Priyamvada Gopal: on the front line of Britain’s imperial past

The literature expert on online abuse, decolonising the curriculum and Cambridge’s role in the slave trade

May 22, 2019
Priyamvada Gopal

“Even the mildest of criticism and it’s just Armageddon.” These are the words of Priyamvada Gopal, reader in anglophone and related literatures at the University of Cambridge, describing her experiences on social media and beyond.

Since she is both Asian and a woman, she is often subjected to savage abuse when speaking out about politics, race and education. Yet the worst, she told Times Higher Education, comes when she has a go at privileged, white and male “cult figures” such as Canadian academic Jordan Peterson. “Their followers set off mob attacks, which they then accuse others of doing to them,” she said. “I got parallel abuse criticising Hindu nationalism in India. Systematic trolling armies are unleashed,” hurling rape as well as death threats, said Dr Gopal.

What the two cases had in common, in Dr Gopal’s view, was “men in power using narratives of majority victimhood to entrench themselves and turning it against their detractors”. Furthermore, the basic story that “there are majorities imperilled by minorities” was itself “a narrative put in place by empire”.

Based in Britain since 2001, Dr Gopal was hired by Cambridge to teach south Asian and other international writing and “for many years didn’t talk or write about the empire at all”. In 2006, however, as she describes in her forthcoming book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, she took part in a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week. There she found herself confronted by “the media face of the case for British imperialism, Niall Ferguson” and was a largely lone voice in challenging his “bullish assertions about the greatness of Britain’s imperial project and the benevolence of its legacies”.  

It was this experience – and the limited level of knowledge that students bring to her classes – that alerted Dr Gopal to “a huge gap in discussions of the empire”.

Since her confrontation with Professor Ferguson, she believes that there have been further signs of more sympathetic attitudes to empire returning. This could be seen, for example, in the “balance sheet approach” adopted by academics such as Nigel Biggar, Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford. “To say, we appropriated the land, and, yes, there were some massacres and racial hierarchy, but look at the railways,” as she put it, “strikes me as the most inappropriate way to approach historical events in their complexity.” “The empire was meant to create wealth and appropriate labour and land. If you don’t think about it in those ways, it makes no sense. That is constitutive,” Dr Gopal said.

Dr Gopal’s new book sets out to celebrate the political agency of colonised peoples, its importance in bringing an end to empire and the impact it had on metropolitan liberal and radical thinking. She shows how there was always opposition to empire within the UK and how the anti-imperial struggle forged productive, if often tense, partnerships between activists from Britain and colonised countries.

On today’s debates about decolonising the curriculum, Dr Gopal stressed that “there’s a very clear difference between diversity and decolonisation”. “Just having me lecture on Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy, that’s not going to decolonise the department,” she said.

“We know that English literature [as a discipline] was conceived of as producing English identity in the crucible of empire...Decolonisation is about bringing the question of empire back on the table and saying: what are the multifarious ways in which it has affected how we think, what we teach and who we regard as great, and the ways in which we read and do or do not contextualise the emergence of those texts?” She had also been led to reflect on her own teaching, given that “the authors I taught from India were largely upper-caste Hindus”.  

In her classroom, Dr Gopal has witnessed many students “turning from relatively bland well-meaning people who were open-minded but not especially aware to people who think quite sharply and passionately about issues in the course of a term or two. I have seen them become very critical thinkers.”

Thus, Cambridge’s move to initiate an inquiry into its relationship with slavery was “put on the table” by students, in Dr Gopal’s view.

Heartened “that the inquiry is going to think about Cambridge’s contribution to race science and the racial thinking that underpins slavery”, Dr Gopal would like to see it lead to an acknowledgement that “certain communities and countries carry the blight [of] the legacies of appropriation” and money “put towards a modest acknowledgement of what happened”.  

Such funds could, for example, be used to “facilitate more non-traditional black students – I’m not saying BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic], I mean black students – coming to Cambridge. But you can also make reparations at the level of representation: we have one black faculty member and she is international and not black British, though Asians are very well represented. That is a reparation that can be made as a policy decision without any extra money.”


