‘Not everything is up for debate’: Priyamvada Gopal on the truth about free speech in Cambridge

‘Free speech is meaningless if all it involves is punching down’

“You can’t hold events like this,” was for Professor Priyamvada Gopal, lecturer in English and Fellow of Churchill College, the take-home message from the media’s unfavourable response to an event she chaired called ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’.

The online event, held on 12th February, was part of a year-long programme at Churchill College, examining his “views and actions relating to empire and race.” Prior to its launch, the Daily Mail cited Churchill’s grandson on the record saying the event was “idiotic”, followed by post-event coverage in the Mail, Daily Express and The Times, picking up on a claim made in the discussion that the British Empire, and by proxy Churchill’s role in it, was “far worse than the Nazis”.

Priya Gopal told The Cambridge Tab she felt the press “latched onto something one of the speakers had said, and presented it both out of context and as though it was the main point of the discussion, which it was not.”

She also commented on a published review of the panel by Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank. The review included a forward from Churchill’s grandson who criticised the college for “facilitating this kind of historical illiteracy” because “Churchill College should be defending his remarkable legacy, not allowing pseudo-academic detractors to smear him unchallenged.”

Professor Gopal hosted the event on 12th February (Credit: Author’s own screenshot)

For Gopal, “what’s interesting about the report is the suggestion that ‘you can’t have events like this,’ and given that Policy Exchange considers themselves to be champions of free speech, it’s very telling that they mean they are the champions of the right kind of free speech.” 

The Cambridge Tab interviewed Professor Gopal about the current state of free speech in Cambridge and the ways in which it should be protected or questioned. Starting with Churchill and moving on to the right to protest and the installation of a free-speech champion for universities, we discussed the impact of the ‘free speech debate’ on students at our university, particularly those from minority groups.

‘”Debate” is a word that is often misused in Britain’

Explaining the intention behind hosting an event on Churchill’s “racial consequences”, Prof Gopal said: “What we presented was an academic event looking at one aspect of Churchill. It was not meant to be a debate. I think that ‘debate’ is a word that is often misused in Britain.”

She continued on her wariness of term, ‘debate’: “It presumes that everything has two sides. So, you can say ‘Churchill was a racist’, but that should be countered by ‘Churchill was not a racist.”

The problem with this, according to Gopal, is that “the historical record is very clear. Churchill made several racist pronouncements. By any token, they were racist, and his contemporaries recognised those statements as racist. There really isn’t another side.”

She responds to the counterargument that Churchill fought against the anti-Semitic Nazis: “To say that, well, he fought Hitler, is not the other side [of the argument]. Yes, he fought Hitler, but he was also racist.”  She identifies this as an “impoverished understanding of free speech which is to say that everything has two sides, and they are both equally right or equally valid.

“We offered a discussion to provide balance in a picture of Churchill which is completely saintly. We thought, in this panel, we’re going to show how academics and academics of colour have read Churchill differently and with good cause.”

‘Pushing for the college to recognise other aspects of Churchill’

As we have seen, not everyone responded positively to the panel, but Prof Gopal stands by the intention to “remind the college that it is not a monument, it is an academic institution, and, therefore, they are obliged to tell the truth. Here, was literally the opening up of that truth, and even that much could not be tolerated by those who otherwise claim to advocate free speech.”

Moving forward, she believes that “the college should lead a truthful national conversation on Churchill. That means that yes, you acknowledge the war legacies, but it also means you acknowledge empire and racism. You can’t just pull out the bits that you like and memorialise those because you’re not doing modern Britain a service, and you’re not doing your own student community a service.”

She reminds us that “students at Churchill, particularly, though not only, students of colour, have been pressing for the college to recognise other aspects of Churchill, aspects that are less benign. I think that the college has an absolute obligation to respond to that.”

(Credit: @churchillcol via Instagram)

‘I am an absolute advocate of freedom of expression’

When asked about her view on the extent to which freedom of speech should be upheld in our university community, Prof Gopal told The Tab: “I am an absolute advocate of academic freedom, and I am an absolute advocate of freedom of expression,” but adds “there are two things I would say in addition that impinge on that.

