The Guardian Defends a Racist's Free Speech. This is a Step in the Right Direction
Are the sides in the Culture War switching positions with each other?
Politics junkies may have been surprised this morning to find the Guardian reporting sympathetically on an academic who had been accused of racism. The academic in question was Prof Priyamvada Gopal of Churchill College, Cambridge, who had been invited to speak to civil servants at the Home Office, before being uninvited. Gopal characterised the withdrawal of the invitation as an attack on her free speech. People may have been even more surprised to find that the ‘cancellation’ of Gopal may have resulted from a campaign by the conservative blog Guido Fawkes. The Guardian turning a blind eye to hate speech? Conservatives for cancel culture? Are the times a-changing?
Cancel culture broadly refers to a widespread attitude that censorship, authoritarianism and mob bullying can all be justified if the person being targeted is bad. Of course, this immediately highlights a central problem with any system of censorship or authoritarianism: the concept of what bad means is deeply subjective. Advocates for censorship tend therefore to be highly elitist, as they believe that they, uniquely, are the ones to be trusted with the power to silence everyone else.
So the Culture War is often less an ideological struggle than a straightforward power struggle. The battle is less about who is right or wrong than who should have the power to select candidates for censorship. The two sides (which we broadly call Left and Right) are therefore not tied to firm ideological positions, so much as to the principle that the people on the other side are beyond the pale. So it is not unusual that both sides may be close to agreeing with each other, while simultaneously each declares the other’s position to be outrageous. This situation results in high levels of hypocrisy on both sides.
Since the two sides define themselves in opposition to each other, their positions are slippery, and often change. Often, both sides are wrong in the detail of an issue, because opposing each other is more important than determing what is true. Sometimes the two sides switch places. This appears to be the case at the moment regarding the issue of free speech.
I have often defended the idea that hate speech should not be criminalised. Hate speech is a far broader (and vaguer) concept than ‘incitement to racial violence’, which should be criminalised, can be more clearly defined, and should be one of the boundaries of free speech. I have received short social media bans for offences under the banner of hate speech, the most recent being a four-day Facebook ban for sarcastically attacking antisemitism (I’m Jewish). I sent a sarcastic tweet only today that could be interpreted as antisemitic (thankfully, Twitter’s boundaries are broader than Facebook’s). The fact that sarcasm and serious comment are hard to distinguish from each other is one of the reasons that banning hate speech can be problematic.
Gopal’s offence, identified by Guido, could certainly be categorised as a particularly nasty example of hate speech: she had attacked the Home Secretary Priti Patel on Twitter as follows:
There is plenty wrong with this tweet: the casual dismissal of ‘many’ Asians in Africa as ‘ferociously’ racist is unfair, and gives tacit justification to the massacre and persecution of east African Asians in Uganda and Tanzania, which led to many refugees coming to Britain in the 1970s. My ex-wife and her family fled a racial pogrom in Tanzania in fear for their lives, having seen others in their community murdered. Their crime was to be Asian. Being charitable to Gopal, this is a particularly ignorant piece of writing. Being less charitable, it labels a whole community racist, gaslights refugees and implies that the genocidal attacks on their communities were their own fault. This nuance may pass a lot of readers by, but Gopal is supposed to be a leading expert in colonialism. She knew exactly what she was writing.
This is not a first offence. Gopal revels in making racist comments. Twitter deleted a previous tweet of hers that had read “I’ll say it again. White lives don’t matter. As White lives”. Black Lives Matter had often been accused of suggesting that different lives had different values - a claim denied by BLM activists. Gopal’s tweet suggested this is in fact the case, and it was clearly designed to stoke racial tension. It was a nasty sentiment, and no doubt was in breach of Twitter’s guidelines.
Gopal has (rightly) been defended by her employer against calls for her to be fired. She has the right to express herself, to write articles and books. She is, it seems, a racist, but she must be able to express her views, so long as they do not cross the line into incitement. In addition to their sympathetic reporting of her, the Guardian has published Gopal’s articles. Perhaps this marks a slow return to the liberal, pro-free speech attitudes for which the newspaper used to be known. Liberals must defend free speech on principle, even where that speech is found by somebody to be offensive.
One of the drivers of the recent rise in racism is the fact that some types of racism are treated differently than others. In the current culture, white nationalists can, quite accurately, claim that they are subject to rules that others are not, and this is a useful recruitment tool for them. Gopal can tweet that white lives don’t matter and keep her job, while a football fan making the (less offensive) claim that “white lives matter” loses his. When people believe - with some justification - that they are not treated fairly, extremist groups can flourish. Whether we choose to censor such language or not, the rules have to be applied equally, to all people regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation. Otherwise, our multiracial democracy starts to erode at the edges.
As to Gopal’s claim that her free speech has been attacked? That is clearly nonsense in this case. Academics do not have the automatic right to address civil servants at the Home Office - most will never get to do so. The fact that Gopal had been invited in the first place shows a commitment to diverse opinions within the Home Office. And the nature of her tweet - which was a vicious attack on both the Home Secretary and on an entire ethnic group - gives more than enough justification to rescind the invitation. While we should be somewhat concerned that people like Gopal are spreading unpleasant ideas, such people will always exist. Far better to let them speak and allow for debate. Given free debate, racists are easily exposed as dimwits and hatemongers. We should be far more worried at the tendency of newspapers like the Guardian to only selectively defend free speech, and to only selectively be horrified by racism.