Bigotry, Biggar, and The Daily Mail: Brief Reflections

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First published at Medium

My heartfelt thanks to the hundreds of people who have sent their solidarity and support via email and social media in the wake of the shamelessly racist and slanted attack on me by the Daily Mail. It is clear that most people understand that what is going on is not about one individual or her tweets (from January!) and that this is part of a sustained attack on universities, critical thinking, and honest historical understanding. Picking up on the "tone" of a few robust tweets by one person to suggest that universities are a "fifth column" of an international "leftwing" conspiracy would be amusing if the histrionics, dishonesty, and hysteria weren’t now part of the toxic fabric of everyday life in Brexit Britain today. A tabloid well known for peddling every species of lie and hatred  —  sexist, homophobic, racist  —  on a daily basis and for cravenly genuflecting to every oligarch in town suddenly leaps to grab the mantle of Scourge of Racists Everywhere: it’s the story of our mendacious times in a nutshell. What is more worrying is the sense that some academics have not only collaborated but possibly conspired with the tabloid to launch an attack on one single female academic of colour to regurgitate what is fast becoming the most tired story on the block: the victimisation of establishment white men by women, minorities, and those of a progressive inclination. As someone said on Twitter, in a just world this collaboration, and not a few spicy tweets, would be a disciplinary matter. Personally, I am enough of a consistent free speech enthusiast not to demand that anyone be disciplined or punished although a tabloid’s libellous in-print charges are possibly a different matter.

On Professor Nigel Biggar, the less said the better not least because much of this "controversy" is a desperate bid by a entirely uninteresting don with a mediocre project to keep himself in the public eye and somehow make the national story about him and himself the national story. Without a handful of intemperate tweets from me (from last Christmas and New Year’s) to clutch to his heaving bosom, Biggar would have nothing to show for his martyrdom. What is remarkable for someone who claims to be a passionate advocate of intellectual engagement and free thinking is that he has  —  by his own admission  —  tried multiple times to have me disciplined and shut down by institutions to which I am affiliated and is frustrated by his failure to do so because the same free speech and academic freedom which protect him, protect me. Sadly, no different imperial law for lesser breeds this time around. It is worth noting that he has systematically blanked and blocked every single interlocutor who has tried to discuss the British Empire with him including a number of eminent historians many of who are, in fact, like him, white, male, and Oxbridge-trained. He has also failed to respond to extensive written challenges to his "Ethics of Empire" project choosing instead (like a snowflake of sorts?) to whine about cyber-bullying and uncollegial behaviour. In technical parlance what he sees as uncollegial bullying is known as "peer review": not only do most academics seek it, they are required to have it to meet research standards. That is what I was referring to in my now infamous suggestion that his project be "shut down" (poor phrasing, I admit). If there’s one thing Nigel needs more than anything else right now, it’s me: without me and my "savagery," there’d be no story even to make up and embellish lavishly as both the Times and the Mail have done. Equally, nothing gets up the nose of a patrician white establishmentarian male than a gobby brown woman: we are, after all, supposed to sit weeping on burning pyres to be rescued by dashing colonial men in pith helmets, then to spend the rest of our lives in silent gratitude with a few sexual favours thrown in if required. Not happening.

Finally, on the institutional response that many students and colleagues have demanded. I am not myself surprised at the weak and notional nature of the responses issued by the university and the college at which I am a Fellow. In fact, for my part, I’m surprised and impressed that there’s even a notional defence of my right to free speech. Students are seeking a condemnation of the manifest racist and sexist bullying to which I have been subject  —  and many of their female and BME peers have also faced in the recent past. For that to happen, both institutions would have to admit what they have not done so far: that systemic and endemic racism and misogyny are problems, that women and BME individuals ARE treated differently, and that racism, for instance, is the problem not those who call it out. In my experience, racism has always been swept under the carpet when not actively defended  —  but those who have identified and called out racism subjected to profiling, condemnation, pillorying, and discplinary threats. What has happened with the Daily Mail  —  the person who identifies racism being dubbed a racist in an audacious yet predictable appropriation — is only a standard experience writ large. How can institutions condemn a process they are very much complicit in on a daily basis? So part of me is grateful to the University and College for being passively honest about this complicity.

I do want to end on a note of hope. It has given me huge pleasure to see students picking up on this incident and reading it as not about one individual teacher but as a political symptom that must be connected to other such incidents and symptoms that speak of a disease: a disease of bigotry, dishonesty, bullying, and silencing in which those in power are trying to lay claim to victimhood. They see what is going on in a way that many in the institution do not and will not for it is not in their interests to do so. But young people and their determination to hold institutions to account remind me daily of why I stay in this profession: the hope that the narrative will change one day and that something resembling truth will prevail.

Priyamvada Gopal's Insurgent Empire: Anticolonialism and British Dissent will be published by Verso in Spring 2019.