Staging Uncivility, Or, The Performative Politics of
Radical Decolonial Iconoclasm
Matthias Pauwels
Decolonisation, Iconoclasm, Colonialist Heritage
Performative Politics, Frantz Fanon, Jacques Rancière
Krisis 42 (1):61-75.
This article reects on the deployment of crude and destructive modes of iconoclasm
in contemporary decolonial and anti-racist struggles, as exemplied by the campaign
against Belgium’s colonialist patrimony in June 2020. Through a consideration of sym-
pathetic and internal critiques of such modes, I postulate a tensional interplay, within
the said struggles, between two opposing approaches focused on the performance of
civility and uncivility respectively. While the rst is grounded in Rancière’s theory of
emancipatory politics, arguments by Benjamin, Žižek, Jameson and especially Fanon are
deployed to elucidate the rationale, modus operandi and ecacy of the more contro-
versial second approach.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 License International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2022 The author(s).
Staging Uncivility, Or, The Performative Politics of
Radical Decolonial Iconoclasm
Matthias Pauwels
Travelling Activism from #BlackLivesMatter to #LeopoldMustFall1
One of the remarkable aspects of globalisation is that activist movements and campaigns
travel globally from one locale to another, generating transnational ructions overnight
– a phenomenon that one might denote with the term travelling activism, as a variation
on Edward Said’s “travelling theory” (1983, 226-47). The anti-racist protests in the US
in the wake of the death-by-police-brutality of George Floyd at the end of May 2020
are a case in point. Under the banner of Black Lives Matter, these protests spread
almost instantly over the globe, intersecting with unresolved issues of anti-black racism
and colonialism in many places. This conrms a characteristic feature of contemporary
social struggles noted by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, namely, the way in which
they tend to “leap vertically and touch immediately on the global level” (2001, 54-5).
In Belgium, the 2020 Black Lives Matter campaign once again turned the
country’s troubled colonial past and the related, residual racist attitudes and practices
into burning issues, instigating a radical challenge to the blatant silence and inaction
on these matters. In addition to anti-racist Black Lives Matter rallies, which occasion-
ally escalated into rioting and looting, there was a widespread iconoclastic assault on
the country’s colonialist public patrimony, especially that glorifying King Leopold II.2
Statues, plaques and street names commemorating Belgium’s highly problematic second
king were spray-painted with crass slogans, paint-bombed, smeared with cement, hit
with sledgehammers and toppled.3 The symbolic revenge thus inicted had been a long
time coming and clearly provided a much-needed release of the pent-up anger and
frustration among several generations of Belgo-Congolese.
This was not the rst time that Belgium’s colonialist heritage was contested.4 In
2004, an anonymous collective chopped o the hand of a bronze statue of a Congolese
child in the city of Ostend.5 Part of a larger conguration of sculptures centred around
an equestrian statue of Leopold II, the statue depicts one of a group of Congolese
slaves which, as the inscription states, “express their gratitude to Leopold II [described
as their “ingenious protector”] for having freed them from enslavement by the Arabs”.
The collective lambasted the monument’s blatant hypocrisy as Leopold II’s henchmen
treated the Congolese as slaves on his rubber plantations, meting out cruel punishments
to ensure productivity, such as chopping o hands and arms. By mutilating the statue,
the collective’s professed aim was to make the sculpture more historically accurate.6
In 2008, activist-philosopher Théophile de Giraud had mounted an equestrian statue
of Leopold II on Brussels’ Throne Square, defacing it with red paint – symbolising
the bloodshed during Leopold II’s reign – and staging a lynching. The same statue
was daubed with red paint in 2013 and 2015.7 In 2017, photographs of abuses during
Belgian colonialism were pasted on a statue of Leopold II in Mons, and in January 2018
the Citizen’s Association for a Decolonial Public Space removed a bust of Leopold II in
Duden Park in Forest.8
Although the recent Black Lives Matter protests were the immediate incentive
of the surge in decolonial contestations of Belgium’s patrimony, their inspiration and
roots can thus be traced back further in time. However, the worldwide outrage over the
umpteenth instance of racially driven police brutality in the US no doubt contributed
to the unprecedented urgency, scope, and intensity of the contestations. It might also
partly explain why, this time around, the campaign of decolonial iconoclasm was quite
ecacious, resulting in some short-term victories, its impact magnied, no doubt, by
global moral and political pressures as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. On
a national level, politicians voted in favour of establishing a parliamentary committee
on Belgium’s colonial past. It also led the current king Philippe to ocially express his
personal regrets for Belgium’s colonial misdeeds, although stopping short of issuing
an apology, which would have been more consequential in terms of reparations to the
Congolese people. More generally, media debates ensued on the persistence of racism
– blatant and covert – in Belgian society with regard to job opportunities, housing,
education, or stop-and-search practices by the police.9 All this came about in a matter
of weeks.
On a local level, iconoclastic acts against colonialist monuments often led to
their removal – even if mostly to prevent further damage – which can be seen as
a victory for decolonial activists. However, if the dominant way in which the local
authorities in question proposed to remedy the contested nature of colonialist monu-
ments in the long term is anything to go by, it remains to be seen if this feat will not
prove to be merely temporary. Such proposals displayed an insucient awareness of
the oensiveness of the monuments as well as the gravity of their contestation, with
authorities mostly emphasising the need for providing more factual information and
a proper contextualisation, for instance by adding a critical commentary. Surely such
a minimalist approach is inadequate as textual accompaniments cannot possibly undo
the visual impact of colonialist statues in the public space. Such discursive additions are
likely to have the same dubious status as the proverbial ne print in a contract, and will
do little to trouble the white Belgians public enjoyment of their colonialist past. As such,
it merely enables them to continue to have their colonialist cake and eat it.