“One is that we do have to make some kind of distinction between hate speech and free speech, in other words, you’re free to speak, but the minute something tips into hate speech that questions or denigrates the existence of vulnerable groups, a university community has to think twice because a university community also has welfare obligations.”

In terms of addressing welfare obligations alongside free speech, Gopal said: “There has to be a distinction between freedom of speech and academic freedom on the one hand, and platforming discredited views on the other.

“A university community has to uphold academic standards. So that means you can’t bring eugenics in and you can’t bring in a speaker who [studies] race science or eugenics, which are academically discredited approaches [as though saying] we should give this credence.”

She continued to explain why she believes this to be inappropriate: “It would be a bit like saying [you have] the right to say the earth is flat. Sure, you can say the earth is flat all you want, but should an academic community uphold the legitimacy of that view? No. So I think we also have to articulate free speech on campus in terms of that freedom, which comes with academic obligations. This means you have to meet certain academic criteria of credibility and knowledge.

“As an academic,  I cannot accept that anything and everything that is said is equally valid. I do believe there are discredited viewpoints that we don’t want to be wasting our time debating.” She puts forward the idea that “in academia, we need to push very hard against relativism” and also against “the idea that everything’s up for debating because actually, not everything is not up for debate.’

‘No-platforming is something that should be used with great care’

Carrying on from her statements that speakers with discredited views should not be invited to speak at universities, Prof Gopal offered her opinion on the concept of no-platforming speakers (i.e. refusing someone a platform on which to speak): “I think no-platforming is something that should be used with great care and I think it should be used in the rarest of rare instances. But I also want to remind people that no-platforming was adopted by the NUS in the 1970s as a method to fight fascism and to fight groups that were using universities to organise. So if you value anti-fascism as I presume anyone who upholds Britain’s victory in the Second World War or upholds Churchill would want to do, then you can’t just speak about past anti-fascism.”

She said this is because we are “obliged to do things that prevent fascists and racists from organising in the present. We cannot platform racism, fascism or forms of hate in universities and allow them to speak, to articulate their views and to organise. [No-platforming] is a weapon of resistance. And as such, I endorse its use in very very specific instances.” 

‘Vulnerable groups […] have to be protected from speech which denigrates their existence’ 

Whether you’re considering “hard-line Islamists, Hindu extremists, or white racists,” Gopal asserts that “I don’t think, as I just said, that you should be allowing retrograde forces space in which to organise.” 

“The university has a duty of care”, she said, “and that means vulnerable groups, whether those are sexual minorities, gender minorities, or racial minorities, for example, have to be protected by speech and action that denigrates their existence, and it has to be made possible for them to survive with dignity in the community.”

Something that Prof Gopal feels should not be overlooked is that “we do technically, at least for now, live in a society where equalities are to some extent enshrined in law, and so here on campus equality is the law. We then need to make a decision between speech that violates the law or violates university policy, and speech that doesn’t.”

She also brought up distinctions between free speech and equality: “Free speech presumes everyone has equal access to platforms, that everyone is equal. [But] we have a situation where, in Britain today, xenophobic and racist views have […] complete control of discourse in many places. So, there is no comparison between a racist’s right to speak and a [person belonging to a minority background’s] right to speak, because the power differential is so vast that they are not comparable.

“It’s perfectly possible for a university to allow for the flourishing of free speech and academic freedom, and protect everybody in it.”

‘Why on earth would a government like this put a free-speech champion in place?’

Just days after Prof Gopal took part in the discussion of Churchill’s ‘racial consequences’, the British government announced plans to introduce a ‘free speech champion’ in English universities. This individual would have the power to fine universities and student organisations for ‘restricting free speech’ through no-platforming or cancelling events.

When asked how she thought this move would impact university communities, Gopal responded: “Why would this government, which has stopped anti-capitalism from being talked about in schools, that has attacked critical race theory and said you can’t teach it, in effect, be believed when it says it wishes to foster freedom of speech?

“This government has [also] repeatedly attacked the right to protest. So this is not a government that has any bona fides when it comes to free speech. It has shown no inclination to do so. So why on earth would a government like this put a free-speech champion in place except as part of a concocted culture war?

