by Mathieu Berteloot
KU Leuven Student
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In the February edition 2019 of The Voice, an article appeared under the title “Belgium and Post-Colonial Tinder” by an anonymous author. The author reports a trend on Belgian Tinder profiles: people portray themselves acting in charity or the like in the vicinity of African children. The author considers this behaviour insincere; these representations are just used as a “selling-point”. This is disrespectful and it damages the relationship between the former colonizer and the colonized. The somewhat bigger conclusion that this behaviour – yet again – demonstrates is that the former oppressor fails to come to terms with the truth about its grievous past. The failure is not only due to moral clumsiness, it is institutional, for instance “embedded in the educational system”.
I would not per se find the conclusion troublesome; neither do I want to challenge the premise of their being such a trend among Belgians – rather than among other groups – on an app like Tinder – rather than media where the purpose is to a lesser extent to make yourself attractive. I will consider the premise to be true, just for the sake of demarcating the space for discussion.
What disturbs me, however, is how quite a big conclusion is drawn from a narrow observation. I think that the reasoning is flawed, and a flawed argument does not do justice to the debate and especially not to its conclusion. I do want to stress that it is completely justified to signal actions that come across as disrespectful, but, at the same time, I think that the article deserves a fair response.
Generally, representation of the oppressed by the oppressor is considered a good thing. Representation is required for acknowledgement, which is in turn a precondition for restitution. The virtue of representation is of course not unconditional. If representation is intended as satirical or ironical, this is harmful. But, nonetheless, when we see the oppressed represented in popular culture, the default attitude is to find this a good thing. Therefore, you need to appeal to special reasons to justify your mistrust. In case of Tinder, are there special reasons to think that the representation is harmful? Well, it does not seem that the Tinder candidates are ironic in representing themselves with African children in a humanitarian context. It is also fair to suspect that their behaviour and attitudes about charity outside of Tinder is quite consistent with what you see on Tinder. The fact that you want to sell yourself and score on Tinder with representing yourself like that does not override the general virtue of representation. To make an analogy, when people put on their CVs that they have been involved in humanitarian aid, this also is used as a ‘selling-point’, and why would you not be entitled to put that on your CV?
From this analysis of the supposed moral vice of these Tinder users, the author makes a jump by stating that “it fits into a wider collage of subconscious post-colonial European mentality that emanates from much of our conceptualisations.” The author predicates that a ‘mentality’ is ‘subconscious’. Since Freud, many horrid things have been purported to come from the subconscious, “penis envy” and the like. I find this term particularly obscure. We should ask the author what he means by that. Actually, if we take the term ‘subconscious’ for what it says, i.e. beyond the level of conscious intentions, there would not even be a problem because that indicates that the ‘mentality’ does even never reach the public sphere. Let me get things straight. The author accuses people of having a series of similar faulty opinions and attitudes. So then, first, you have to say what these series of opinions or attitudes exactly are and, then, why they are faulty. Well, whatever they are, following the author, they “emanate from much of our conceptualisations”. What is meant by ‘conceptualisations’ and how do they produce faulty attitudes? Is it misinformation? Is it moral incompetence? Is it a cognitive bias? (This is arguably what the author means by the source of the ‘subconscious’.) Is it something that the language does? Note that I would find the latter diagnosis troublesome because a person has false attitudes or false beliefs, not a language.
We do, however, find an indication of answer in the next paragraph to the question of how faulty attitudes like “sale of charity and aid” are produced. What is responsible is “a view embedded in the educational system in Belgium.” I underwent education in Belgium and I was taught about our colonial history and legacy. In the official programs, there is nothing like what the author accuses the system of, namely underrepresentation of “the repeated horrors and gruesome history”. We can discuss the amount of school hours that are dedicated to this, but the facts are nonetheless taught. We were taught about the colonial atrocities, the exploitation, the infringing of the local cultural and political rights, and the long-term political and economic effects that still affect the former colonized. And definitely we were not told that charity discharges us from our historical debts.
To conclude, I think that an analysis of ‘why education is not enough’ or ‘how the economical exploitation still takes place’ would shed more light on the present asymmetry between former colonizers and the colonized. It is also a bit of a perverted image of human beings to attribute all charity and awareness-raising to instrumental self-interest. If nobody truly cared, how would it then even be possible for you to score moral points with charity in the first place?