It is our responsibility to publicly decry instances of racism or hate speech when we encounter them, that much is certain. However, in today’s increasingly politically sensitive society, a line must be drawn between denouncing those who have encouraged racist ideas and those, such as Professor Nigel Biggar, with well-researched opinions who are making no attempt to justify slavery or European superiority. In the manner of the ‘Boy who Cried Wolf’, the legitimacy of holding true racists to account is undermined by such accusations directed at academics whose viewpoints are not designed to be provocative and are founded on the basis of extensive historical research. Misdirecting such accusations could have the severe consequence of lessening their impact and therefore their power for social reform.
In cases such as the criticism of Professor Nigel Biggar, it is therefore important to be clear on the facts of the matter before a case for public criticism or support is made. This is particularly significant when it is considered that much of the criticism, most notably from the Oxford-based rights group Common Ground, has been focused on what Biggar has supposedly implied, rather than what he directly stated.
A reading of his article: ‘Don’t Feel Guilty About Our Colonial History,’ as published by The Times, reveals that Biggar never claimed that the British Empire did not commit atrocities nor does he say that our sense of guilt as colonialists should be entirely removed. Instead, it becomes clear that he merely advocates the advancement of a balanced view considering the negative and positive aspects of empire and a moderation of our guilt so that it does not become a paralysing force for our future policy decisions. Ironically, Common Ground condemn Biggar’s argument for its lack of evidence whilst offering little specific evidence of their own to counter his arguments.
Particularly significant is the accusation levelled at Biggar about his supposed support for British interference in the affairs of foreign countries. By claiming that our guilt should not prevent us from adopting an interventionist foreign policy, Biggar is attempting to make our decisions less encumbered by historical baggage, not endorsing a return to ideas of white supremacy. In fact, the implication that any interference by Britain in international affairs is bad and presumptuous seems deeply flawed. Surely it is our duty to intervene where we perceive there to be gross injustice? Do we not consistently do so by sending in aid?
This particular controversy opens up a wide range of further debates, many of which have been at the forefront of other discussions, such as those surrounding the statue of Cecil Rhodes. It has therefore become more and more important that we are aware of the dangers of possessing a selective memory when examining our history. Our ability to learn from past mistakes is prevented when we make blanket statements. Whilst aspects of colonialism were undoubtedly negative, it is arguable that in some regards the connections forged have left a positive legacy in the continuation of the Commonwealth and the introduction of the Commonwealth Games.
Issues with the criticism of Biggar do not just lie with the faults in their content, but also with the spirit in which they were made. By challenging his right to an opinion, they are challenging his right to academic free speech. This has dangerous implications. Academic free speech enables consideration of multiple different perspectives, thereby allowing balanced conclusions to be reached. In a time of growing threat from fake news, it is essential that academic free speech prevents the formation of misconceptions and ensures issues can be discussed before they escalate or become deeply ingrained.
Obviously we should applaud all those who seek to make the world free from discrimination and racism. I count myself among that number. However, we should not sacrifice crucial liberties such as the right to academic free speech in the process, especially not through wilful blindness or ignorance.