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How free should free speech be?

31 Dec

In the run-up to the Christmas of 2017, a flaming row broke out at Oxford University when 58 academics criticised a professor for arguing that Britain’s imperial history was not entirely shameful.    Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, was slated by his colleagues and students after writing an article in The Times calling for a more nuanced appraisal of colonial times.

Oxford University defended the professor, denounced by students and the academics as “bigoted” because he wrote that if people believe in “strident anti-colonialist” it could lead to a feeling of guilt that makes the public “vulnerable to wilful manipulation”.

Common Ground, a race rights group based in Oxford, described the article as “racist” and accused Professor Biggar of “whitewashing” the British Empire. A letter on the group’s website said: “We stand in solidarity” with those who have criticised Professor Biggar following his article headlined “Our colonial history and guilt over empire”. The academic “implies that colonised societies had no political order prior to colonisation, invoking a racist, hackneyed and fictional trope about the nature of pre-colonial societies”.

Professor Biggar’s column was prompted by criticism of an article by Bruce Gilley, a political scientist at Portland State University, who argued that it was time to question the orthodox view that western colonialism “has a bad name”. Professor Biggar concluded: “Bruce Gilley’s case for colonialism calls for us British to moderate our post-imperial guilt.”

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