Refusing to inHABIT the binary: Reflections on language, culture and identity in the colonial bubble (by Paul Meighan-Chiblow)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Paul Meighan-Chiblow is a Gàidheal from Glasgow, Scotland and currently a 1st year PhD student at McGill University in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education. He is a proud BILD member since September 2019 and this is his first blog post.

What does it mean to speak a language? What does it mean to belong or subscribe to a culture? And, where do these questions even reside?

**Spoiler alert: This blog entry is critical in Freirean awareness-raising and “problem-posing” terms (and perhaps in others depending on your personal point of view)**

Cutting straight to the chase: In my perspective, in mainstream Western society, we inHABIT, to varying degrees, a binary world which has been constructed by colonial nation-building forces. And, yes. The emphasis on habit is intentional.

Let’s unpack: First, it is by habit that many of us have accepted, legitimized, and been complicit in the dominant ways of knowing and being. What do I mean by this? The predominant Western way of knowing and being originates from an anthropocentric (human-centred), dualist worldview which neatly, and conveniently, separates and elevates the human being to a superior position in comparison to the rest of nature. The anthropocentric worldview has paved the way towards our rather pleasant-for-some “modern-day” colonial bubble where we experience (or deny) (1) the growth of capitalism at the expense of nature and minoritized peoples and cultures, (2) the climate crisis, and (3) “White epistemological supremacy” (Minde, 2003). This supremacy privileges Eurocentric systems of knowledge as superior to all “others”, establishes and perpetuates monolingualism or colonial nation-building languages as the norm, and assists in legitimizing and manufacturing a colonially symbolic, ethnically defined “white, native English speaker” to which all “others” should aspire in order to be viewed as “successful”.

The binary world exists plainly to all: You are either “in”, or you’re “out”. And, as many know, the binary world does not readily accommodate exceptions, pluralism, or the “in-between”.

Second, our habits, assumptions and dispositions are socioculturally formed and constructed by how we relate to and experience our surrounding environment. (I think at this point we are seeing the point of the emphasis on the habit). In other words, our behaviours and treatment of the environment (e.g., people, objects, nature) are directly influenced by, and dependent on the worldview we enact. And, what does this mean? Well, the way we perceive our reality and what we think we know of the world (our worldview) underpins the meanings we give to things and embodies the words and language we use. In short, if we inHABIT, or have been educated to inHABIT an anthropocentric worldview, we are more than likely to experience and label our surroundings in a corresponding binary and negative manner. To break all this down, here are some examples:

Water as a product to be bottled, consumed and thrown away:

Land as a resource to be exploited for monetary or individual gain:

Patriarchal individualistic hierarchies and dichotomies, such as “Us vs. them”, “Others”.

Linear thinking. Things being “right” or “wrong”; no acceptance of the in-between:

Third, it has become a habit to assume that anthropocentric thinking is the inevitable reality, or the only way to be. I guess it’s not hard to see how we have arrived at the era of the Anthropocene (emphasizing, but not limited to, the impact of the human — the not-so-conspicuous anthro- in Anthropocene — on ecosystems, biodiversity and the evolution of the human-caused climate crisis). This anthropogenic (the anthro- root serving a pronounced focus here) habit dismisses or disregards alternative, nondominant and, in particular, ecocentric knowledge systems, such as Indigenous ways of knowing and being, as “inferior”, “uncultured”, “primitive” or “backward” (e.g., Smith, 2012). In contrast to anthropocentric perspectives, ecocentric worldviews value all living systems, regardless of their presumed “utility” or “usefulness” for human beings. Indigenous knowledge systems, for example, are based on the principles of reciprocity and relationships between people, the land, the community, and nature as a whole. For Indigenous knowledge systems, things are not binary, linear or hierarchical. For example, the Land, traditional customs and knowledges, and language are inseparable and form an integrated whole (e.g., McGregor, 2004). Flipping the anthropocentric examples from above, Indigenous worldviews see the world, our fellow beings (living and non-living) and the environment very distinctly:

Water as a spirit and life-giving and -sustaining force:

Art by Christi Belcourt. From:

Land to be stewarded and cherished:

Holistic, cyclical understandings of community and relationships:

Experiential and embodied thinking. A consideration of the “in-between” and truth grounded in our experience.

So, why is all this important?

Our identities are the cultural practices/habits and language choices we enact. It is my view that the colonial bubble foments a polarization and a highly strategic and structural system of othering as opposed to genuine belonging, inclusion and sustainability of our planet in the fullest and broadest sense. For those of us living in the colonial bubble, it may very well have been that we have never known any other way of thinking or doing. Education and societal forces are powerful and pivotal instruments in forming and moulding minds. But! Identities are fluid and can evolve. And, worldviews are not frozen in time, static or inflexible. By refusing to inHABIT the binary, we can burst the colonial bubble and view our world in a completely different way. At this point, it might be appropriate to acknowledge that there may be some who may be triggered by the critical content of this post and argue that I am forcefully pushing a radical worldview and an anti-colonial, anti-capitalist agenda. To address this, I would like to calm any fears, reservations or assumptions by clarifying that I am proposing a validation of the rightful place, and not a forced assimilation, of alternative knowledge systems and worldviews.

