Toppled statues and the free speech culture war

Photo by Caitlin Hobbs –, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Black Lives Matters movement spilled into discussion of history and the popular memory of empire over the weekend, when the statue of Edward Colston, an eighteenth century slave merchant, was toppled into the water in Bristol by protestors. This provided momentum across Britain, Europe and North America to remove other statues, building on previous protests against the memorialisation of imperialists, slave traders and confederate leaders over the last half-decade. One of the impetuses for this was the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign. This started at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015 and spread to other universities in the Global North, including the University of Oxford.

Both the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign and recent events have led to several right-leaning politicians, commentators and academics to defend the legacy of the British Empire, which Priyamvada Gopal has called the ‘retrograde strain of making the so-called case for colonialism’. Statues memorialising these imperial figures have been upheld as having historical importance and aids to help us learn from the past, which has been highly contested.

Oxford University has become a focal point of this debate. The university has seen a long-running campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, but it has also been the base for Professor Nigel Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ project. Biggar, a professor of theology (not history), wrote in 2016 that the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign was ‘built on a misunderstanding of the past and a manipulation of the truth’. His subsequent project has proposed that there were ethical elements to the British Empire, giving black Africans the vote in the Cape Colony and the Second World War, which could be weighed against the mass killings, death and exploitation of people by the British across the empire.

Biggar’s project has drawn significant criticism. For example, more than 50 academics at Oxford signed an open letter which declared that Biggar’s public pronouncements ‘reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past’. Biggar called this open letter ‘collective online bullying’ and has since become a beacon for those who proclaim that free speech is under threat of British universities, championed alongside other controversial scholars such as Eric Kaufmann, Noah Carl and Jordan Peterson. In a letter to The Times this week, Biggar weighed in on the topic of the toppling of the statue of Colston, criticising the ‘adopted victimhood’ of those who took down the statue.

This is where the debate about history and the popular memory of the British Empire intersects with the myth of the free speech ‘crisis’ on campuses across Britain (and elsewhere within the English speaking world). For the conservatives, libertarians and ‘classical liberals’ who claim this, criticism of Biggar and others is an attack on academic freedom, seen as part of a broader phenomenon that includes ‘no platforming’, ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’. In this culture war over free speech, the university has become an important battleground, with ‘woke’ or ‘politically correct’ students and academics demonised in the press and on social media.

In a piece for The Guardian, I argued that the university has become a focus of this culture war because it is a place where there have been forthright challenges to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia (as well as traditional class hierarchies). But it has also been a place of challenges to prevailing histories of British imperialism and colonialism, through campaigns such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and other efforts to decolonise the university system. This is because, as Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial & Kerem Nişancıoğlu have argued, British universities were, and remain, ‘a key site through which colonialism – and colonial knowledge in particular – is produced, consecrated, institutionalised and naturalised’.

As pressure mounted in early 2016 for Oxford University’s Oriel College to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the university’s chancellor used the notion of freedom of speech and academic inquiry as a reason for the statue to remain in place. Louise Richardson, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, has reiterated this, arguing ‘hiding your history is not the route to enlightenment’. But as the events of the last week have shown, the campaign for the statue to be taken down, and for Britain’s imperial past to be properly reckoned with, has reached a new intensity.

The usual free speech warriors have compared the protestors who tore down the Colston statue and the campaign for other statues to be removed to the Taliban, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge and George Orwell’s 1984. Over the last decade, the disdain shown towards protesting students and the portrayal of them as both ‘snowflakes’ and censorious has become a framework for seeing this current wave of activism against the relics of empire. As a more critical history of the British Empire is endorsed against the traditional jingoism that has long engulfed the subject, the university as a place of academic inquiry has again become a front in a wider culture war. As Dawn Foster has argued succinctly, freedom of speech has been weaponised as a cover for freedom from criticism. We must recognise that those who push the idea of a free speech ‘crisis’ on campus are very often the same ones who push for a non-critical assessment of empire and the ways in which it is memorialised in Britain and across the settler colonial world. And it is moments like this that these traditionalists fear.


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