Epistemic Debilitation and the Erasure of Genocide

In November 2023, I presented a paper entitled “Settler Colonialism as the Automation of Attritional Warfare,” based on South Africa’s history of racialized governance, at Duke University and at the University of British Columbia. This is the revised version of the preface to that talk.


We are in a difficult geopolitical moment. Watching the intensification of death-dealing in Palestine on a captive population that is being debilitated and disabled as well as facing the immediacy of death constitutes a form of epistemic horror and trauma. Albeit not for all of us and not equally. But for many of us, whose worlds have been devastated by settler colonialism and who have had to suffer through the normalcy of contempt for the death-disability-debility that colonialism and imperialism has left in its wake, the obfuscation and false moral equivalences by former (neo)colonizers and imperialists that forbids and even criminalizes the recognition of Palestinian humanity is horrifying.

As a black South African academic in a higher education system where there is ongoing epistemic conflict about the unequal academic terrain and about the racialized dehumanization of black South Africans that was maintained, produced, and sustained by settler colonial epistemologies, there are innumerable questions that the genocide in Gaza has raised. Given how dissent has been shut down and criminalized in varying ways across the Global North, there are a range of epistemic questions about what proscription does to thought and about the value of proscribed thought when it circulates and is taken as the epitome of knowledge and then imposed on the Global South by Global North epistemic hierarchies. Hierarchies of knowledge between the Global North and Global South continue to be related to the differential power relations that were normalized by histories of colonization and that were maintained, sustained, produced, and justified by inordinate scales of violence, across all domains of life.

There are also questions about the connections between precarity and the temporalities of academic institutions. How do the enormous and debilitating demands on our time, within institutions in which precarity has been normalized, foreclose the possibility of political horizons that are not in service to warmongering political elites and that open the possibility for epistemic justice? In the university—and in many other workplaces where long hours and multiple, complex demands are normalized—we work in neoliberal hyper-ablest institutions where the effects of epistemic trauma are not given space. We are forced to continue to perform as if unaffected, despite the horror of the polycrises that beset so many of our worlds, the perduring crises of societies that are seeking ways out of our settler colonial histories—horrors that include climate crises, economic crises, innumerable internal domestic crises and crises such as the daily massacres of Palestinians, which remind many of us that we are each accountable to each other despite nation, religion, and differences. There are costs to continuing as if one’s sense of the world, one’s sense of justice, and one’s ethical sensibilities have not been destabilized, and there are costs to pretending that silencing, threats to destroy livelihoods, and the disavowal of humanist sensibilities and thwarting of empathy are acceptable. This is a moment where the nakedness of imperialism, racism, ethnocentrism, and the pleasures of violence for some and its destructive capacities ask us all what we are working for and demand staking our relation to ethical injunctions that dehumanize us in our varying responsiveness to the dehumanization of others. Fundamentally, it also asks us what it means to be so busy that you don’t have time to mourn, to protest, to do the work of building a better world. In which ways do the temporalities of our institutions work towards sustaining worlds that are unjust?

For nearly four months, we have witnessed the relentless and intensified siege of Gaza and its bombardment with tons and tons of ammunition being dropped on a captive population that is also being denied the basic necessities for life. Lives, families, and communities and life-supporting infrastructure, as well as archives and historical sites, are being deliberately and wilfully destroyed. The shameless rhetoric by Israel, the United States of America, and their allies have shown the distorted discursive terrain of human rights talk and the perdurance of colonial brutality. False moral equivalences, manufactured histories, absurd stagings and mistranslations to stoke public opinion, rampant and naked dehumanization, cruelty as statecraft, and on and on—the perversity of doublespeak cloaks a genocide.

We have borne witness to the majority of the world voting for a ceasefire through global legal instruments and global mechanisms of censure that are now forcing the question of what value these institutions have. Why do some countries hold so much power and why are they able to act with impunity? The continuities of imperialism and settler colonialism and how international instruments are used in its service, despite the conscience of the majority of the world, has never been starker. That there are people across the world, millions of them, who are in the streets and protesting on behalf of Palestine, despite prohibitions against recognizing the humanity of Palestinians, tells us that the perversity of doublespeak cannot quench conscience and empathy.