Okay, so, why?

Things are not binary. Things are not black or white. There are more than fifty shades of grey, tons of colour, and lots of the unknown. Nondominant, noncolonial knowledge systems have been silenced and disenfranchised by a dominant anthropocentric, colonially constructed and socially entrenched ideology of knowledge. This system continues to propel forward the climate crisis and minoritize, devalue and dehumanize cultures, languages and peoples who do not subscribe to the neoliberal, colonial, capitalist bubble-making machine.

And, how do we validate alternative knowledge systems?

At a macro level, what is required is a paradigm shift, or an onto-epistemological reframing, from an anthropocentric worldview to a levelled and considered centring of ecocentric, holistic worldviews which emphasize relationships and “kincentric” (Salmón, 2000) approaches with nature (all plant and animal life, fellow humans and nonhuman entities, such as rocks, rivers and the land).

At a micro, individual day-to-day level, I propose that we could, for instance, provide ourselves (and those around us) with a safe, open-minded space to:

  1. critically question, problematize, and evaluate the dominant Western/colonial worldview;
  2. learn from and actively listen to nondominant, ecocentric (including Indigenous) worldviews;
  3. reflect upon our language choices and how this influences our actions and interactions with the sociocultural and biological environment, and
  4. make a levelled and balanced consideration of whether (or not) enact an alternative, decolonial way of knowing and being.

By way of example, in my English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classroom, we have drawn upon ancestral and heritage (non-bubble) cultures by sharing insights from diverse knowledge systems as part of a heritage language pedagogy (Meighan, 2019). On one occasion, we did this by collectively choosing a newspaper article written from a non-Western perspective. We chose an article on the climate crisis written by an Australian Indigenous author and then reflected upon the strategies and local environmental knowledge offered from a decolonial, non-Western lens. Learners discussed in groups and shared their thoughts with the rest of the class on an interactive Google Doc learner reflection log by way of the “comment” function. In this example, I found that learners developed a heightened awareness of alternative knowledge systems that they had not come across before as part of the “standard” EAP curriculum. This experience with an alternative text enabled them to first deconstruct, then re-construct their relationships with Western conceptualized objects. For example, some learners did not fully understand the expression “water is life” used by Indigenous author. They had been attuned and desensitized to its life-sustaining properties and viewed it from a Western lens and in its given grammatical form: an uncountable noun and, by extension, limitless product. However, with group and class discussions on the text, instead of viewing water as “tasteless” and “odourless” and “uncountable” as uninvitingly defined in the dictionary, learners began to understand an alternative view of water as a spirit and entity to be stewarded, respected and not to be taken for granted.

In essence, by refusing to inHABIT the binary, it is my belief that we can break detrimental and ecologically destructive habits, burst the colonial bubble, and provide space for diverse conceptions of reality rooted in an ecocentric, respectful and sustainable kinship with our environment. That said, it is important to acknowledge that refusing to inHABIT the binary and/or critiquing the privileged comfort and familiarity of the colonial bubble is not always welcomed with open arms. On several occasions, I have heard rather cutting and dismissive remarks about my critique of the colonial bubble and my refusal to inHABIT the binary. To this I say, questioning our worldviews and the only way we have known to be can be triggering, disorientating and involve a process of pushback, denial, rejection, or even anger. However, once the monotony and the black-or-white landscape of colonial bubble is burst, I believe we are better equipped to experience varied and colourful realities (e.g., of diverse languages and cultures) and truly inHABIT the world as part of a stimulating and enriching journey of self-discovery and inner knowledge. There is not one river of knowledge, but many rivers of knowledge (as colourfully depicted in the visual of the rivers of Turtle Island [North America] below) that have sustained and continue to sustain our world.


McGregor, D. (2004). Traditional ecological knowledge and sustainable development: Towards coexistence. In M. Blaser, H. A. Feit, & G. McRae (Eds.), In the way of development: Indigenous peoples, life projects and globalization (pp. 72-91). London/Ottawa: Zed Books.

Meighan, P. J. (2019). An “educator’s” perspective: How heritage language pedagogy and technology can decolonize the English classroom. TESOL Journal. DOI: 10.1002/tesj.483.

Minde, H. (2003). Assimilation of the Sami: implementation and consequences. Acta Borealia, 20, 121–146.

Salmón, E. (2000). Kincentric ecology: Indigenous perceptions of the human–nature relationship. Ecological Applications, 10, 1327–1332.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: research and Indigenous peoples (2nd Edition). London and New York: Zed Books.

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