Commentary, Opinion

On cultural imperialism within McGill courses

Lately, I have spent time reading the essays and papers listed in the Fall 2019 POLI 231: Introduction to Political Theory syllabus. At some point, I came to the realization that most of the authors—with the exception of Martin Luther King Jr. and Hannah Arendt—are men of European heritage. I did not realize that at the time. Later on, I also checked the Winter 2020 syllabus for the same class; once again, I found that most authors were white males of European heritage, with the exceptions of Franz Fanon, Mahatma Gandhi, and Angela Davis.

This is a manifestation of cultural imperialism, one of the Five Faces of Oppression, as argued by the renowned feminist theorist Dr. Iris Marison Young in her 1990 work, Justice and the Politics of Difference. Young defines cultural imperialism as a phenomenon that occurs when the experience of a group is “universalized.” As a consequence, perspectives other  than the dominant one become invisible; they are generalized as “the Other,” and the experience of the dominant group is portrayed as representative of humanity as a whole. Another example of this practice can be found in medical research. Vivian W. Pinn, former associate director for research on women’s health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), argues in her book, Gender Bias: An Undesirable Challenge in Health Professions and Health Care, that plenty of medical practices that concern both men and women are based upon research that involves a significantly higher number of men compared to women, or the total absence of women. 

The professors who write the syllabi probably do not deliberately choose male, European authors instead of BIPOC or female ones. Nor am I actively perpetuating cultural imperialism because I did not immediately recognize Eurocentrism and androcentrism, which is the habit of viewing males and male experiences as the norm for human behaviour, in the syllabi. In fact, most people probably do not notice cultural imperialism because they are immersed in a world that amplifies Eurocentric and androcentric points of view.

Nevertheless, some may argue that the POLI 231 syllabus focuses on Eurocentric points of views because it is designed to do so. After all, the first page of the syllabus states: “This course fulfills the prerequisite/ corequisite for 300-level courses in political theory. In particular it prepares students to pursue the four-semester sequence in the history of political thought (POLI 333/ 334/ 433/ 434).”

The 300-level courses mentioned above are named Western Political Thought 1 and 2 respectively, so it is unsurprising that the prerequisite course, POLI 231, is also focused on Western political theory. However, I wonder why McGill is deliberately favouring the perspective of one part of the world. Instead, the university should introduce students to a variety of viewpoints that are representative of humanity as whole. Moreover, the Department of Political Science should consider creating a series of courses in the history of political thought that cover different regions’ traditions. Then, political science students will have the chance to study the political thought of the region they are most interested in.

For example, students could read the works of Latin American authors like José Carlos Mariategui. Mariategui was a Peruvian intellectual, journalist, political philosopher, and founder of the Social Party of Peru. He argued in Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality that the Inca Empire was a well-functioning socialist society that was disrupted by the Spanish invasion of South America. His work has become a classic, having been translated to English, French, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, and Hungarian. 

None of what has been suggested will solve the problem of cultural imperialism at McGill, let alone the world. It is just a small step towards giving women and non-Westerners the opportunity to contribute to society’s understanding of reality.

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