In South Africa, protests and commitments of support for the Palestinian cause have been ongoing. The South African state has also demonstrated unequivocal support for Palestinian’s right to life and condemnation of Israeli aggression. As a country that has formerly experienced racist oppression, where the brutalization of black people and the right to violence by a racist settler colonial state was normalized, South Africa too, has dissenters. Nonetheless, I and many people who have been oppressed by settler colonialism and those whose capacity for empathy transcends or overrides their histories of white supremacy and colonialism remain saturated with the horror of witnessing a genocide. So does witnessing the brutality and hypocrisy of those who presume to lecture the world on morality towards their own necropolital, imperialist, warmongering ends. However, it is the collective efforts across the globe and the fact that most nations recognize that a genocide is taking place, notwithstanding the few nation-states that hold inordinate geopolitical power and yet are a minority, that offer an alternate horizon for thinking the world.

Onto-epistemic questions also arise as one watches the operation of mass-mediated epistemologies of ignorance, in formal spaces in the Global North such as universities and among the political establishment, if not on the streets where protests refute and defy complicity with genocide. In South Africa, the use of propaganda where fear of black violence was used to justify inordinate scales of violence against black South Africans was one of the mechanisms of racialized rule that allowed many white South Africans to claim epistemic innocence during and after apartheid. That is, white South Africans could claim they did not know and somehow in the aftermath of apartheid become ethically purified through the presumption that if they knew, they would have acted differently. They have also, for the most part, retained epistemic mastery, which presumes that canonical modalities of knowing far exceed the knowledge of the oppressed. Settler colonial epistemic mastery has faced ongoing epistemic resistance because of calls for the decolonization of knowledge in South African higher education.

Many of our colleagues in the Global North are proscribed in their response to the genocide unfolding before us. Lest we forget, many colleagues in the Global North—and in the Global South—may also believe the genocide of Palestinians to be justified, may be persuaded by the Israeli state and the US propaganda machine. They too may believe that some are more human than others. That some forms of violence are righteous. After all, despite the brutality that colonialism meted out across the world and the devastation caused by white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist violence, there are many producers of knowledge who do not consider this history worth teaching or discussing, or who have even done work to prevent the teaching of racist, sexist histories.

The export of theory from the Global North and its imposition on the Global South is normalized. In the Global South, this circulation of epistemic coloniality is deeply tied to our capacity to master what is considered canonical, which are usually settler colonial logics and the thinness of a conceptual universe that is steeped in hierarchies of dehumanization as theory. Those of us from the Global South are often asked to perform epistemic authority through a conceptual apparatus that is almost always unstable and that often distorts local struggles rather than helps to explain them. More often than not, theory in and of the South is treated as a series of case studies and assumed to be empirical, even though it may be mined and have its provenance erased. We are almost always called to know the newest, most fashionable theory that circulates in the Global North, whereas Global North scholars are not required to know most of the theorists in the Global South, or to think with them carefully or closely. This export of theory is a form of soft power that has narrowed how we think of imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism, amongst other modalities of domination, even as it has offered some global grammars of legibility and solidarity (which sometimes are also forms of epistemic coloniality). The expectation of “mastering” theory from the Global North also confers epistemic authority to those who are shielded by empire and who maintain and support empire and its circuits of knowledge.

However, watching the way silencing—and the formal and informal injunctions against advocating for Palestinians’ right to life—is unfolding in Global North universities has made me wonder about other epistemic proscriptions and ontological erasures that travel, and about the value of thinking with proscriptive theorizations from the Global North. I am also questioning what this entails for the making of transnational solidarities, for fantasies about academic freedom and ethico-epistemic claims, and for thinking injustice. What does it mean to “think with” theory written by scholars who cannot perceive the humanity of people who are being annihilated and who have faced incredible brutality for decades? What does it mean to “think with” theory conceptualized by scholars who cannot perceive a genocide as it is unfolding? By people who are unable, in an age where information, histories, studies, and even in-the-moment accounts by witnesses on the ground are all available if you have the will to look? More importantly, what does it mean to use theory written by people who refuse to bear witness to or speak out against the annihilatory scale of suffering being inflicted on Gaza?

If the operation of settler colonialism is presumably so opaque and complicated, and rendered justifiable or not worth mentioning, then how are we to think about the value of scholarship that presumes to think freedom, to offer conceptual terrain with which to imagine—and yet is so wilfully silent in the face of a mass-mediated genocide?