Print headline: It’s ‘Armageddon’ online if you criticise

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Reader's comments (3)

The fundamental flaw in the author's logic is to infer a lack of ethnic representation as an indicator of social injustice or discrimination. This assumption is unjustified as there is an alternative viable and empirically supported explanation that needs to be examined as well - that is, the lack of equal gender/ethnic (or whatever group/identity based) representation in any profession could be due to an expression of choice and/or talent. For example, there is a reason why certain ethnic groups dominate in certain Olympic sports events (i.e., ethnic differences in anthropometric characteristics play a significant role in the performance of specific sports/performance arts such as ballet). This is what Jordan Peterson is trying to argue - perhaps engage less in ad hominem/name-calling (he is a white privileged male so his arguments are invalid) arguments towards him and focus more on his points?
While I am sympathetic to the broad objectives, I find the concept of decolonising the curriculum somewhat perverse for at least three reasons (right off the top of my head, which suggests here are probably many more as well). First, the idea or aim to 'decolonise' immediately falls back upon the very binaries of Enlightenment thinking that drove Empire itself. As long ago as the 1980s this was recognised and nicely synthesised by Partha Chatterjee (1986) in his book Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. There, he wrote of India's anti-colonial nationalists that there was 'an inherent contradictoriness in nationalist thinking because it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power nationalist thought seeks to repudiate' (p.36). So, can't we not think of anything more creative that a simple de-colonising effort? Second, like decluttering, decolonising suggests a removal (out with the old/bad in with the new/good). Yet such an effort involves executive decisions about what is good and bad and those must necessarily rest upon some sovereign claim to decide. Was it not a feature of the colonial that the (mainly) European empires took for themselves this sovereign right to rule on what was good and bad (using binaries like civilisation vs barbarism, reason vs superstition, etc)? In pursuing our decluttering decolonising do we not thus accept the premise and only challenge case facts on who can decide? That would seem to be a potentially very great error. And finally, rather than sweeping aside or censoring via a decluttering decolonisation of the curriculum, should we not be adding other voices and putting plural ways of viewing the world into active contrast and conversation. Thus, again decades ago now, Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) argued in his book Provincialising Europe that 'European thought is at once both indispensible and inadequate in helping us to think through the experiences of political modernity in non-Western nations' and so the point, he proposed, and I think I agree with him, is not to declaim its forms, it is 'not to reject social science categories but to release into the space occupied by particular European histories sedimented in them other normative and theoretical thought enshrined in other existing life practices and archives. For it is only in this way that we can create plural normative horizons specific to our existence and relevant to the examination of our lives and their possibilities' (p. 16, 20). I don't think what Chakrabarty is offering out as a model could be called decolonising, yet what it holds before us seems to be a wider, fuller and more plural set of opportunities for thought than a movement to remove/redact/decolonise. Some food for thought anyway!
The internet, social media in particular, has brought to light an unpleasant intolerance of any view that is not completely in alignment with one's own. People won't debate, they prefer to screech - often they cannot even be bothered to articulate why they hold the views that they do, never mind explain what they find incorrect in someone else's thinking. They also fail to discriminate between opinions and the people holding them - if one of your views isn't in alignment with theirs, then you are quite beyond the pale even if you share opnions on other topics. Then of course we have this distressing tendency to judge people in the past in the light of opinions of today. I often wonder what opinions we take for granted today will be viewed as abhorrent by people in a centuary or two. We grow and evolve, individually and as a people. Concepts like imperialism and colonialism, which Romans and indeed Victorians accepted as the norm, the 'bringing of civilisation to the unelightened' as well as lining their own pockets, are now things that the global mindset has moved on from, and no nation would dream of doing such a thing today. But that's now, not then. Finally, I do hope Gopal's students are becoming genuine critical thinkers, not just slavishly accepting her interpretations any more than they might have accepted other opinions before they took her class. See my first point about the social media mindset that cannot comprehend a variance in opinion.


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