Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"Ruling Minds": Psychologists of the British Empire

From a review of Erik Linstrum's Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire

"The anthropologist Charles Seligman...tried to create a “global dream dictionary.” Seligman, a professor at the London School of Economics, worked with nearly two dozen missionaries and colonial officials to interview colonial subjects. This was no half-baked operation: He collected dreams from natives of Nigeria, Malaya, China, the Solomon Islands, Sudan, Uganda, India, and the Gold Coast. Many subjects had to be bribed with tobacco and rice — understandable since they were being asked to reveal intimate dreams to strange white bureaucrats from a foreign land. ...

This all sounds absurd, but it had real effects. At the time, natives in colonial holdings weren’t seen as having the deep inner life that psychoanalysis was supposed to plumb. As Linstrum puts it, “the myth of the ‘happy-go-lucky’ native, too simple-minded to experience depression or neurosis, was pervasive.” Sure, psychoanalysis made sense in the British salon, but not on the African plains. Seligman’s dream collection, as unscientific as it seems today, proved this wrong. Native people, it turned out, dreamed of sex, of dying, of falling — the same dreams as everyone else. Some were disturbing: One Ugandan chief dreamed over and over of being beaten by his British superior. These inner experiences led Seligman to say on the BBC, “The unconscious of all these races is qualitatively much the same” — a big deal at the time, puncturing as it did one of the myths of white supremacy.

...As ridiculous as collecting dreams or submitting soldiers to Jungian word-association tests might sound, the men and women doing this work were trying to be reformers. They were often the only ones arguing, No, there’s no such thing as “martial races” and Yes, mental states really are identical in Africans and Europeans. But they were also working, formally or informally, for an empire that treated their subjects as subhuman. Out of that crooked timber, it was impossible for them to really be “fair” or just."

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