Global North academies and their proxies in the Global South are in a battle for the very possibility to think. The way in which time (busyness, time poverty, etc.) operates in our institutions (with their many demands) and the organized precarity that so many academics face are part of what makes this silencing and control possible. Even the president of a university can be told what to think by political elites and made insecure in the service of a political rationality. Organized precarity in Global North academic institutions is not without political import, as academics who are not secure may also not have the freedom to build expansive political alternatives. Moreso, the US state has shown just how meaningless academic freedom is: rather than universities being the spaces which feed state and political rationalities, it is the state that has put the university in service of its support for a genocidal regime. Precarity, subjectification to logics that work against humanist sensibilities, the innumerable threats levelled against academics who work on settler colonialism and other forms of inequality, and a host of other epistemic violences produce forms of epistemic debilitation that we have yet to understand. Debilitation often works through attritional lethality, which is a temporal strategy that uses time to create ontoformative effects. We are not immune to the material and psycho-affective effects of debilitation and the consequences of epistemic trauma in the academy. Our long working hours and the everyday anxieties and stressors we experience due to time poverty have costs for our mental and physical health. There are costs to our families and communities and thus also to our capacities to support and to be supported–which would otherwise act as buttresses against ill-health. Working in a community with people who are passionate—and yet too tired or overburdened to do the numerous tasks they are responsible for—often leads people to retreat to expedient responses (such as shunning colleagues who are doing work that upsets established orthodoxies) and forego doing the painstaking work of forging alternatives. People erase and ignore worlds that require too much effort to fathom.

The space to think freedom for others is also the space to think freedom for the self. These struggles are not disconnected. What is being deployed in Global North universities is a form of debilitation. For those who are and have been made vulnerable because of their race, gender, disability, religion, geopolitical location, and other factors that produce marginalization, debilitation can have disabling effects or intensify and exacerbate disablement. For example, chronic psycho-affective crises such as anxiety and depression will become normalized as people begin to self-regulate in relation to the minimization of colonialism and the prohibitions against critiquing US and Global North imperialism and Israeli settler colonialism. Silencing produces effects.

This, of course, will not prevent some people from exercising liberatory forms of agency that our many histories of struggle inform us might have repercussions that will affect their livelihoods. And of course, precarity renders people vulnerable to death-disability-debility.  The struggles for life in Palestine are not disconnected from the struggles for epistemic and ontological freedom that work against settler colonial logics and its materialization in our lives.

These are not the only ways in which there are connections. While most pro-Palestinian protests were without incident, on November 12, in Sea Point (which is on the Atlantic Seaboard), a historically white neighborhood and one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Cape Town, South Africa, a pro-Palestinian protest of mostly black Capetonians was met with hard policing strategies. Police used crowd control technologies on families: women, children, men who are civilians and not soldiers, old people, and people with disabilities. Tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannons were all used—weapons that are touted as non-lethal but that have, in actuality, killed people and that produce impairment. The police targeted a crowd indiscriminately and punished people as a means to forbid assembly, a form of mass torture in public with the purpose of controlling space. This way of meeting dissent recalled the brutal repression that we saw during apartheid in South Africa and that we have seen countless times in Palestine and at protests across the world.

To reiterate, our struggles are not disconnected from the settler colonial logics and tactics that we are witnessing in Palestine. The intensity differs, the emphases differ. These differences matter. We should not forget that, while our struggles are not equivalent, they do draw on the same logic. And we should be able to think about it and do the work to understand this logic and in so doing, undo it. The capacity to think without proscriptions about settler colonialism where it occurs across the world is deeply enmeshed in the capacity to think about the material conditions in which we labor and about inequality more broadly: the inequalities we labor under and the inequalities we benefit from, reproduce, and sustain in our relations with knowledge and its circulation. To not accede to the proscriptions on thinking about Palestine is to resist settler colonial logic and its violences. To demand a ceasefire—to demand the right to life of a subjugated population—is to affirm a liberatory political horizon that refuses settler colonialism as an ordinary form of politics.

Kharnita Mohamed

Kharnita Mohamed is a black Muslim feminist scholar and lectures in Anthropology at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Her research is focused on epistemology, death, debility, disability, race, and gender towards developing conceptual tools for thinking about death, disability, and debility in and for the Global South. She has received the UCT Humanities Faculty’s Dean’s Teaching Award and her debut novel, Called to Song received the UCT Meritorious Book Award and was shortlisted for the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences Fiction Award. She co-edited the edited volume, Pluriversal Conversations on Transnational Feminisms and an Agenda special issue on gender and disability.