To Hell with Your Documents of Barbarism!
While shocking to the average white Belgian, the crude and destructive means of
contestation were not unanimously approved of even among those sympathetic to the
decolonial cause, and became a matter of debate. A commonly held position in this
regard was well expressed by a previous Brussels mayor in response to the aforemen-
tioned theft of a bust of Leopold II in 2018. Although understanding the motivations
behind the action, the previous mayor regretted the resort to what he described as
“Taliban behaviour”, as well as a “rather primal vandalism […] under the cover of
humanism” (Belga 2018).10 An extremist, intolerant, and barbaric type of behaviour is
thus attributed to radical decolonial iconoclasts, blemishing and delegitimising a justi-
ed cause.
On a rst approach, the choice for crude, “barbaric” methods of contesta-
tion can in fact be found to be highly pertinent. One can take heed here of Walter
Benjamin’s verdict, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (2007, 253-64) on
the status of a nation’s “cultural treasures” or “documents of civilisation”, as part of his
historical-materialist reections on culture. Benjamin (2007, 256) regards such treasures
as the “spoils” of a nation’s past conquests that are “carried along” in the “triumphal
procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. Of
their origins, Benjamin (ibid.) says that they cannot be contemplated “without horror”,
leading him to famously claim that “There is no document of civilization which is not
at the same time a document of barbarism”, or again, that no such document is “free
of barbarism”.
In Belgium’s post-colonial context, Benjamin’s statements concerning the
intimate connections between civilisation and barbarism – although not specically
related to colonialism – gain extra force and signicance. It is dicult not to regard
the cultural heritage memorialising and glorifying a nation’s colonial past as anything
but highly problematic documents of barbarism, as the spoils and sublimated insignia
of colonisation built on the suering and toil of generations of Congolese people.
To be sure, the barbaric roots of colonialist monuments are carefully obfuscated by a
mystifying, euphemistic discourse that shamelessly lauds the colonising nation for its
civilising eorts abroad.
A Benjaminian demystication of colonialist monuments as documents of
barbarism allows one to counter criticisms of the rudimentary methods of radical deco-
lonial iconoclasts. The latter can be seen to merely reciprocate and match the barbaric
nature of Belgium’s colonialist endeavour, conform to a tit-for-tat logic. It should be
clear that if anyone comported themselves as brutes and savages it was the colonisers
themselves, and not the contemporary decolonial iconoclasts, as some contend.
Moreover, Benjamin’s claims of a relation of complicity between today’s rulers
and their predecessors – or, as he puts it, “those who conquered before them” (ibid.)
– oer a rm rejoinder to criticisms of the recent spate of decolonial activism as being
mere symbolic politics or yesteryear’s struggles. It was not uncommon, for instance,
to hear white Belgians dryly remark that they do not understand all this fuss about
colonialist monuments, downplaying the latter’s contentiousness by regarding them as
relics of a long gone past. It was emphasised that it has “after all” been sixty years since
Congo’s independence and over 110 years since the end of Leopold II’s reign over
Congo. It should be clear, however, that Leopold II’s colonialist venture gave Belgium
a vital head start in securing a strategic spot in the then emerging global world order,
enabling it – up to this very day – to punch above its weight as a tiny country of eleven-
and-a-half million people. It has made Belgium deeply complicit in the founding of a
state of “global apartheid”, as Patrick Bond (2004) calls it, established through Western
countries’ colonialist and imperialist drives which resulted in the massive disparities in
wealth, opportunities, and rights between those in the West and the Global South that
persist to this day.
More specically in relation to on-going contestations of colonialist patrimony,
the “spoils” of Leopold II’s colonial enterprise allowed the Belgian capital of Brussels
to position itself as a thriving, modern, Paris-style metropole by adorning its public
spaces in imperialistic splendour with grand boulevards, triumphal arches, and monu-
mental statues. This urban-architectural capital no doubt played an important role in
later establishing Brussels as the seat of powerful transnational institutions such as the
The spate of iconoclasm against Belgium’s “documents of barbarism” is thus
more than a narrow, belated manifestation of symbolic politics. It is a contestation of
much broader economic and political processes of oppression and exploitation of the
“wretched of the earth”, to use Frantz Fanon’s famous expression (1963), that have
been unrelentingly wreaking havoc for many centuries all over the world. Rather than
inoperative time capsules of merely antiquarian interest, colonialist monuments are
emblematic of problematical geopolitical processes, and of the accompanying mindset
of those that enforced or beneted from them. As Joëlle Sambi Nzeba of the Belgian
#BlackLivesMatter movement declared, “These monuments are present not just in
public space, but also in people’s mentalities” (Thamm 2020).
“We Are Better Than This”
Behind the aforementioned objections against resorting to basic and violent means of
cultural contestation, one can identify the fundamental structure of what might be called
the sympathetic critique of radical decolonial iconoclasm, whereby the latter is regarded
as “understandable yet deplorable”. It concerns a type of critique that understands or
supports the decolonial or anti-racist cause, yet takes issue with the means deployed to
further it, which are condoned at best, but more often condemned. This sympathetic
critique will be found to underlie other key objections to the recent campaign of
decolonial iconoclasm in Belgium, which will be discussed in what follows.
