise or belittle Jewish suffering, or unfairly malign people or nations whose acts were horrific, yes, but not as horrific as those committed during the Second World War. Going back on his own principle, however, he goes on to term politically liberal leaders, public figures and supporters as ‘Communist’, ‘Marxist’ and ‘Trotskeyite’.

Bruckner laments that Jewish children are often so treated with such discrimination that they cannot wear the Star of David or a kippa in public. Yet earlier in the book he strongly recommends against allowing Islamic schoolgirls to be excused from swimming or gymnastics in order not to have to violate their religious dress code. He points the danger of Islam, citing its belief that Allah is the one true God, ignoring the fact that some Christians argue just as vehemently that the Christian God is the one true God. He urges Europe, America, White nations across the world to be proud of who they are instead of ashamed, but argues that Black pride or Gay pride or any minority group pride is dangerous. He proposes that minorities (for example, Gay or Black etcetera) should not receive so much attention, because they are just that, minorities—but earlier in the book he cites tiny minorities of Muslim peoples’ understanding of terrorist attacks to vilify the entire Islamic religion. This is to list but a small portion of the contradictions in Tyranny of Guilt.

It is not necessary to feel guilty to be politically active.

Reading the book carefully, one does not get a sense that Bruckner sees these contradictions. He seems wedded to the notion that there really is (and should be) one rule for ‘us’ (Europe, White people, capitalist nations, democratic states) and one rule for ‘them’ (Muslims, Blacks, Gays, any disempowered minority group). The true tyranny of a viewpoint such as Bruckner’s is that it demands simplistic, absolute answers to complex questions. Take, for example, the question of ‘Why have there been Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe?’. One answer is that a complex combination of historical, environmental, political and economic factors have led to such attacks. In addition, whether militarily or economically, Europe and the West may have contributed to these factors. This is a complex answer to a complex question—and it may take years to truly unpack. A much clearer, cleaner and simpler explanation would be that Islam is a violent religion and Islamic people are bad.

Bruckner clearly prefers the second explanation, and it is not hard to see why—it at once exonerates us and explains terrifying acts. While Bruckner may have been motivated to come to his conclusions for these reasons, it is also possible that he just fell prey to common cognitive error. It is relatively easy to make broad generalisations and negative prejudgments about people who are different from us. In research that is over two decades old, Brian Mullen and Li-Tze Hu (1989) found that people in general are more likely to perceive out-groups as more homogenous than in-groups. Put simply, people are more likely to see members of their own group as being varied and diverse, but members of out-groups as being similar to one another. This means that when we see a terrorist attack, a violent act by a minority group member, or a rioting underprivileged group it is relatively easy to make a sweeping generalisation (as Bruckner so often does in his book) about the whole group. If all out-group members are very similar to one another, then a terrorist may well be a good example of a typical Islamic person. Important to remember, however, is that just as Bruckner falls prey to assuming out-group homogeneity, so too are racial, national and religious out-groups thinking that Tony Blair, George Bush and John Howard are all perfectly representative and typical examples of every Englishman, American and Australian. All of which is to say that Bruckner’s biases are understandable and can in part be explained by current knowledge in social psychology. That he does not make an attempt to understand his biases, however, will limit the book’s appeal to those who already support his arguments.

I can agree with Bruckner on number of points. Guilt can be paralysing. It is not necessary to feel guilty to be politically active, and likewise, guilt is no guarantee of future racial tolerance or empathy. Left-wingers do have the tendency to place minority group members on pedestals. This can be problematic insofar as it can lead to condemnation of members of such groups if they do not conform with stereotypes of ‘good’ victim or minority group members. Other than those few points, however, Bruckner’s riddle of contradictions, push for expansion and anti-multiculturalist sentiments are outmoded and not useful. This book really is a lament about the White man’s suffering, a love letter to colonialism, and a call for cultural homogeneity. If you like this sort of thing, all in all, I think that Kipling said it better.


Bruckner, P. 1986, The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, The Free Press, New York.

Doosje, B., Branscombe, N.R., Spears, R. & Manstead, A.S.R. 1998, ‘Guilty by association: When one’s group has a negative history’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 7, no. 54, pp. 872–886.

Hornsey, M. J., & Imani, A. 2004, ‘Criticizing groups from the inside and the outside: An identity perspective on the intergroup sensitivity effect’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 365–383.

Hornsey, M.J., Oppes, T. & Svensson, A. 2002, ‘“It’s OK if we say it, but you can’t”: Responses to intergroup and intragroup criticism’, European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 293–307.

Iyer, A., Leach, C.W. & Crosby, F.J. 2003, ‘White guilt and racial compensation: The benefits and limits of self-focus’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 117–129.

Iyer, A., Jetten, J., Tsivrikos, D., Haslam, S.A. & Postmes, T. 2009, ‘The more and the more compatible the merrier: Multiple group memberships and identity compatibility as predictors of adjustment after life transitions’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 707–733.

Mullen, B. & Hu, L.-T. 1989, ‘Perceptions of in-group and out-group variability: A meta-analytic integration’, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 233–252.

Packer, D.J. 2008, ‘On being both with us and against us: A normative conflict model of dissent in social groups’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 50–72.

Packer, D.J. 2010, ‘Avoiding groupthink: Whereas weakly identified members remain silent, strongly identified members dissent about collective problems’, Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 5, pp. 546–548.

Powell, A.A., Branscombe, N.R. & Schmitt, M.T. 2005, ‘Inequality as in-group privilege or out-group disadvantage: The impact of group focus on collective guilt and interracial attitudes’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 508–521.

Dr Fiona Kate Barlow lectures in statistics and social psychology in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on intergroup relations in Australia. She has undertaken work with both community and student samples investigating the impact of intergroup rejection on racism and segregation.

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