The “Moral Effect” of Legalized Lawlessness

Violence in Britain’s Twentieth-Century Empire

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Caroline Elkins Harvard University

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From 1930s Palestine to Kenya in the years following World War II, systematized violence shaped and defined much of Britain’s twentieth-century empire. Liberal authoritarianism, and with it the “moral effect” that coercion had upon colonial subjects, gave rise to the systematic use of violence against colonial subjects. The ideological roots of these tactics can be located in the twinned birth of liberalism and imperialism, together with metropolitan responses to imperial events in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite copious amounts of empirical evidence documenting the evolution of liberal authoritarianism, and the creation and deployment of legalized lawlessness throughout the British Empire, Steven Pinker either ignores this evidence, or implicitly denies its validity. In reframing Britain’s civilizing mission, and challenging liberalism’s obfuscating abilities, this article critiques not only the British government’s repeated denials of systematized violence in its empire, but also Pinker’s reinforcement of the myths of British imperial benevolence.

Contributor Notes

Caroline Elkins is Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and Visiting Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Her first book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and was the basis for the historic Mau Mau case in Britain’s High Court of Justice. Knopf will publish her next book on British colonial violence in the twentieth century in 2019.

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