From a cultural-political perspective, discussions and disagreements regarding
dierent forms of cultural contestation and their legitimacy, ecacy, strategic value,
appropriateness, or performativity, are of key importance. In this article I critically assess
some paradigmatic instances of the aforementioned sympathetic critique. In doing so, I
oer possible interpretations and defences of radical decolonial iconoclasm which act
as a counterweight to such critiques, and thereby enable a more nuanced and balanced
Most interestingly, objections against the deployment of extreme, destructive
means of cultural contestation were also raised from within the decolonial and anti-racist
movements themselves. In a remarkable action, members of the Belgian Youth Against
Racism (BYAR) removed the red paint poured by decolonial activists on a bust of king
Baudouin, the last Belgian king to have ruled over Congo before its independence.11
They thus dramatised their call to fellow activists to stop defacing and damaging mon-
uments. BYAR spokesperson Aimé Schrauwen motivated the action as follows: “It is
important for us to demonstrate that minorities in the country are better than this, and
that we merely ask for equal rights […] like all Belgians, which includes an accurate
narration of history.12
Here, one thus has a grouping of decolonial, anti-racist activists attempting to
undo the presumed reputational damage done to minority groups and, the Belgian-
Congolese population in particular by iconoclastic acts of fellow activists. Although not
explicitly stated by BYAR, one could take such acts to conrm prevailing racist stereo-
types concerning people of colour among white Belgians, such as being hot-headed,
overtly sensitive, demanding preferential treatment, or reacting in a violent and illegal
way. In contrast, the disciplined, painstaking manner in which BYAR members removed
the sticky paint from the statue, as well as the placid, collected tone in which the above
statement was delivered, was well-chosen to disprove such biases. It seemed geared
towards demonstrating that decolonial and anti-racist activists – and black communities
and other ethnic minorities in Belgium – are entirely reasonable human beings who
pose only modest demands such as being treated like anyone else.
Similar pleas were made, at the time, within the Black Lives Matter movements
in the US. In response to the oftentimes violent protests involving looting and arson,
prominent gures advocated the adoption of non-violent, serene, and dignied modes
of protest. To be sure, incidents of vandalism, damage, or destruction of property and
plunder were covered disproportionally in the mainstream US media, thereby manip-
ulating the public into thinking that such modes of protest were all-pervasive, which
was not the case.
Formulated more generally, the question can be asked, however, of whether
decolonial contestation through crude acts of iconoclasm does not run the risk of
hardening stubborn racist-colonialist biases. If so, such acts, despite their short-term
gains, might engender signicant adverse side-eects, including scaring o sections of
the population which, although having been largely incognisant of, or indierent to,
colonialist issues up until now, might have come to sympathise with the decolonial cause.
Such a potential backlash can be detected in an extreme form in the predictable
protest against recent decolonial activism by the far right, as happened in London, for
instance, around the same time as the events in Belgium. A protest march was organised
in response to contestations of colonial-era monuments in the UK in which, most spec-
tacularly, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol was toppled, vandalised,
and thrown into a dock.13 Right-wing groups subsequently saw it as their patriotic
duty to defend the mementos of their nation’s past imperialist-colonialist glory against
attacks by the proverbial barbarians at the gate. Such a right-wing counteroensive
is deeply contradictory and hilarious for sure, as the honour of British civilisation is
defended by a raucous rabble of hooligans – not exactly Britain’s nest – who seem
over-eager to start a riot and engage the police in a st ght. As such, decolonial con-
testations might seem to have degenerated into a clash of “uncivilisations” – to modify
Samuel Huntington’s infamous phrase – with decolonial “vandals” at one extreme, far-
right skinheads at another.
Sublimate Your Black Rage
Another type of sympathetic criticism of radical decolonial iconoclasm can be detected
in a commentary piece by Marc Reynebeau (2020) in which the necessity of “destroy-
ing” statues of Leopold II is queried, while suggesting it to be more “interesting” to
“chop o his hand”. Somewhat similar to the aforementioned action in Ostend, this
would deliver a witty, poetic kind of decolonial justice on Leopold II, inicting on him
– post-mortem and symbolically – the same horrid punishment of dismemberment
that was notoriously imposed by his henchmen to punish “unproductive” Congolese
workers, enforce docility, and create a reign of terror.
Other than in the BYAR’s case, the issue here is not so much the acceptability
of iconoclasm as a mode of decolonial activism, but rather its plain, indiscriminate, and
overzealous deployment. Or again, one objects to iconoclasm as simply geared towards
damaging or removing the targeted objects, which is dismissed as uninteresting and dull.
In this second kind of sympathetic critique one can detect a call to activists to practice
iconoclasm in a more precise, rened, and creative way, in line with, say, the Situationist
art practices of the 1960s with their trademark misappropriation and repurposing of
existing objects so as to subvert their original meaning and function. In the case of
Reynebeau’s suggestion, the removal of a hand on a Leopold II statue would suce to
radically change its status and function from a device for glorifying colonialism into its
The fact, moreover, that such minimalist subversions do not themselves eect
or prompt the removal of the monuments – as often happens in extreme cases of
iconoclasm – could be levelled as a key argument in its favour. If colonialist statues are
removed, so is the evidence of past colonialist misdeeds, allowing their perpetrators to
get o lightly, being spared the deserved public humiliation that would be their fate
if they were kept in their place in slightly mutilated form. In the latter instance, they
would serve as a constant, inconvenient testimony to Belgium’s scandalous colonial past
and the continuation of racist and neocolonial attitudes in the present. Or again, they
would act as permanent reminders to white Belgians of the sins of their forefathers,
and the dubious historical roots of their privilege, both within Belgium and globally.
