The naked emperors of British academia

Much criticism of my work on ethics and empire is at best misguided and at worst wilful misrepresentation

Features
(ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE SIMONDS)

First, the story, then the analysis, and finally the proposals.

In early December 2017, my wife and I were at Heathrow airport, waiting to board a flight to Nuremberg, where we were going to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Just before setting off for the departure gate, I couldn’t resist checking my email just one last time. My curiosity was aroused when I saw lying in my inbox a message from the University of Oxford’s Public Relations Directorate. So I clicked on it. What I found was, first of all, notification that my Ethics and Empire project had become the target of an online denunciation by a group of students, followed by reassurance from the university that it had risen to defend my competence to run such a thing. So began a public row that raged for the best part of a month. The eminent imperial historian who had conceived the project with me abruptly resigned. (At the time he twice cited personal reasons. However, unknown to me, he later published an online notice explaining that his resignation had been provoked when the programme for 2018 moved in a direction he found uncongenial. That was most odd, since the only thing discussed about the 2018 programme was its general topic, and the only thing agreed was that it would focus on medieval empires. And all that had been settled five months earlier.) Further online denunciations appeared, this time manned by professional academics, the first comprising 58 colleagues at Oxford, the second, about 200 academics from around the world. 

So what had I done to deserve this opprobrium? Three things. In late 2015 and early 2016 I had offered a partial defence of Cecil Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford. Then, second, in late November 2017, I published a piece in The Times, arguing that we British have reason to feel pride as well as shame about our imperial past. Note: pride, as well as shame. And a few days later, third, I published an online account of the Ethics and Empire project. Contrary to what the critics seemed to think, this project is not designed to defend the British Empire, or even empire in general. Rather, it aims to select and analyse critiques or evaluations of empire from ancient China to the modern period, in order to understand and reflect on the ethical terms in which empires have been viewed historically. My  personal intention is to use the fruits of this collaborative project to develop a sophisticated and nuanced ethic of empire.

The row about empire has taught me several important things. During the debate on the motion “that Rhodes must fall” in the Oxford Union in early 2016, the concerted applause of the supporters of the proponents gave the impression that 95 per cent of the audience was ranged against me. But then I decided to stop listening and to look instead. And what I saw was that every time the supporters erupted, most members of the audience were actually sitting on their hands, keeping stumm. In the end, the proposition won narrowly—betraying a discrepancy between the overwhelming appearance of dominance, and the very narrow reality.

A second thing I learned was how zealous minorities can sway uncertain majorities. Before Christmas 2015 the Fellows of Oriel College, in response to the noisy student campaign in favour of Rhodes Must Fall, voted to remove a plaque commemorating Rhodes from one of its buildings. They did so, because a small minority of colleagues, mainly historians with no expertise in empire, supported the students’ case and seemed to know what they were talking about, and so the majority, who knew next to nothing about the history but were aware that decent people do not speak up in favour of capitalism or empire, deferred to them. However, when the press unleashed a storm of protest and alumni became seriously and publicly upset, the Fellows of Oriel reversed their decision the following month.   

Which brings me to my third insight: the discrepancy between what passes for common sense in universities and what passes for common sense in the general public. In the empire row of December 2017, both the press reaction and the email correspondence I received indicated that the general public was astonished and appalled by the intemperate views and behaviour of my academic critics.

Among the people who wrote to encourage me were some of the grandchildren of the subjects of empire. One British Indian consultant in palliative care wrote to me to say that his grandfather had been among those in the Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar in 1919, when General Dyer’s troops opened fire on an unarmed crowd. Nevertheless, he agreed with me that we British have reason for both shame and pride in our imperial past. What’s more, the Ethics and Empire project includes two British Indians and one British Iranian, all of whom think as I do that “empire” is a variable phenomenon, whose moral qualities deserve thinking about. So when my critics claim to speak with the authority of champions of the victims of empire, or at least their descendants, they really don’t. 

Although I was initially unnerved to be object of the scorn of 58 Oxford colleagues, on further reflection I noticed that 58 out of more than 1,600 academic and research staff in the Humanities and Social Sciences is not so considerable. What is more, most of them were not historians and few of them were senior. Further still, not one of them was an ethicist, which might have given them pause, before they presumed to damn a project entitled “Ethics and Empire”, but it did not. The truth is that I was the only professional ethicist in the room.

In general, therefore, what I learned from the empire row was that, in the case of my noisy anti-imperialist critics, the emperors are actually rather naked.

II.

What, then, do I think is the problem? In brief, an alarming lack of moral virtue. Let me explain. I take  for granted, and I teach my students, the duty to be scrupulously fair in representing what other people say and write; and if there are ambiguities, also the duty to interpret them charitably in the direction of the strongest possible construction. Only then should one begin to criticize, for only then will one’s critique be maximally cogent. The ability to be fair and charitable to views that one really dislikes or that threaten things you really care about takes patience and courage. The ability to be fair, to give credit where credit is due, and to learn from uncongenial or threatening views takes courageous humility and honesty. So: fairness, charity, patience, courage, humility, and honesty. These are not technical skills; they are moral virtues. And if we academics do not teach them—and model them—to students, then we can expect intemperance, arrogance, ideological deafness, distortion, and defamation. It is my view that university teachers cannot help but promote intellectual virtue or vice, and that we have a civic duty to promote the former. But in over 30 years of teaching in universities I have never once heard a colleague own such responsibility. Indeed, any suggestions on my part that they should own it have usually been met with a mixture of bafflement and suspicion. Judging by the behaviour of my critics, the result is that we now have a generation of young academics many of whom, not having been taught the virtues, are displaying all the vices.