“I don’t believe for a second that a free-speech champion is going to be defending my right to question racism or my friend’s right to question transphobia. That is not the purpose. The purpose is to pretend that universities are having a crisis, which they are not, and to pretend that universities need the firm hand of the state on their backs, which they do not. So, do I think that such a person will be protecting my rights? Not for a minute.”

‘I do not accept that I have the right to be racist’ and ‘White lives don’t matter. As white lives’

A fair amount of published information on Professor Gopal, from interviews and articles to her Wikipedia page, makes mention of her controversial tweet: ‘I’ll say it again. White lives don’t matter. As white lives.’ We spoke to Prof Gopal about where the overwhelming backlash against this tweet sits in relation to discourse around freedom of expression.

“What was interesting about that [tweet] is that it was deliberately presented as hate speech. It was very manifestly not hate speech because it was saying something very specific about the terms on which lives matter. What is interesting to me is that it’s been picked up in very bad faith as an example of how I was racist, but my freedom of speech was still protected.”

She rejected this perception, saying: “If I was racist, Cambridge University should not defend my rights, they should fire me. I do not accept that I have the right to be racist. If I have said something racist, the university could, and should, take action. So I absolutely refute the argument that I was allowed to be racist because free speech was being protected. My free speech, just like your free speech, cannot extend to public racism.”

‘Speakers of colour should not only be asked to talk about race’

When asked if there is any truth to the perception that speakers of colour are only ever asked to speak at public debates when the topic is centred on race, Gopal said: “I think, there is some truth to that. Certainly, my own experience is that I have been invited to comment on race and empire.

“But equally, I think we should be mindful that in recent years, people of colour and allies have been calling for more voices to speak precisely on these subjects [of race]. So I think we need a delicate balance between saying speakers of colour should not only be asked to talk about race, because that is very tiresome and draining, but also to say, race needs to be talked about. It’s a conversation that needs to be had and so to some extent, this is necessarily going to be the case.”

As someone who has spoken at several events and on social media about racism and its implications in Cambridge, Professor Gopal told The Tab that “the reason I say the things I say or participate in the debates that I do participate in, is because I feel answerable to students as a constituency. And I think that, as long as students embrace these issues, there will always be staff who feel called upon to be in alliance with students. I very much hope that that doesn’t change.”

‘The real defenders of freedom of speech are the people who take the risk of challenging the status quo’

Moving forward, Gopal thinks the future of freedom of speech at universities is dependent on the actions of progressive groups. She turned the tables on stereotypical perceptions, responding to the notion that free speech belongs to those who use it to defend racist or discriminatory views: “The real defenders of free speech on campuses are people who are involved in anti-racism, and anti-xenophobia.

“The real defenders of free speech, and I would count myself among them, are people who are going against the dominant line. Free speech is meaningless if all it involves is punching down […] So in my mind, the real defenders of freedom of speech are the people who take the risk of challenging the status quo.”

She continued: “Using free speech to defend the status quo is neither here nor there, it involves no risk. So, it is […] POC and their allies, for instance, trans people and their allies, for instance, who are pushing against hegemony, who are pushing against dominant discourse, who are the real in practice defenders of free speech. I think I would make a distinction between people who bang on about free speech in order to weaponise it for culture wars, and people who are really practicing it.”

Her closing sentiment was an encouragement to these groups and their allies: “And that is the only way to defend free speech – make use of it. Because if we don’t make use of it, like any other muscle, it will just die.”

Churchill College was contacted for comment. A spokesperson from the College said: “Churchill College has committed to a year-long programme of events to engage with the facts surrounding Sir Winston Churchill’s words, views and actions relating to empire and race. As an educational and research institution we acknowledge the need for, and indeed welcome, an honest and critical engagement with history in all its fullness.

“We accept this will involve some difficult discussions around important historical figures, including Churchill. Even though he was a successful leader in time of war, he must not be mythologised as a man without significant flaws, and we aim to lead an ongoing critical dialogue about his legacy in global history.”

Policy Exchange have also been contacted for comment. 

Yesterday, Professor Gopal wrote an article for the Guardian called ‘Why can’t Britain handle the truth about Churchill?’, which can be found here.

Feature image credit: Priyamvada Gopal and Katie Thacker 

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