For those at the receiving end, the subverted colonialist monuments could function as
a proverbial moral shot in the arm, as a source of support in their daily struggle against
colonialism and racism, or as levers for decolonising Belgian minds and society.
Pleas for more rened modes of decolonial iconoclasm can also be interpreted
as an enjoinment towards activists to sublimate their outrage in the psychoanalytical
sense of expressing one’s immediate, gut feelings in more elevated, thoughtful, and
imaginative ways. Apart from making decolonial iconoclasm more socially acceptable,
such a sublimated mode might also be taken to elicit more delicate, rich, and enduring
forms of decolonial enjoyment, as opposed to the instant emotional relief and adrenaline
rush of simple acts of disguration or destruction. Over and above considerations of
strategy or ecacy, specic cultural preferences and prejudices can be seen to underlie
such pleas. Restrained, cerebral, and artistic iconoclastic gestures – and the concomitant
subtle delight – are implicitly posited as superior and preferable, both strategically and
aesthetically, to the supposedly base, spontaneous, and philistine actions and pleasures of
“vandal-activists” toppling or sledgehammering away at a colonialist statue.
An implicit hierarchisation of activist modes of contestation is thus upheld based
on assumptions regarding taste that are neither self-evident nor innocent in a postco-
lonial context. One of the basic operations of colonialism can be described through
Jacques Rancière’s (1999, 2004) key concept of the “distribution of the sensible”.14
This concept refers to the dierentiation and classication of groups of human beings
based on the assumption of their dierent sensible capacities. The latter can range from
those considered to be most developed, rened, and rational, to those regarded as less
so, even entailing, in some instances, the denial of specically human forms of sensibility
to certain groups. For Rancière, the latter fate befell the slaves or so-called barbarians
in ancient societies, but one can just as well think of the status of the enslaved and col-
onised non-European people since the so-called Age of Discovery. A base, animal type
of sensibility was attributed to these populations, being thought to be receptive mainly
to physical pain and sensual pleasure. Such distinctions, hierarchies, and exclusions on
the level of sensible and aesthetic capacities have played a key role in legitimating the
colonial project, particularly its pretence at being a civilising mission.
The sympathetic critique of the crudity of decolonial methods of contestation,
and the implicit plea for more rened ones, can be seen to inadvertently endorse the
same colonialist “division of the sensible”. It thereby risks appearing as a misguided,
patronising attempt to aesthetically educate and uplift decolonial activists. The clever
or “culturally correct” forms of decolonial iconoclasm that are often proposed as an
alternative to its straightforward applications might, in any case, be a tall order for those
whose lives are negatively impacted by systemic racism and neocolonialism. Its propo-
nents seem to wrongly gauge the current mood of acute outrage in the wake of blatant
incidents of racist violence in the US, making the suggestions somewhat of a mismatch.
Staging Civility…
Considering the aforementioned internal and sympathetic critiques, the question poses
itself of how decolonial contestation through blunt iconoclastic acts is to be assessed.
That is to say, in other than the somewhat condescending terms of an “understandable
yet deplorable” t of “primal” rage on the part of decolonial activists who supposedly
lose their self-composure and dignity, discarding all strategic considerations or concerns
about public perception. Or again, how can radical decolonial iconoclasm be under-
stood more positively, as a legitimate and ecacious strategy in its own right, rather
than merely something to be condoned? Apart from the earlier defence in Benjaminian
terms, what other defences could be levelled? And furthermore, if extreme forms of
decolonial iconoclasm can thus be defended, how should one understand and mediate
the disagreement between decolonial “vandal-activists” and their internal and sympa-
thetic critics concerning the most appropriate means of contestation?
In order to address these questions, I cast this disagreement in terms of a tensional
interplay between two opposing approaches to decolonial and anti-racist struggles, each
with its own rationale, modus operandi, and ecacy. I do not contend here that activists
consciously adopt these approaches. Rather, they are hypothetical-theoretical construc-
tions and interpretative devices that, if nothing else, may serve some purpose in focusing,
furthering, or boosting the debate on the means and ends of decolonial activism.
First, I interpret the sympathetic and internal critiques discussed earlier in terms
of a more general approach towards oppositional, emancipatory politics as theoretically
articulated in Rancière’s political work (1999, 2007). In relation to a particular distri-
bution of the sensible, and the hierarchies and inequalities posited and perpetuated by
it, Rancière argues that oppressed groups contest this distribution by demonstrating
what it denies, namely, their equal intelligence, sensibility, or morality. Such demonstra-
tions of equality by the oppressed are identied as central to emancipatory struggles.
Rancière oers paradigmatic instances of such demonstrations in dierent contexts and
with regard to dierent problematics – e.g. class, sex, race, citizenship – and dierent,
oppressed subjects such as the Greek demos, the Roman slaves or plebs, workers and
women in nineteenth-century France, as well as “people of colour” (1992, 59). What
is found to be a similar, central component in the struggle of these diverse groups
against their exclusion or marginalisation is how they disprove the ruling assumptions
concerning their inferior human status by acting and presenting themselves as their
oppressors’ equals. Since this happens in a context in which such equality is rmly
denied, unthinkable even, such “disprovals” have a highly performative character in
Rancière’s theory, in the sense of acting out the equality that is demanded. Hence,
Peter Hallward’s (2006) formulaic characterisation of Rancière’s emancipatory politics
in terms of the “staging [of] equality”.
