The emergence and growth of psychology as a discipline took place not only at a time of social change and conflict in Europe but also while Europeans and their descendants were carrying out violence in search of profit and in cultural, social and psychological self-aggrandisement.
As Europeans conquered much of the world, imposing themselves as the best model of humanity, the discipline of psychology emerged as a speciality and arbiter of human experience.
During classical colonialism, psychologists and psychiatrist embarked on racial comparison on the size of the brain, concluding from biased measurements that Africans belonged to a lower evolutionary phase.
With the rise and growth of globalisation, the calculus and dynamics of Eurocentric domination not only shifted but also turned more subtle and therefore more invisible and treacherous. I call this metacolonialism.
To begin with, metacolonialism established the dollar and (recently) the euro not only as the primary currencies of exchange but also as measures of human worth. This is colonisation of economics, wealth and self-evaluation.
Metacolonialism also dictates that international laws promulgated by Europeans are just and essential laws for “civilised” conduct in national and international relations. This is colonisation of individual and group behaviour, nationally and internationally.
Europeans and their descendants today enjoy freedom and opportunity in space not only in their own lands but also beyond in every part of the world. In contrast, space increasingly represents unfreedom and constraints for the metacolonised in ways worse than described under classical colonialism.
Metacolonialism, like its antecedents, also glorifies Western education and knowledge as the tickets to enlightenment and the “good life”, while vilifying and eroding indigenous education and knowledge. This is colonisation of knowledge. Using modern telecommunication equipment and the internet, Europeans have the right to monitor the communication and information of all people, including who talks to whom, how often, where and for what purpose. This is colonisation of digital information.
Metacolonialism also sets the Europeans and their descendants up as the sole dispensers of aid and compassion for victims of violence and oppression in Africa. But this compassion is self-serving because the countries and organisations delivering the aid gain indirectly or directly by selling the products of their farmers and manufacturers or by collecting hefty overheads for services rendered. This is colonisation of compassion, reaffirming simultaneously the incompetence and dependence of aid recipients, while reasserting and further inflating the self-aggrandisement of Europeans.
As the successor and culmination of earlier forms of colonialism, metacolonialism likewise serves Euro-American material exploitation, cultural domination and psychological self-aggrandisement. These motives persist by inertia of history, residual social and political structures of domination, and collective socialisation through effective media and schools. Metacolonialism added to these factors its potent methods: conditioned mass passion for consumer goods imported from abroad and an effective dissemination of the belief that this stage of colonialism (globalisation) represents a great advance in human history.
By focused assault on the world of meaning, metacolonialism also penetrates deeper than classical colonialism and neocolonialism into the psyche and social relations. It occupies and controls the self or being of the metacolonised both in their psychological and social existence.
Since its beginning, establishment psychology was obsessed with instincts. Theories of instincts seldom led to valuable and lasting insight on human behaviour. Instead, such theories not only postulated fixed traits, but also reified characteristics of people in ways that afforded justification of slavery, colonialism, racism and sexism.
Focusing on human needs introduces a different outlook and outcome. Individuals cannot state their presumed instincts, but they can affirm their needs and wants. Thus, whereas theory about instinct exists in the mind of its proponent who claims institutional authority and professional credibility, the study of human needs forces one to shift the line of inquiry and predisposes one to talk to the persons concerned who can explain what they need and want. An emphasis on needs and wants may reduce the scourge of solipsism and Eurocentrism in establishment psychology.
The promotion of adjustment to oppressive structure and alienated living often occur in psychotherapy or the larger industry called mental health, whose aim is to change people rather than enable them (if not enjoining them) to change the conditions (economic, political, cultural and social) that caused or contributed to the distress, mild or severe.
Emphasis on adjustment not only decontextualises the problems of the oppressed but also burdens the “patient” with an inordinate degree of patience to an oppressive system, including the hierarchy of power in the doctor-patient relationship replicating the colonial situation.
Moreover, traditional therapy begins with a subtle process of Eurocentrism, racism and victim-blame, all affirming or implying that the “patient” caused or contributed to his or her problem. Little wonder then that patients from oppressed communities seldom seek therapy unless brought under duress by relatives, the police or by court order. If they seek therapy, they frequently drop out because of the adjustment-orientation, power-relations, decontextualisation and victim-blaming of Eurocentric psychology.
Oppressive systems produce countless victims subjected to hardship and injury. But a perspective promoting change avoids freezing people in the status of victims who only deserve sympathy and charity.
Even when people experience hardship, danger and injury, they make choices. People always make choices by rationally calculating their prospects of winning or losing in war, business and other human encounters. In each case, they consider the resources and means available to them as well as the conditions favouring them or not. To overstate their victimisation prevents critical analysis of choices and freezes them in permanent incompetence, dependence and hopelessness. It also reinforces their belief, internalised under oppression, that they have no choice but to continue life in misery from one generation to the next.
At the same time, to affirm that the colonised have choice not only declares that they can transcend their present condition, but also prepares and empowers them to make choices. Frederick Douglass, the former black American slave, stated that power concedes only to a demand and that refusal to endure oppression sets the limits of tyrants.
Decolonised psychology analyses the conditions that victimise people, making them objects or minions of others; it also affirms that they are self-determining actors — if not immediately, then in the future. It educates them about self-defeating strategies, explores with them how best to set limits to tyranny and prepares them to make necessary and effective demands for change.
Decolonised psychology pursues change using a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. The top-down approach is imperialistic and arrogant and seldom works, neither at the level of the individual nor at that of the collective. Many therapeutic interventions or programmes of social change fail because they are imposed by individuals or groups who claim superior authority and knowledge, often supported by the threat or exercise of violence.
The change they claim to bring about is minimal, superficial, half-hearted and self-serving. Not only do they affirm or imply that they alone know best what is good for the individuals or groups they claim to help, they also devaluate and infantilise them with an approach that replicates the situation of oppression. And they show that the project of change is theirs, claiming victory for all successes and blaming the recipient of help for all failures.
These characteristics of the top-down approach often breed resentment and subversion among those supposed to be recipients of help. That is why traditional approaches to therapy and international peacekeeping missions fail with people caught in colonial oppression and associated devaluation.
The bottom-up approach requires patience and humility as well as openness to learn the experiences, thoughts and perspective of the other. It forces the helper to examine motives, question dominant theories and be open to learn the experiences, thoughts and traditions of those one seeks to help. The bottom-up approach also affirms that the so-called recipients of help own the process and product of change; that success and failure are shared; and that change is reciprocal because the supposed “helper” learns, gets healed and grows alongside.
In short, colonialism is today more entrenched objectively and subjectively than it was in the past. Effective and sustainable change can come only when those within the centre of the metacolonised world and those in its peripheries work together both to deconstruct metacoloniality in its different forms and jointly reconstruct a more just world on the ruins of the old.
The call for collaboration is not an appeal for sympathy or generosity; those at the centres of metacolonialism also pay heavy but hidden costs for injustice and dehumanisation of others. I therefore see the project of decolonising psychology as a way toward broad-based critical thinking and collaboration on what to deconstruct and how to reconstruct for the benefit of all.
This is an edited extract from an address at the inaugural congress of the Pan-African Psychology Union in Durban this month. Dr Hussein A Bulhan is the founding president of the Frantz Fanon University in Somaliland and the author of Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression