On the Third World Quarterly imbroglio

December 12, 2017

I have co-authored a letter, printed in last Saturday’s Times, with a longer version in Times Higher Education, defending the academic journal Third World Quarterly and its editor, Shahid Qadir. I organised this letter with my colleague Phil Cunliffe at Kent, and it is signed by most of the journal’s remaining editorial board members, editors and board members of many other journals, and plenty of other scholars.

Many people will be aware of the controversy surrounding the publication of an article in the journal entitled “The Case for Colonialism” by Bruce Gilley. This prompted a 10,000-strong petition demanding the article’s suppression, and threats to the journal’s editor. Although the publisher investigated the peer review process and found it was above board, it subsequently withdrew the article, citing “serious and credible threats of personal violence” made against Mr Qadir.

I organised this letter – a longer version of which is still open to sign – for a very simple reason. It is time that academics stood up forcefully for academic freedom and freedom of speech against the Maoist-style insanity now sweeping many university campuses. Barely a week goes by that we do not hear about some new outrage: well-known speakers being banned, harassed or physically attacked because their views are now seen as “unacceptable” and “harmful”; professors being bullied for promoting debate, suspended for failing to use preferred nomenclature, or being forced to leave their posts for declining to acquiesce in other forms of damaging identity politics, like removing all white people from campus; growing evidence of hostility towards freedom of speech, in the US and UK; students being subjected to abuse for non-conformist political views; journals being mobbed for publishing controversial articles.

At times, I try to persuade myself that the people involved in these events are fringe lunatics. Speaking to my own students, I rarely if ever find this sort of attitude on display; other surveys suggest more positive views on free speech; and I am frequently reminded of how unrepresentative student unions and other loud-mouthed activists often are of the wider mass of largely depoliticised students. But it is hard – and unwise – to hide from the growing evidence of intolerance and frankly hysterical views on university campuses. The Third World Quarterly incident is particularly deplorable because the backlash was led by so-called left-wing academics, not students. Moreover, an attack on freedom of expression was thinly veiled as a concern for the integrity of the peer review process, allowing censorious scholars to hide their authoritarian intolerance behind a technocratic desire for quality control.

The response to our opening of the letter has been interesting and revealing, prompting me to write this blog. The timing was unexpectedly significant. Just two days before we planned to launch the letter, a junior government whip wrote to UK universities asking for details of their teaching on Brexit. This was instantly interpreted as an attack on academic freedom and roundly condemned, including by me, in the national press. Colleagues who generally avoid speaking to me about Brexit rushed to congratulate me on slapping down the Tory MP. I was delighted, of course, that so many colleagues were suddenly so interested in defending academic freedom. A day later, we gave them all the opportunity to demonstrate the consistency of their principles by signing the TWQ letter.

Of course, very few of them did. This is because most academics are only contingent supporters of academic freedom: they defend it when it affects them, yet when it does not they are passive, or when it concerns views they dislike, they may be actively hostile. Conversely, as I wrote for the LSE’s Brexit blog:

Whatever my views on Brexit, it was easy for me to condemn Heaton-Harris [the MP who demanded Brexit teaching details from universities] because my commitment to academic freedom (and freedom more generally) is principled and consistent, not opportunistic and determined by particular circumstances. So I am on record, for example, attacking the government’s Prevent programme, criticising no-platforming, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”, supporting Thai colleagues threatened by military officers, defending a professor who tweeted favourably about “white genocide”, and attacking the suppression of research on transgenderism on the grounds it could be offensive.

What was striking about the response to our open letter, however, was that many other academics apparently could not even consider (let alone believe) that defending academic freedom was our real motive. Reactions on Twitter focused instead on the colour of our skin and our sex/ geographical location. Rather than addressing the argument, they sought to discredit us by pointing out that Phil and I are white (!) and male (!!!). In other words, our skin pigmentation and genitalia must account for our views, not our commitment to principle. I could not help but think of the abuse to which Shahid Qadir would have been subjected if he was white. Others suggested we were being “colonial” by posing as “white saviours” of a post-colonial journal, whilst also somehow being “OK with colonial brutality and the Holocaust“. Alternatively, we were somehow self-interested careerists, sucking up to senior academics or even angling for a position on the editorial board. We had included a line in the letter saying we would, if necessary, serve on the EB, in order to underscore the seriousness of our solidarity, beyond mere words. It should go without saying that none of the signatories – many of them senior professors and journal editors in their own right – particularly welcome any additional administrative work; we just wanted to make clear that our support was not only empty words but we were prepared to support TWQ materially. When I pointed that out, our critics said we were “walking away”, making it unclear whether they were angry that we did want to serve on the EB, or did not.

The striking thing, then, was the total bad faith. Our detractors could simply not see that the letter was about what it claimed to be about – academic freedom – and nothing more.

We also experienced quite bizarre abuse through the letter sign-up page, much of it submitted so quickly after engagements on Twitter that it was hard to believe that those behind it were not the academics in question. The responses variously accused us of: “white supremacy”, “white male privilege”, “fragile male ego”, “white male gaze”, “racism”, “nazism”, “KKK”, and most bizarrely, “sexual harassment”. We were also supposedly in the pay of the journal’s publisher and wanted to “bring back colonial brutality”. Again, the sheer bad faith was striking, but it was also accompanied by a generous side-order of fruitcake. One particularly energetic troll decided to email signatories to the letter who were journal editors with a hoax proposal for a special issue on genocide, and also organised a counter-letter to the Times.

A final interesting encounter was the discussion of the petition on Facebook, when it was posted by my colleague Alex Gourevitch at Brown, who moves in US “leftist” circles. Although a few of Alex’s colleagues agreed with and signed the letter, most argued vehemently against it. Most striking was the suggestion – from a supposedly leftist professor – that we were wrong to link the death threats against the editor to growing intolerance on Western campuses, because the threats presumably originated in the global south. Similar claims have been circulating elsewhere online, including the idea that Indian nationalists were responsible. I find it striking that these (white! male!) professors are so quick to assign blame for irrational violence to brown people in the global south, yet we are supposedly the “racists” here.

The letter deliberately did not express any particular view on the content of the article, because its signatories genuinely believe that authors and editors should be free to publish whatever they see fit, regardless of the content. In scholarly outlets, work must of course meet scholarly standards, but the letter does not comment on the peer review process, because the publisher found the process to be above board. It comments only on a matter of principle: mob rule should not be allowed to dictate what can and cannot be said in the academy, as is increasingly the case.

This is entirely compatible with different beliefs about the quality of the article and the peer review process. I personally think the quality of the article is quite poor, and I’m sure that most of the signatories think the same. Others have defended its quality as no worse than that of many published articles – and I agree with this, too. An awful lot of crap gets published in academic journals. However, it is patently obvious that the outrage here was not about the academic merit of the piece but its temerity to challenge accepted wisdom, i.e. what offended was its content, not its quality.

Likewise, the peer review process undoubtedly had an arbitrary element and arguably could have been improved – but, again, that is hardly unusual. One reviewer suggested rejection, the other minor amendments; the editor settled on major amendments. This is ultimately an arbitrary (though not indefensible) decision; but what academic has not been subjected to arbitrary editorial decisions? An article I co-authored for Security Dialogue was positively received by three reviewers, who suggested only minor changes; but the editors insisted on much larger concessions to poststructuralist theory (which the reviewers had not requested) and, after demanding three rounds of revisions, finally rejected the article. (I now boycott the journal – so abysmal was our treatment.) Similarly I have had work knocked back from the European Journal of International Relations and the Review of International Political Economy because, following revise-and-resubmissions, our work was sent to different reviewers who did not assess our corrections against the original reviews but made different points, and the editors decided to reject the article. These three are all top-20 IR journals. Editorial caprice is part of the game. Shahid Qadir’s decision to split the difference between reject/ minor changes is hardly unusually perverse. (Some claim that two other “reviewers” rejected the article. In fact, Qadir sent the piece to two scholars editing a special issue to see if they wanted to include it, and they declined. This was not a formal “peer review”.)

The opposition to “The Case for Colonialism”, then, was not caused by its academic quality or flawed quality control procedures but rather that it said something that many consider deplorable. Rather than ignoring or rebutting it, though, the knee-jerk reaction today is to mob the author/ speaker and insist they recant or are silenced. The cost of this illiberal reaction is immense. J.S. Mill rightly argued that the truth can only emerge through a clash of ideas and vigorous debate. We must allow potentially erroneous ideas to be aired, because it is only by testing ideas that we can establish their veracity – we cannot know in advance. Whoever participates in refuting erroneous ideas (or hearing/ reading the refutation) benefits because they have a livelier understanding of the truth. Conversely, if we hold certain ideas to be beyond critical debate, they become “dead dogma”. We “know” they are correct, but we forget the reasons why. We lose the ability to argue our case, to persuade others. Soon, we can only defend our dogma by silencing those who challenge it.

I had first-hand experience of this when judging a school debating competition a few years back. The teams were debating whether the British National Party should be treated like any other party. The opposition argued that, no, they should not, because the BNP are racist. “Why,” I asked, “is it wrong to be racist?” The students were floored. Clearly they had never been asked this question before. Racism was simply wrong. QED. Eventually they stammered their way to answer: racism is wrong because it upsets people from ethnic minorities. “Does that mean we are never allowed to upset people?” No, they conceded; but they were lost. The reason why racism is wrong, of course, is that races are entirely fictive social categories; “races” are not real, they are just nonsensical concepts that human beings have dreamed up to give (false) meaning to completely minor biological differences like skin colour and eye shape. There is no substantial biological differences between two people of different ethnicities. Therefore, to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity is clearly ridiculous. But the students did not know this. Anti-racism was, to them, dead dogma, not living truth.