BYAR’s concerted eort to demonstrate that the Belgo-Congolese and other
minority groups in Belgium are “better” than the crude iconoclastic attacks on monu-
ments or the looting of shops, can be understood in such Rancièrean terms of proving
the civility and dignity of the said groups and, by extension, their equal humanity in
a racist, neocolonialist context. The action seems designed to signal that despite being
discriminated against, minorities are not therefore vindictive and keen to strike back
by violating the majority group’s patrimony, or by intimidating them through violent
protest. On the contrary, minorities communicate that despite enduring racial discrim-
ination, they do not pose exorbitant demands, but only reasonable ones, such as being
treated equally, and neither do they expect any exceptional treatment, such as being
exempted from laws against the destruction of public property. Recommendations of
more rened methods of decolonial contestation, such as Reynebeau’s, can also be
seen to conform to a Rancièrean politics of equality-civility-dignity. In the face of the
outrageous persistence of racism and colonialism, activists are encouraged to contain
their spontaneous emotive responses of anger and vengeance, and express the latter in
more restrained, clever ways, thereby demonstrating a high degree of culturedness and
Key to this politics of civility is thus the refusal to lower oneself to the racists
level and get embroiled into the logic of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, for
instance by retaliating and answering racist violence with commensurate anti-racist
violence. Or, as argued earlier with Benjamin, by reciprocating the monumentalised
barbarism of Belgium’s colonialist run with a live barbarism. In contrast, by keeping
one’s composure and conducting oneself as a reasonable, civil being in the face of
blatant racism, black activists demonstrate that they are all but the inferior human, or
even animal-like beings that racist ideologies make them out to be, displaying an almost
super-human capacity of self-restraint.
Fact that the BYAR’s action is directed, to an important degree, to fellow
activists – thereby seemingly taking the moral high ground over their “unruly” or
“short-fused” colleagues by literally “cleaning up their mess” – illustrates a further,
key aspect of Rancière’s theory of emancipatory politics emphasised by Todd May
(2009: 113-4). Namely, that demonstrations by the oppressed of their equality or civility
are not only geared towards the oppressor – in this context, the racial adversary or
ex-colonisers – but also function, importantly, as “self-demonstration[s]” (May 2009:
114). Appropriating and excelling in modes of sensibility of which an oppressed group
is considered to be incapable, is thus also seen to serve as “a proof given to oneself
(Rancière 2007, 48) or to one’s own grouping.
… Or Uncivility?
The sympathetic and internal critiques of the recent decolonial protests in Belgium
can thus be seen to be undergirded by a Rancière-style performative politics of civil-
ity. Within such a conceptual framework, the rudimentary iconoclasm and resort to
looting must appear as self-defeating in terms of ghting racism because of reinforcing
persistent racist biases of the white majority, instead of disproving the underlying racial
“division of the sensible”.
However, the decolonial and anti-racist protests in can be seen to be driven
precisely by a sense of disillusion with such a politics of equality and civility, by frustra-
tion at not being treated equally despite all one’s distinctions and accomplishments. At
Black Lives Matter rallies, a commonly voiced complaint was that the Belgo-Congolese
have to perform twice as well as their white counterparts in order to prove their equal
worth, whether academically or professionally. Black activists deplored the unwarranted
burden that is thereby placed on them. Understandably, the resulting frustration, stress,
and fatigue can bring Belgo-Congolese to the extreme point of altogether abandoning
eorts to try and prove the seemingly unprovable – i.e. one’s equal humanity – even
if momentarily. In demonstrative acts of destructive iconoclasm or looting by activists,
one can see such a suspension of the politics of civility played out and staged. The
underlying rationale seems to be that if white-Belgian society keeps on treating its
black citizens as inferior human beings despite all proof to the contrary, then they will
stop behaving at their best and do away with all civilities.
Inversely to the anti-racist or, decolonial politics of civility, and premised on
a more realistic sense of how black people are consistently treated as inferior human
beings no matter how many times they have proven to be the racist’s equal if not supe-
rior, one can thus postulate another, strand of such politics, characterised by the staging
of uncivility. The latter can be seen to be driven by the sobering insight that racism is,
ultimately, not a matter of proof or logic, but of power and irrational biases, and that
racists are neither genuinely interested nor susceptible to proof of black people’s equal
humanity. Based on this, one no longer bothers to oer such proof and stops playing
the racists or colonisers “civilisation game”, which is denounced as a fraud and a ruse.
For one thing, the colonisers’ or racists’ civilisation is clearly structurally tainted by
barbarism in line with Benjamin’s aforementioned claims. For another, the civilisation
game can be found to be stacked in favour of the racists or (ex-)colonisers, with any
success achieved by black people being devalued and undercut by the fact of race.
The latter was commonly argued by Black Lives Matter activists in the US in
the wake of Floyd’s murder. Namely, that it does not matter whether a black person
is, say, highly educated or economically or professionally successful, the mere fact of
being black trumps all possible achievements and distinctions. It makes him/her/they as
vulnerable as any other, less accomplished black person to being treated as a second-rate
citizen by the police, for instance. In a racist society, race thus functions as the great
leveller, reducing every black person to the lowest common denominator of the racists
anti-black stereotypes. Again, the anger and despair with this enduring injustice – i.e.
the fact that one’s race functions as the bottom-line in determining one’s humanity and
achievements – can easily be seen to cause anti-racist activists to switch from a politics
based on staging one’s civility, to one geared towards the staging of uncivility.
