Writing about writing about decolonisation

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Three privileged white men displaying the normal range of responses to calls for decolonisation of science. Still from 90s classic sitcom Friends.

Who gets to make the case for decolonisation in the sciences? One of the anticipated reactions to our recent paper on decolonising field ecology (written with Kate Baker and Mark Griffiths*, and summarised in this blog post) was that we’re just three white Europeans. What right do we have to comment? Aren’t we part of the problem?

The answer is that yes, we are the problem, and that’s why it’s our responsibility to draw attention to it. Dismissing our argument because we come from a position of privilege is like disputing evidence of a crime wave because you’ve only heard about it from the police. Why aren’t the victims making a fuss? Researchers from developing countries don’t have the same platform. We know that. We’re using our platform to make exactly that point.

Another way of phrasing the critique is: “We like what you have to say, we’d just rather it was being said by someone else.” At best this derives from an assumption that we are stealing attention which should be directed towards academics from developing countries. To which I can only agree, and point out that our main message is to point away and shout “Look over there!” We haven’t silenced or excluded anyone. If our paper opens up space for others to be heard then we will have achieved one of our goals.

We freely acknowledge that our line of argument isn’t novel; the whole point of the paper is to draw attention to how a movement originating in the social sciences hasn’t penetrated far in ecology. There have been powerful statements made in the past, some of which we cite, but it’s fair to say that their impact has been limited. Many appeared as magazine articles or were published in non-science fields, which means that a majority of researchers in ecology will simply never encounter them unless they deliberately go looking. We have instead placed a commentary in the principal journal of tropical ecology, a publication which mostly features conventional scientific papers, which is much harder to ignore.

Was it easier for us to do publish this paper than it would be for others? Yes, without a doubt. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. We gained our current positions through structural inequalities, but the system will only change if those in control of it make an effort to do so. We aren’t demanding action from scientists in developing countries, although we strongly advocate listening to them. The walls aren’t going to fall down just because someone’s shouting outside. We need to start dismantling them ourselves.

At its worst, criticising the profile of the authors instead of the message is a means of deflecting responsibility to act. Throughout history, most movements for social justice have foundered at some stage because those in positions of authority grumble that no-one affected has complained to them directly. It always takes calls from within the establishment to provoke a response.

Also, who’s asking? If your response to the paper is that you agree with the message, but that we’re not the right people to be saying it, then who is? Who gets to judge? This turns out to be another means by which established authorities control participation in discourse. I will gladly accept, and try to learn from, any criticism from those adversely affected by the colonial aspects of science. It’s notable that all the push-back I’ve had so far is from other white people complaining that white people are telling them what to do.

We have been asked why we didn’t invite a developing world author onto the paper. This is a source of regret to us as well, but we didn’t have one. The paper arose out of direct discussions between the authors which took place in the UK and determined the message and outline. Approaching someone post-hoc and asking them to stick their name on a manuscript would have been the worst form of patronising tokenism, merely serving to insulate ourselves from criticism rather than being genuinely inclusive. So no, we didn’t do that. Of course it would have been best of all to have incorporated a broad panel of authors from the start, but it would also be disingenuous to pretend that this happened. To criticise the paper on these grounds is once again dodging the message to score a moral point. I too wish that science was more inclusive and fully collaborative; that’s one of the points we’re making.

Finally, I’m happy to accept that I am not the right person to lead by example. My encounter with the decolonisation literature has come through an awareness and confession of past mistakes, most of which were made through arrogance and ignorance. By all means criticise me for what I’ve done wrong — I’m comfortable with my errors being used as instructive examples. I’m also stumbling into a new field and likely to make further blunders. This will be an iterative process and one I’m entering into with some trepidation. But I firmly believe that this is a necessary direction and hope that others will join us.


* None of my thoughts in this blog post are original; I’ve learnt everything from discussions with the other authors.

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