Orwell on the Necessity of Decolonization — for the Colonizer

Image by Markus Spiske.

Published in 1936, “Shooting an Elephant” remains one of George Orwell’s most celebrated essays. In it, the English writer recounts an incident from his time as a police officer in modern day Myanmar, then known as Burma, part of the British Empire. Responding to calls of a rampaging elephant, Orwell finds the animal docile, but nevertheless feels compelled to kill it, rather than appear weak before the crowd who has gathered to watch. In allowing his conscience to be overwhelmed, he experiences how colonialism dehumanizes not just the colonized, but the colonizers as well.

“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys,” writes Orwell. “He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy …. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

Although Orwell is writing specifically of the British Empire, he quite clearly intends for his essay to be read more broadly, as applicable to contemporary fascism in Europe as British colonialism in Asia. And so too does his insight extend to today in the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine.

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