Postulating a performative politics of uncivility as a counterpoint to a
Rancièrean politics of equality-civility, and interpreting demonstrative acts of crude
decolonial iconoclasm on the basis of such a politics, might allow one to gauge the
possible, underlying rationale and logic of the resort to such acts and other forms of
violent protest.15 Moreover, it might, allow for a more proper and positive assessment
of radical decolonial iconoclasm, that goes beyond evaluations in terms of a deplorable
lapse of self-composure on the part of activists, causing them to smash things up in total
disregard of strategic considerations or a possible public backlash and, as such, some-
thing to be avoided or minimised. Instead, such acts become intelligible and reasonable
as components of an activist approach with its own ecacy and rightful place and time
in decolonial, anti-racist struggles.
The Paradoxical Efcacy of Performing Uncivility
How now should the ecacy of performances of uncivility in furthering anti-racist,
decolonial struggles be assessed, especially in light of the aforementioned concerns
about conrming deep-seated biases and, the related, counterproductive eects, with
the ends being undermined by the means? Against such instrumentalist objections, one
could level Fredric Jameson’s argument concerning the kind of “pure”, or “excessive”
violence that Slavoj Žižek (2006, 380-81), in reference to Fanon’s thoughts on the close
connection between decolonisation and violence, has armed as “unavoidable” in “rev-
olutionary” situations, and to be valued as a “liberating end in itself beyond, utilitarian
or strategic calculations.16 In specifying the value of such violence, Jameson contends
that even if “it has no intrinsic value, it is a sign of the authenticity of the revolutionary
process, of the fact that this process is actually disturbing the existing relations” (Žižek
2006, 381). In other words, the demonstrative suspension of, or irreverence toward,
strategic, means-end considerations in violent acts of protest is here taken to be the
“message” and a key, intrinsic part of decolonial struggles. One thus encounters a par-
adoxical mode of ecacy attributed to the very discarding of any thinking in terms of
ecacy. Or again it concerns, a form of protest whose strategic and performative value
lies in the wilful suspension of all strategic thinking.
In a similar vein, the brutal assault on Belgium’s colonialist patrimony sends out
a clear signal that nothing less than a nal reckoning with colonialism and racism will be
accepted this time around, with no more delays or half-measures. It does so in a way that
more restrained, creative forms of cultural contestation – such as the one proposed by
Reynebeau for instance – do not. Against the internal and sympathetic critics, it can thus
be objected that one cannot have the decolonial ends without the violent or destructive
means and the possible reputational fall-out. It can further be understood how demon-
strative acts of uncivility function to an important degree as self-demonstrations, – apart
from provoking the racial adversary – in line with the earlier point concerning the
staging of civility. Such acts – say, decolonial activists smashing up a colonial statue –
can similarly be regarded as a way to communicate to fellow activists and community
members that one resolutely rejects the racial adversaries civilisation game.
More specic to the context of decolonial struggle, another explanation for
the ecacy of the staging of uncivility could be deduced from Fanon’s essay “On
National Culture” (1961, 197-224) written during the rst wave of African peoples’
liberation struggles from the 1950s onward. Remarkably, this ecacy is attributed here
to the conrmation of racist stereotypes, which makes for an equally, if not more para-
doxical logic of, ecacy compared to the Žižekian-Jamesonian account. At one point,
Fanon (2004: 158) reects on a phase that, based on his observations, many colonised
intellectuals and artists go through in their quest for an eective way to contribute to
their people’s struggle for liberation. This comes after an initial period in which many
colonised artists and intellectuals assimilated the colonisers culture – one might say, in
an attempt to demonstrate their equality and civility, and conform to the rst mode of
decolonial politics distinguished earlier. In a second phase, an about-turn is seen to take
place in which the colonial culture is rejected and colonised intellectuals rediscover and
assert their own, native culture. Fanon notes, however, that this does not always concern
the native culture’s highest civilisational achievements. In their initial focus on the latter,
colonised intellectuals would still experience a sense of alienation from the common
people whose everyday struggles to survive under conditions of colonialism made them
far less splendid and heroic in comparison, if not downright miserable. In a nal attempt
to become one with the people, some colonised intellectuals are said to give up all
idealised notions of their people and adopt their far less glorious, often “wretched” ways
of life. Of this attempt, Fanon (ibid.) says that it “sometimes means […] wanting to be
a ‘nigger, not an exceptional ‘nigger, but a real ‘nigger, a ‘dirty nigger, the sort dened
by the white man. Fanon’s word choices might be shocking, yet he here merely quotes
the colonisers’ racist terminology.
Within the rst round of decolonial struggles, one thus encounters a strategy
in which colonised artists and intellectuals, in their desire to unite with their impover-
ished people, adopt some of the latter’s manners and values which, as they undoubtedly
know, conrm the colonisers’ racist-colonialist stereotypes. My main interest here is
how Fanon describes the subversive eects of such this peculiar self-positioning on
the colonisers and the colonial enterprise as a whole. Although not intended as such,
Fanon observes that the adoption of the perceived, uncivilised, “barbaric” ways of the
native culture by the educated, cultured elite among the colonised has a damaging
psychological impact on the colonisers. The latter are said to experience this as a scandal
and an aront, signalling their failure at “civilising” the colonised – or at least, its most
“evolved” artistic-intellectual echelons – and at convincing them of the superiority
of, Western European, culture. As Fanon (ibid.) puts it, “Once the colonists, who had
relished their victory over these assimilated intellectuals, realise that these men thought
saved have begun to merge with the ‘nigger scum, the entire system loses its bearings.
He further says that it is experienced as a “setback for the colonial enterprise”, as a
demonstration of the “pointlessness and superciality of the work accomplished” and as
a “radical condemnation of the method of the [colonial] regime” (ibid.).
