In the old “clan system” of the Scottish Highlands, most people were dependents of some clan chief who provided them with land and protection in exchange for their loyalty and service. Those who had no chieftain and no hold on the land, for various reasons, were called “broken men” (in English or Lowland Scots). These desperate men were hired to carry out all manner of misdeeds – robbery, pillaging, assassinations, destruction of goods and property – by malicious agents stirring up trouble in the Highlands and along the Highland-Lowland border.
I’ve never seen a Gaelic term that corresponds directly to “broken men” but my guess is that it would be daoine gun dùthchas or daoine gun dùthaich. That term was used, interestingly, in at least one case when a child was born of Highland emigrants who had left Scotland but not yet settled in new immigrant communities. Trauma and land hunger can drive people to desperate measures, and people whose humanity has been broken and damaged are quite capable of passing those wounds on to others and can serve as useful tools in enterprises of domination and exploitation.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, many analysts and strategists urged intervening in failed states, seeing them as breeding grounds for terrorism The logic, as I remember and understood it, was that when a society disintegrates and collapses, the personal and cultural damage is huge and stirs a great deal of anger and resentment, especially when it can be perceived as having been caused by outside forces who benefit from it (for example, First-World Countries who exploit the resources of countries and weaken the government to keep them dependent and easy to manipulate). Young men, especially, are easy targets for recruitment into terrorist organizations, who redirect their anger into a larger narrative, often one with religious and social significance.
The development of whiteness in North America, I believe, is analogous to this view of failed states feeding terrorism. Immigrants came from many different ethnic communities in the “Old World(s),” often fleeing persecution and trauma, but on arrival were assigned to a racial category that did not reflect their own ancestral identity or norms. At the same time, whiteness itself is an identity and cultural framework derived from an imperial Anglo-Saxon foundation, leaving little room for alternatives and willing to use violence and the threat of violence to impose its domination on others.
Down through the centuries, European-descended fatcats offered “whiteness” as ruthless protection against the fear and pressure riding alongside the American dream of unlimited possibility — and charged unfathomable interest. Whiteness provides “an organization of experience around power,” “an omnipotent fantasy, a fantasy of fullness,” Altman observes, guarding against our most primal insecurities about ourselves, and the dangerous unpredictability of life in a world built on economic exploitation.Natasha Stovall, “Whiteness on the Couch”
Power comes with a dehumanizing pathology that affects all who wield it, as demonstrated in such social science experiments as Zimbardo’s guards-and-prisoners role-play, and Milgram’s electric shock tests. That’s one of the sad realities of power: it corrupts all it touches and is constantly shifting to match opportunities. Those who wish to defuse the dehumanizing effects of power and injustice would do well to heed the wisdom of such thinkers as Paulo Freire in seeing the possibility of redeeming the humanity of both of the parties trapped in the strife, for their mutual benefit:
Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for the struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.
This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power, the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity’, the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity’, which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why its dispensers become desperate at the slightest threat to the source of that false generosity.Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
As I noted in the previous blog post on this theme, it is of great significance to me that so many “white folk” working with indigenous peoples, or with other oppressed groups, or inspired by their struggles, come to take an interest in unraveling the trail of coloniality in their own ancestral history, a desire to heal the inter-cultural wounds in which they were implicated. It takes insight and courage to even begin the journey of our mutual liberation, and we need a village to provide us with support and guidance along the way.
I’d like to share another message I received from another person who’s had an awakening of this nature which has led them to their Scottish Highland heritage:
I was heartened to read your blog today and am excited to “meet” a kindred soul exploring these topics. About 5 years ago, I began being drawn into working with Indigenous people in the region where I live (Northern Arizona). We were collaborating on films, developing curricula, supporting their food sovereignty, cultural revitalization, etc. The more I got to know Indigenous people, I felt a strange “call” happening that I couldn’t name, and I longed to be included more and more. I also began to understand the extremely painful, ongoing dynamics of the settler colonial project, and that even though I was being welcomed, there were also serious barriers to my inclusion, for good reason.
Immediately after being invited into some ceremonial practices, very strange things started to happen – I became sensitized to my Scottish ancestry, and learned for the first time that I had an ancestor who had migrated to North Carolina in 1739. His descendants later went on to receive land grants and enslave people. And so I realized that I would be the first in 9 generations to wake up, look at this, and begin the healing process.
My heart was broken. As I began unpacking it all, an ethnoautobiographical book started to emerge. This has become a massive, life-transforming process. I have been working on it for the last 3.5 years, and am now in the phase of editing per the recommendations of several readers. I am beginning to publish related articles, and hope to have a website up soon. I hope to publish this book in the next year or two. Going through this process has given me the capacity to continue working with Indigenous-led community organizing and Truth/Conciliation work in our community.Hilary Giovale, 26 November 2019
I’ll be offering a new course (Radicalizing the Roots) in early 2020 on exactly these themes within the context of Scottish Highland history and heritage. Please join us.
- On “broken men,” see Allan Macinnes, Clanship, Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788 (1996), pp. 22, 32, 51.
- On duine gun dùthaich, see Margaret Bennett, Oatmeal and the Catechism (2003), p.10.
- The quote from Paulo Friere is from page 21 of his classic work The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
- On the relevance of Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s research to understanding oppressive systems, see Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul (2001), 109-114, 166-68.
Thanks, as always, to Alastair McIntosh for fruitful discussions on these topics and citations to Freire.