In a different way, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism is becoming “dead dogma”, which is increasingly being challenged by apologists for imperialism. In this sense, Bruce Gilley’s essay is hardly unusual – it merely represents a growing cultural change. Surveys routinely show that substantial portions of the British public think the British empire did a lot of good in the world and we should take pride in it. Right-wing commentators have responded to “The Case for Colonialism” by agreeing that, indeed, colonial rule brought many benefits (as well as costs), and we ought to be less ashamed of our past. Fatuous “historian” Niall Ferguson has been writing defences of Western imperialism for years, in outlets far more high profile than TWQ. More insidiously, contemporary forms of imperialism and colonialism abound. For the last four decades, years, Western states and international organisations have been doing precisely what Gilley’s article recommended: seeking to re-establish Western-dominated systems of rule over peoples in the global south. From the IMF’s Structural Adjustment, to “humanitarian intervention”, through “state building”, “post-conflict reconstruction”, “transitional justice”, “capacity building”, “shared sovereignty” and – most recently – NATO’s destruction of Libya in pursuit of regime change (in the name, of course, of “preventing a genocide”), the West has brutalised hundreds of millions of people. This has often been cheered on by so-called “leftists”, “liberals” and so on, as well as being favourably discussed in many academic journals. We ought to be grateful to Bruce Gilley for collating all the best arguments for imperialism in a single place, and at least being honest about what everyone else is far coyer about.

Gilley’s essay gave us an enormous opportunity to explain, clearly and succinctly, why imperialism and colonialism were wrong, and why imperialism has created many of the problems to which its reimposition now masquerades as the solution. My suggested response to the publication was for anti-colonial scholars to collectively write a devastating rebuttal – a crowd-sourced article, if you like – in TWQ. You would then have one pro-imperialist piece (which would only get cited once, robbing Gilley of citations, if that had been his goal), and one anti-imperialist piece. This pair of articles would have been a fantastic teaching resource for anyone leading courses on global politics. Recognise there is a growing controversy in society. Put the essays in front of them. Open the floor for debate. If we are so confident that our anti-imperialist position is correct, surely we should expect students to be convinced by our arguments. Then they would understand – truly understand – why imperialism was, and remains, wrong. Anti-imperialism would become living truth, not dead dogma; and they would be able to take on the defenders of imperialism, and win.


posted in academia, academic freedom, free speech, media, the left by Lee

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2 Comments to "On the Third World Quarterly imbroglio"

  1. William Clare Roberts wrote:

    Since you allude to me above, and never responded to my criticisms of your letter on Alex’s Facebook post, I will re-inscribe those criticisms here:

    1. The article was trash, and it should not have been published. Basically, it was desk rejected for the SI to which it was submitted; the EIC decided to send it out for review anyway; in response to the conflicting reports, the EIC — who could have done anything (reject, send to a third referee, etc), decided to publish with minor revisions because clicks. I would be embarrassed if a journal I was associated with behaved this way.

    2. The resignation of editorial board members is no threat to academic freedom at all, but an expression of academic freedom. No one is under any obligation to be on the editorial board of a journal that they don’t respect, under an editor they don’t respect.

    3. The letter proclaims itself an act of solidarity, but journals are not the appropriate recipients of solidarity. Solidarity is owed to the dominated and oppressed, and to those who suffer injustice. I don’t even know what it means to stand in solidarity with a journal, or with any other corporate body. It’s just weird.

    4. Nonetheless, I did not sign the letter asking that the article be withdrawn. My stance was and is that the journal and the EIC have to own this article. The EIC made a bad choice, and should have to live with it. Taking the article down doesn’t do anything helpful.

    5. I agree with Alex that the actual harm done by the article is less than the harm done by all of articles embracing the ideology of humanitarian intervention. The article is an insult, not a danger.

    6. The threats of violence directed at the EIC have nothing at all to do with any “rising tide of intolerance on university campuses and within the academic profession,” and were certainly not the “culmination” of the academic campaign against the journal and the EIC. I’ll bet anyone $10 that the threats came from non-academics and/or folks in former colonies. This is the claim you have latched onto for your own purposes, but I stand by it. There are 7 Billion people in the world who are *not* part of the academic community, and the smart money is that the threats came from there. People in the former colonies are much more reasonably upset by this crap article, and Modi’s India is much more like the organized and mediatized rage machines we know on the Right in North America. This is not about assigning “blame for irrational violence to brown people in the global south.” I’m not assigning blame at all — that’s your bag. I don’t think the threats were irrational — I’m sure they were upsetting, but there is nothing irrational about threatening someone in order to get what you want. Most importantly, there is no good reason for getting panicky about rising intolerance on the Left in the academic community. The present and escalating threats to academic freedom come primarily from administrators cowed by media firestorms and by the donors and alumni networks that are mobilized by those firestorms. This is almost exclusively a threat coming from the Right (as in the cases of George Ciccariello-Maher and Tommy Curry) and from the pro-Israel crowd (as with Steven Salaita). There is no “Maoist-style insanity” sweeping Left-wing academia. Anyone who thinks there is needs to get out more.

    7. Therefore, neither will I be signing your letter. If the signatories want to save TWQ as an institution, fine. Constitute a new editorial board, select a new EIC, and move on.

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