Fanon also observes how this demoralising eect on the coloniser in turn has
an invigorating eect on the colonised. The more the colonisers are dismayed and
dispirited by what to them cannot but appear as an inexplicable regression to an infe-
rior, primitive way of life, the more the colonised are said to be “strengthened” in their
“determination” to ght colonialism (ibid.). As Fanon phrases it, “the uproar it causes
justies his [the colonised intellectual’s] abdication [of the colonisers civilisation] and
encourages him to persevere” (ibid.).
The Psychopolitics of Chopping Off One’s White Wings
Considering these subversive and morale-boosting eects, and apart from the original
motivation of becoming one with the common people among the colonised, one could
see how the adoption of their “uncivilised” ways and, thereby, the self-conrmation of
the colonisers’ racist-colonialist stereotypes, might acquire a performative dimension
and provocative purpose. It might become a way for the colonised to demonstrate
to the colonisers how far they are willing to go in rejecting the latter’s culture and
civilisation, namely to the extreme point of knowingly degrading themselves in the
colonisers’ eyes. If Fanon (2004, 158) describes this move in terms of colonised intellec-
tuals becoming “unrecognizable [for the colonisers], and […] cut[ting] o those wings
that before they had allowed to grow”, there is a clear suggestion of such a provocative
eect and intent. The demonstrative “clipping” of one’s white “wings” or tearing o
of one’s “white mask” by the colonised and, inversely, the adoption of a way of life
and type of behaviour that one knows will only conrm the colonisers worst racist
stereotypes, thus comes to function as a strategy to shock the colonisers and provoke
the above-mentioned feelings of despair and disillusion.
From this remarkable passage of a canonical text in the decolonial corpus, the
paradoxical ecacy of the staging of uncivility in decolonial and anti-racist struggles
can be deduced. To be sure, there are key historical and contextual dierences to take
into account in transposing Fanon’s observations and insights from the rst wave of
struggles by colonised peoples for national liberation after the Second World War, to
twenty-rst century postcolonial Belgium. Still, the resort to crude iconoclasm and
violence by members of a long-standing minority in Belgian society, which I have
interpreted in terms of the staging of uncivility, can be seen to exert similar psychopo-
litical eects on the ex/neo-colonialist nation. It is ideally suited to inict a narcissistic
injury on the (neo)colonialist-racist adversary. Colonialist heritage is clearly designed
to self-congratulate the colonising nation for its so-called civilising mission, which is
often unapologetically and shamelessly stated in inscriptions.17 The brutal assaults on
these monuments visualise in spectacular fashion the blunt, ex post facto rejection of
the colonising nation’s claim to superiority by its supposed beneciaries or “converts”,
exposing this claim as a farce. This forces the post/ex-colonialist nation to reckon not
only with its failure to “win over” the “hearts and minds” of descendants of its previous
colony’s population, but also with the illegitimate nature of its colonial endeavour to
begin with – what Fanon called the “method” of colonialism. This refers to the claim
that, one cannot “civilise” people in an uncivilised, oppressive, and oensive manner, by
treating them as structurally inferior or as eternal novices to the colonial culture.
Bold acts of decolonial iconoclasm thus oer a rm rejoinder to the often
heard sentiment among some white Belgians, especially those that have lived or worked
in the colony, that Belgium’s colonial legacy is not entirely negative and that valuable
things were also achieved. By basically giving (post)colonial Belgian society the mid-
dle-nger and saying ‘To hell with your culture’, radical decolonial iconoclasts send
out the unmistakable message that nothing good can ever come of any project that is
enforced through violent, illegitimate means, partially good intentions notwithstanding.
Several arguments can thus be advanced in defence of straightforward, destruc-
tive iconoclasm – understood more generally in terms of the staging of uncivility – as a
legitimate and ecacious form of decolonial contestation. It engenders specic eects
that are key to the decolonisation cause balancing out potentially unfavourable side-ef-
fects in terms of public imaging. Over and above the obvious aim of inicting damage
to monuments or removing them, such acts full other strategic functions and evoke
less straightforward meanings, some of which were specied in this article. In addition
to Jameson’s point that they signal the decolonial movements’ authentic or radical char-
acter, they stage the rejection of a post/ex-colonising nation’s alleged civilising eorts
by its former “beneciaries” and their descendants as indicated by Fanon. Rather than
discarding crude iconoclasm as counterproductive or detrimental to the decolonial or
anti-racist cause by conrming stubborn stereotypes, as some maintain, its necessary
functions and paradoxical ecacy must be acknowledged.
How then, in closing, should one assess the disagreements and reservations with
regard to the deployment of extreme iconoclasm or other forms of violent protest,
as voiced by sympathetic critics and fellow decolonial activists alike? Or again, how
should the relation between what I have called the performative politics of civility and
uncivility be conceived? Despite their opposing rationales and modi operandi, the two
approaches are not necessarily incompatible and they may complement each other in
important ways. On the one hand, continuous frustration, exhaustion even, with the
politics of civility may result in the suspension of civilities, which might pressurise the
racial adversary into conceding to black people’s claim to equal humanity. On the other
hand, the staging of uncivility may only be sustainable for a limited period of time as
the reduction to the racial adversary’s stereotypes might come to be experienced as
self-depreciatory. In order to counterbalance this, recourse might be taken, in turn, to
the politics of civility. A recurrent chronological sequence and oscillation between the
politics of civility and uncivility could thus be postulated, with a proper function and
moment for each. Moreover, despite my somewhat dialectical presentation, the two
types of decolonial, anti-racist politics might, in reality, function as the extreme poles of
a spectrum of activist means and strategies with dierent degrees of both types.
