Facing Protest: Confrontation Within Confrontation

Democracy and liberalism form important, useful and core ingredients of student activism. However, their origins in Western heritage makes these concepts potential tools for past and ongoing colonialism if blindly separated from their historical violence.

Walking down Eastern Avenue, situated within the University of Sydney, primarily considered Australia’s most politically charged university, is an endeavour often characterised by exposure to political activism of some sort. You will most likely hear a language of resistance developed by Westernised institutions. 

This is no surprise. Student activists, aiming to confront injustice, ultimately reflect a resistance and an education undoubtedly influenced by Western universities.

As described by Julie Cupples in Unsettling Eurocentrism in the Westernized University (2018), the Western university is a site of producing, acquiring and disseminating knowledge that is ultimately Eurocentric. The knowledge it imparts on students assumes a universality and objectivity that, more often than not, has taken hold through violence at the expense of non-Eurocentric languages of resistance.

Democracy, liberalism and law are the ingredients of slogans chanted across campuses. They are used to police injustices by characterising them as deviations from Enlightenment values. For example, critiques against wealth inequality are rooted in arguments proclaiming an absence of genuinely democratic institutions, making the point that the former inspires the latter. 

It is hard to disagree. For example, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012) by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson is a brilliant exploration of that claim. However, if we were to be honest, democracy and all other slogans of resistance originating from a Eurocentric worldview cannot be detached from a history of violent military expansion and colonialism. 

Ultimately, there is a confrontation within a confrontation; resistance against injustice may be a continuation of violence, material or epistemic.

The argument here is not to discredit or shun democracy or the liberal world order; the idea is, to be honest about the nature of the confrontation that becomes manifest when we attempt to use the West’s assumed rationality and rhetoric of resistance.

The Western World claims such tools to be a gift, an Apollonian exercise of a beautiful aesthetic and framework to criticise the world. But one cannot ignore that, in the words of Yassir Morsi in Radical Skins, Moderate Masks: De-Radicalising the Muslim and Racism in Post-racial Societies (2017), the decorative language of liberalism, rationalism and secularism foregoes the history of violence that played a significant role in making these paradigms the tenets of critique and reform that they are today.

Consider our conception of the ‘law.’ Legal principles and values, whether they arise from liberalism or secularism or humanism, play a vital role in promoting the cause of social justice; however, they are ultimately a Western conception. One should ask whether the spread of these values and systems result from a ‘superior’ science, or are the result of colonisation and extreme violence. 

The Global North was fixated on imposing its law on subjugated peoples and went to considerable lengths to ensure that such systems would remain their own. For example, New South Wales Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Bathurst recently characterised Australia’s justice system as “white man’s justice” in its refusal to recognise Indigenous customs. The ‘confrontation within a confrontation’ is whether the words of the white man’s justice, which may be conducive to betterment, continue that process of violence. 

Consider another example outside the ‘law’ and our borders: the Syrian Civil War. Both the Assad regime and the opposition were criticised by the white man’s justice; the former as undemocratic, the latter too Islamist and Dionysian. Should one have adopted the West’s language of resistance, there would be no end to the ensuing violence. 

We may have intended to promote the cause of justice, but in reality, we perpetuate a cycle of violent confrontation by affirming no side is worthy of our genuine solidarity and thus, fail to bring an end to the conflict. The application of a Eurocentric flavour outside of the Western sphere is a confrontation in and of itself, and when exhibited in protest, becomes a ‘confrontation within a confrontation.’

Therefore, a ‘confrontation within a confrontation’ is a product of honesty, not judgement or critique. It requires activists to be conscious of their role in perpetuating a system of violence in attempting to mitigate violence. Otherwise, we risk fighting fire with fire. 

As the world faces historic challenges, Eastern Avenue will continue to be a site of confrontation, drawing on familiar language of international law, democracy, liberalism, and secularism. Though they may be valuable tools of confrontation, they perpetuate conflict and violence of a different kind. The task is to look beyond Eurocentricity and question universality when bettering a world that lionises Western intellectual and epistemic achievements at the expense of non-Eurocentricity.