Support historians targeted in culture wars, says David Olusoga

Scholars attacked for research into colonialism and atrocities of empire need professional support and counselling, says broadcaster

November 25, 2021
David Olusoga at THE Live 2021

Universities must better support academics who find themselves under attack for their research into the atrocities of colonialism, a leading historian has said.

David Olusoga, professor of public history at the University of Manchester, told the Times Higher Education THE Campus Live event that “we are living in a moment when the work of scholars is regarded as fissile material that can be drawn into electoral calculations by political players”.

A key responsibility of universities was their duty of care “to protect and to support academic staff who are subjected to levels of misrepresentation of their work and personal targeted attacks”, he explained.

This has particularly been the case for historians who research race, empire or colonialism. Politicians looking for a fight do not care about historical accuracy or complexity, particularly if their assertions about history play well in focus groups, Professor Olusoga warned.

“These new history wars have the warped logic of a witch trial; their aim is to convince people that they are being oppressed by the irrefutable facts of their own national histories, such as slavery in America, or the British Empire,” he said.

There was now a “surgical targeting” of which aspects of culture and history and historians are tolerated and which are not, he continued. “They involve misrepresenting historians, creators and curators of historical knowledge, as wreckers and radicals and portraying the legitimate process of historical research and reassessment, whether carried out by heritage organisation or charity as ‘the rewriting of history’,” he said.

In the UK, universities as institutions have emerged relatively unscathed in the debates about decolonisation and empire because the key targets in the culture wars are other institutions: charities, museums and individuals, Professor Olusoga explained. Unlike in the US, where universities are specifically under attack, research shows that British universities are still regarded as trustworthy institutions by most of the public.

He pointed to the example of the recent report by the National Trust into the history of colonialism and slavery of the charity’s properties, which led to “anti-woke” campaigners complaining that the National Trust was “trampling on [British] history”.

“Attacking historians who dare to examine the role of slavery or imperialism in the creation of Britain, the nation’s wealth and our culture conveniently creates new enemies,” he said. “When these historians in question turned out to be women, as was the case with the National Trust’s Colonial Countryside project, the tone of these attacks became personal, hysterical, and tinged with misogyny.”

“There needs to be professional support,” Professor Olusoga said, arguing that universities should bring professionals in to support those who have been attacked and provide them with counselling.

If an academic writes a paper and it is picked up on Twitter, they can quickly come under the same kind of attack as someone with a much stronger support system – and it was instant, Professor Olusoga pointed out.

“It’s an incredibly destabilising experience”, he said. “Universities need to recognise that there is need for counselling and media support.”

Historians have been slow to recognise that politicians – and certain sections of the media – looking for a fight do not care about historical accuracy or complexity, Professor Olusoga said.

“As historians, we think facts will win. It’s sadly not the case. We don’t have the delivery systems of newspapers. Facts don’t cut through as we think they will. We are often screaming into the wind.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Culture wars: scholars need support, says historian

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