However, the relation between both politics always seems to be an uneasy
and perhaps unacknowledged one, evidenced by the aforementioned internal debates
regarding crude acts of decolonial iconoclasm, or regarding the resort to looting and
arson in the US context. From the perspective of the politics of civility, such actions
and behaviour must always appear self-defeating and self-denigrating, its “perpetra-
tors” undergoing an unfortunate process of desublimation, blindly giving in to their
most base impulses for violation and retaliation, and, as such, “letting the racists win”.
Inversely, from the perspective of the politics of uncivility, performances of civility will
no doubt come o as hopelessly naïve, harmless, and upright. And yet, despite their ten-
sional, agonistic relation, the two approaches might not be able to do entirely without
one another. Each could be seen to need the other to compensate for the inherent
limitations of its own logic of resistance, which makes it neither possible nor desirable
to choose one over the other, lest one reduces the ecacy of the struggle against racism
and (neo)colonialism as a whole.
1 The hashtag #LeopoldMustFall was first used
in 2016 by student-activists at London’s Queen
Mary University fighting for the removal of a plaque
commemorating Leopold II (QM Pan-African
Society 2018).
2 One occasion of looting occurred in Brussels’
Louise district on June 7, 2020.
3 For a classic exposé on the horrid acts
committed in the Congo Free State during its reign
by King Leopold II, see Adam Hochschild (1998).
4 For a comprehensive overview and in-depth
treatment of the problematics of colonialist
monuments in public space in Belgium, as well as
different and changing attitudes and approaches
towards these, see Stanard 2019.
5 The Flemish-Dutch name of the collective is
De stoeten Ostendenaere, which can be translated
as the “naughty or brave resident of Ostend”. The
sculptural ensemble is called the “Ruiterstandbeeld
Leopold II”.
6 The collective also made the return of the
bronze hand conditional on adding a panel to the
monument offering accurate historical information
concerning the horrendous practices in Congo,
including historical pictures of mutilated Congolese
7 In the second instance, this was part of protests
against planned celebrations of Leopold II’s urbanist
legacy centred on the equestrian statue on the
Throne Square.
8 The original French name of the collective
is Association citoyenne pour un espace public
9 Excellent studies on the challenges faced
by Belgo-Congolese and other minorities are
Mazzocchetti 2012 and Demart 2013.
10 The ascription of vandalism to acts of
decolonial iconoclasm is consistent with a key
distinction made in the scholarship on iconoclasm.
As Dario Gamboni summarises it, “Whereas the use
of ‘iconoclasm’ and ‘iconoclast’ is compatible with
neutrality and even […] with approval, ‘vandalism’
and ‘vandal’ are always stigmatizing [sic], and imply
blindness, ignorance, stupidity, baseness or lack of
taste” (1997, 18). The key criterion for using the
term iconoclasm instead of vandalism, further, is the
“reckoned presence […] of a motive” (Gamboni
1997, 18) that can be religious or, in case of
decolonial activism, political in nature. Since the
article’s aim is to interrogate critiques of decolonial
iconoclasm in terms of vandalism, I mainly use the
term “radical decolonial iconoclasm” to denote
the straightforward, crude and destructive forms of
decolonial iconoclasm under discussion. In the few
cases where I refer to such forms in the problematic
terms of decolonial vandalism, I use scare quotes.
11 The statue in question is located in the public
park in front of the Cathedral of St. Michael and
St. Gudula in the centre of Brussels. The action of
BYAR took place on June 12, 2020.
12 On the 7 pm news bulletin on the Flemish
public broadcaster VRT on June 12, 2020. Own
13 The protests against the statue took place on
June 7, 2020, the right-wing protests on June 13, 2020.
14 “Le partage du sensible” in the original French.
15 Although acts of destructive iconoclasm
and extreme forms of protest such as looting or
arson within anti-racist protests can be seen as
instantiations of the same performative politics of
uncivility, there are also significant differences that
complicate their assessment. One such difference
is that in the former case public property, while
in the latter case it often concerns private or
commercial property is targeted, thereby inflicting
damages on parties that are not directly party to
the conflict. Also, in the case of iconoclasm against
colonialist heritage, the choice of the targets as well
as the motivations are rather clear (i.e. decolonial
contestation). In contrast, in the case of looting for
instance, the targets are mostly contingent and other
motives play a role such as discontent over structural
socio-economic deprivation, if also, most likely, a
certain degree of opportunism.
16 Jameson conveyed this point in a private
conversation with Žižek, as indicated in an earlier
version of this passage (2004, 118).
17 Think, for example, of the inscription
underneath a bust of Leopold II in Auderghem,
which reads “A tribute to those who brought
civilisation to the Congo” (my translation from the
Belga. 2018. “Un collectif anti-colonial
déboulonne une statue de Léopold II à
Forest: Le bourgmestre de Forest dénonce un
comportement de taliban. Le Soir, January
11, 2018.
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Matthias Pauwels is a post-doctoral researcher at
North-West University’s School of Philosophy.
His doctoral thesis critically investigated Jacques
Rancière’s work on aesthetics and politics (2015).
His current research focuses on socially engaged art
practices, popular protest movements, and radical
decolonial politics in contemporary South Africa.
Some of the results have been published in the
academic journals Cultural Politics, the Journal of the
British Society for Phenomenology, De Arte, and Theoria,
as well as the volume African Somaesthetics: Cultures,
Feminisms, Politics (Brill, 2020). Pauwels’ earlier
publications in cultural-political theory include
the monograph Too Active to Act: Cultural Activism
after the End of History (Valiz, 2010) and the volume
Cultural Activism Today: The Art of Over-Identification
(Episode, 2007).