4 minute read

Resistance and Accommodation

Statement Of Frederick Law Olmsted, Having Visited Virginia, United States, The Effects Of Culture And Consciousness

To fight and quite possibly die? Or to acquiesce in one's fate as a slave or conquered person? This has been the classic choice presented by conventional definitions of resistance and accommodation. In Thucydides' (d. c. 401 B.C.E.) Peloponnesian War, the people of Melos face the certainty of an invasion by Athens. Two options, both unpalatable, confront their leaders. On one hand, the Melians could acknowledge the superior power of Athens and the coming reality of foreign rule. "And how, pray," they ask, "could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?" To this the Athenians have a ready answer: "Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you." On the other hand, the Melians could reject Athenian aggression. "[T]o submit," they argue, "is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect." In the end the Melians resist Athenian imperialism, are defeated in battle, and have many grown men put to death and children and women taken as slaves.

Until recently, definitions of accommodation and resistance, particularly in relation to slavery and colonialism, have reproduced the stark decisions that faced the Melians more than two thousand years ago. To accommodate was to agree, however tacitly, with the existing order of things—to compromise, to oblige, to be pliable. Accommodation entailed the avoidance of further conflict, as in a treaty or some other form of agreement that settled a dispute. Compliance with prevailing norms and practices—in short, "accommodation"—contrasted with active contestation of social structures and systems of domination, or "resistance." Accommodation assumed the absence or ending of conflict, whereas conflict—the throwing up of an obstacle, the establishing of a confrontation—was at the very center of resistance. In some early usages resistance was a physical thing, a type of fortification to slow advancing armies. Accommodation, in contrast, sprang from the mind, and was a strategy by which the less powerful adjusted their lives to the realities of their domination.

Slavery and colonialism represent among the most extreme forms of domination. Slavery centers on "natal alienation"—slaves are divorced from their own community—and property rights, one person owning another human being. Colonialism entails the domination of one society by another that is geographically and culturally distinct from the society that is subjugated. Slavery invariably involves close interaction, even intimacy. A central characteristic of colonialism, on the other hand, is foreignness, rule by a remote society.

Throughout most of the twentieth century perspectives on slavery and colonialism stressed the totality of domination and the apparent passivity of slaves and colonized peoples, or, conversely, dramatic examples of resistance. Influenced by his understanding of Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, the historian Stanley Elkins argued that certain behaviors of slaves showed their near total domination by white masters and the psychological consequences of accommodation. Elkins drew on the work of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), particularly on Hegel's "master-slave dialectic," according to which the slave becomes an instrument of his master's will. To the extent that the master's consciousness and identity come to depend on the slave, so the slave's capacity for an independent consciousness will decline and he will adopt a "slavish consciousness." The absence of dramatic resistance such as rebellions seemed to suggest the pervasiveness in American history of accommodation and "slavish consciousness."

Theorists of colonialism occasionally made similar arguments. The Tunisian Albert Memmi wrote of the entwined identities of colonizer and colonized and of the psychological consequences of accommodation. Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), trained as a psychiatrist, thought colonialism a form of dehumanization; some of the disorders he treated during his time in French Algeria he considered to have originated in the effects of accommodation. Fanon elaborated ideas about resistance and advocated participation in anticolonial violence as a way by which the colonized could cleanse themselves of the stain of subjugation and reassert their basic humanity.

Until the 1970s, writings on accommodation in slave and colonial societies proceeded from a number of assumptions about resistance. Accommodation and resistance were viewed as inversely proportional: the greater the resistance, the less the accommodation, and vice versa. Resistance was clearly identifiable as purposive organized action. In the Americas, the Haitian Revolution (1791–1803), in which slavery was overturned, represented the clearest example of resistance. Scholars looked elsewhere for other examples of slave rebellions and argued that the absence of organized resistance indicated greater levels of domination and accommodation.

Throughout the postcolonial world, discussions of resistance likewise centered on organized actions to resist or to overthrow colonialism. Scholars of South Asia concentrated on revolts such as the 1857 Indian Rebellion or on the nonviolence campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi that led up to the granting of Indian independence in 1947. China specialists analyzed events such as the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Africanist scholars distinguished "primary resistance" from "secondary resistance." Active, organized protest against colonial encroachment and conquest, or against early colonial rule, represented primary resistance. The Maji Maji rebellion in German Tanganyika (1905–1906), the Herero rebellion in German South West Africa (1904–1907), and military engagements across the continent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were representative examples. In contrast, "secondary resistance" looked ahead to the ending of foreign rule and the creation of new nation-states; strikes and demands by trade unions and, especially, the claims and actions of nationalist organizations were the clearest examples. Importantly, whereas primary resistance invariably entailed violence, this was not necessarily so with secondary resistance, which embraced peaceful protests as well as armed movements for national liberation.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to Retrovirus