It has been my consistent experience of the critics, first, that they are not interested in what I actually say or write. They seem uninterested in the give and take of reason. Early on I wrote and published three responses to their online denunciations. To date, not one of the over 250 signatories, two of them in this college and a stone’s throw away from my office, have bothered to respond.

Instead they persist in false, unargued attributions. Have I ever said that the white race is biologically superior to other races, and naturally destined to rule the world? No. And yet, according to Dr Priyamvada Gopal of Cambridge University, I am a “racist”, a “supremacist”, and a “bigot”. Have I ever said that I think the British Empire was an unalloyed good? No. And yet, according to Professor Jon Wilson of King’s College London, my view is simply that (and I quote) “Empire is great!” Have I ever asserted that British imperialism generally “introduced order to the non-western world”? No. But that didn’t stop the literary critic Nilanjana Roy from attributing such an idiotic claim to me. My critics’ zeal propels them beyond what seems to me the boundaries of reason. And most of these people have university degrees, many of them have doctorates, and some occupy senior posts in our most prestigious academic institutions.   

Instead of reasoned arguments against what I actually say, what my critics have offered are ad hominem attacks upon my person. I am, of course, white, male, getting closer to my sell-by date, and—as a denizen of Christ Church, Oxford—terminally privileged. Therefore, nothing that I say could possibly be worth listening to and whatever comes out of my mouth is, according to Dr Gopal, “vomit”. It is quite true that the limits of my own privileged social experience and position could make me deaf to the voices of the victims of empire. It could do, but it need not. After all, privilege has evidently not stopped the ears of Gopal and Wilson. And besides, as I’ve indicated, the voices of the victims of empire, or of their descendants, don’t all say the same thing. Some of them actually agree with me, not with my critics.

Such critics appeal, not to reason, but to authority—the authority of an alleged consensus. This manifests itself in claims that things I have asserted—such as a balance in favour of the benefits of empire—have been long “discredited” among right-thinking people. Well, quite apart from the fact that I have never asserted such a thing, I am not impressed by sheer appeals to authority. (And here’s another irony: I say that as a religious believer, indeed, as an Anglican priest!) While I respect the prima facie authority of a consensus of experts, it has been known to get it wrong. 

III.

So much for the problem and its components. What has my recent experience taught me about the solution? First of all, the support that I have received from the very top of my own university has been enormously important. From the very beginning the university authorities have defended my right to pursue whatever daft research on the ethics of empire I choose to, provided it’s not obviously illegal.

However, rhetorical support from the top is not a sufficient solution, because it doesn’t necessarily prevent subtle but
substantial problems further down the institutional hierarchy. It doesn’t stop colleagues applying illiberal political criteria to the admission of students or to the appointment of senior members. Nor does it stop vulnerable, junior, untenured colleagues from having to ask that their names be kept off the list of participants at meetings like this one—not this one, as it happens, but like this one—lest senior colleagues find out and damage their career prospects. I first raised these issues in the in-house Oxford Magazine early last year, hoping that it might stimulate frank discussion among us. But so far, to my knowledge, what I wrote has been met with complete silence. So if support for academic freedom from the top is the first part of a solution, open discussion of these issues further down the totem pole is the second.

The third is access to independent streams of funding. In 2016 my historian collaborator on the Ethics and Empire project and I submitted an application for 50 per cent funding to an internal university research fund. Despite our considerable experience in submitting and evaluating applications, this was turned down because it was supposed to lack “diversity” and because those involved were all drawn from elite universities. That would have been the end of the project, were it not for the fact that, as director of the McDonald Centre, I have at my disposal an independent stream of funding. So if dissident thought is to flourish in universities it needs to have access to funding that is beyond the control of university committees who apply criteria such as “diversity”, which are politically biased, morally dubious, and beyond question.

Finally, perhaps most crucially, academics have to be persuaded to take responsibility for promoting in students (and future citizens) the virtues of fairness, charity, patience, courage, humility and honesty. The importance of this is demonstrated by the story of Damian McBride. In 1999 McBride became the “spin doctor” of Gordon Brown, then Chancellor in the UK Government. He continued to play that role for the next 10 years and into Brown’s tenure as prime minister. His  unscrupulous (by his own admission) ruthlessness in serving his master earned McBride the nicknames “Mad Dog” and “McPoison”. In 2009, overreaching himself, he precipitated a scandal that propelled him out of Downing Street and into public disgrace.

Four years later, a chastened McBride published his own account of how his life had come to such a pass. The title of the book summed it up: Power Trip.  Chapter Two, entitled  “Warning Signs”, begins, “I wasn’t always a nasty bastard, but you could argue the signs were there”.  One of the signs came to light during his student career at Peterhouse in Cambridge. Frequently the source of physical violence, and indirectly responsible for setting fire to one of the college’s 13th-century buildings, McBride succeeded in pulling the wool over the dons’ eyes with a combination of avoidance, obfuscation and diversion. As he sums it up: “I left university hooked on the intricacies of power and policy-making, with a talent for avoiding the truth  . . . , a win-or-die competitive streak, a penchant for negative, thuggish tactics, and a reckless disregard for the consequences of my actions.”

If university teachers do not take responsibility for promoting virtuous intellect, adolescent students will receive the general impression that real adults don’t care about such things. So when they leave the womb of their alma mater for the Big Wide World—or when they stay safely within it, growing from student into professor—they will embark, not at all upon a moral adventure, but on a power trip.

 

This is an edited version of a lecture given by Nigel Biggar as part of “Academic Freedom Under Threat: What’s to be Done?”, a conference held at Pembroke College, Oxford, in May this year