Teaching the Oppression of Uighurs in a Philosophy Course
There are many valuable aims of philosophy. There are many excellent ways of teaching philosophy. But, for whatever it’s worth, at the introductory level I prioritize the aim of showing the utility of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding the world. So, when I teach the introductory course Language, Knowledge, and Power, I try to pair theoretical texts with more accessible material that are about contemporary events.
At the same time, I am already exhausted with US politics. And my bet is that, by the fall, many of the students will be too. It is not that the contemporary American events that dominate the headlines aren’t important. Often they are. But, given that students are already immersed in this context, a focus on headline-news contemporary American events is, in my estimation, likely to trap students in their existing ways of thinking. And that’s not so good for that whole philosophy-is-useful-for-understanding-the-world pedagogical aim.
Alienation and Interpretation
So, what to do? One solution is to look more locally, to personal and community contexts that has not been already interpreted by others. Another solution is to look more globally, to contexts foreign to students so that they must try to use the philosophical tools and concepts in their interpretation. (This is one reason why I love teaching Lynne Tirrell’s “Genocidal Language Games”, which analyzes the use of propaganda in the Rwandan genocide.)
In my view, the ongoing oppression of Uighurs in China is one such context. And it is one that students, especially in The West, should learn more about, but most likely have not. The technologically-advanced racist authoritarian state that China has constructed in Xinjiang should be of interest to philosophers interested in the intersection of technology, social epistemology, oppression, etc.
If you are one of my Facebook friends who have not muted me yet, you’ve probably already seen many things I have shared on this topic. (Indeed, if you are also one of my friends from grad school, you might have already heard me talk about the oppression of Uighurs for more than a decade.) But, if you are a professional philosopher who does not fall into those demographic groups, here are some recommendations that I hope you will consider as you work on your fall semester syllabuses.
The best primary sources are the 403 pages of leaked internal documents compiled by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley for The New York Times which show how the Chinese Communist Party conceived of and orchestrated the systematic brutal crackdown of Uighurs.
The best longform text is Darren Byler’s “Ghost World” in LOGIC. Darren Byler is an anthropologist, and the grapevine tells me he might well be the last person to have done dissertation ethnographic work in Xinjiang. The text certainly is academic—Byler offers a compelling analysis of the inner-workings of Xinjiang using his framework of “terror capitalism”—but it also does not at all read as academic.
Other academics have written accessible op-eds informed by their disciplinary perspectives. There are too many to list, but I have learned a lot from works of David Brophy (history, Sydney), Timothy Grose (China studies, Rose-Hulman), Rachel Harris (ethnomusicology, SOAS), Séagh Kehoe (politics, Nottingham), James Leibold (politics, La Trobe), Jim Millward (history, Georgetown), Jo Smith Finley (Chinese studies, Newcastle), Rian Thum (history, Loyola–New Orleans), Sarah Tynen (geography, Colorado), and Adrian Zenz (anthropology, European School of Culture and Theology).
The best shortform text is—and this is a super difficult choice—Megha Rajagopalan’s “This Is What A 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like” in Buzzfeed. There are many excellent reporters who have done incredibly brave work in investigating this ongoing oppression, but Rajagopalan has the distinction of speaking so much truth to the power that her journalist visa was denied renewal.
The best longform video is “China’s Vanishing Muslims: Undercover In The Most Dystopian Place In The World” by Isobel Yeung for Vice/HBO. There are many segments that are worth dissecting, from her conversation with Han people in Xinjiang, to her realization that she was being tracked by plainclothes police. But the segments on the child separation policies—including videos of Kindergartens where children somehow never leave—are especially harrowing.
The best podcast episode is “A Woman’s Journey Through China’s Detention Camps” with Paul Mozur by The New York Times’s The Daily. It features interview with a woman who is still on house arrest in Xinjiang and who bravely disregards her own safety in order to speak out about her experience in the camps.
The best shortform video is “China’s Secret Internment Camps” by Danush Parvaneh and Sigal Samuel for Vox. The best multimedia interactive is “How China Turned a City into a Prison” by Chris Buckley, Paul Mozur, and Austin Ramzy for The New York Times.
Of course, these are only a small sample of the work that have been done on this humanitarian crisis. Consult also Magnus Fiskesjö’s much more comprehensive bibliography at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
Just as an example, I am planning to teach the NYT multimedia interactive in conjunction with Kristie Dotson’s “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing”, a work that spans social epistemology and social philosophy of language. Sometimes students are (understandably) skeptical of the very concept of epistemic violence. But I think the Xinjiang surveillance state stands as a convincing case of why “violence” in epistemic violence is more than merely metaphorical. Moreover, given the difference in standing and understanding between the Uighur people and the Han people in Xinjiang, cases of what Dotson calls testimonial quieting and testimonial smothering are bound to be pervasive.
Someone teaching on dehumanizing language might investigate the terms “terrorist” and “separatist”. Someone teaching on the politics of language preservation might consider China’s target of Uighur speakers and, especially, intellectuals. Someone teaching on campus free speech and academic freedom might examine recent incidents in which the Chinese government mobilized students abroad to harass a Uighur speaker and bring violence to a peaceful protest. Someone teaching about cultural heritage, similarly, might look to the systematic destruction of mosques that are hundreds of years old (and why that gets so much less attention than the fire damage of Notre Dame). Someone teaching on the way racism gets encoded in algorithms might use the Uighur-profiling facial recognition surveillance technologies as an example. Someone teaching on the return of scientific racism might look into China’s non-consensual collection of Uighur DNAs in order to recreate faces to feed into facial recognition surveillance.
Please let me know what approaches and texts you think of, and I will keep this blog post updated!
Of course, many parallels to different aspects of the ongoing Chinese oppression of Uighurs can be found in the present and the past of America (and Europe, and Australia, and…). And — to return to Byler’s “terror capitalism” framework — we should not forget the active participation of Western universities and corporations in this whole enterprise. However, by placing students in a foreign context, it just might encourage them to think more deeply about how philosophical tools and concepts can help them interpret their own.