The Biggar Issue: the duty of the academic in public debate

This post was originally published on this site

It is not often I am kept awake at night by something an academic has written. At the start of this year, I have found my sleep interrupted on consecutive nights by disquiet about a brief article. It appeared last week in the Oxford Magazine and is by Nigel Biggar.

The Magazine is, as it explains, ‘not an official publication of the University of Oxford’ and the presence of a piece in its pages does not imply the support of the editors, let alone any official endorsement by the University, for its position. The author in question may, as the saying goes, need no introduction, as his name appeared in headlines late last year. Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, he is the lead investigator in a project established last June to study ‘Ethics and Empire’. The views he has publicly expressed on the issue of morality of imperial actions have created a controversy and the article just printed takes the opportunity to reflect on that. It is in a manner that will not close down the debate but, instead, ensure it continues. It may be that should be welcomed, as deeper reflection on the legacy of empire could be salutary. My purpose in writing is not to engage directly in that important discussion but to consider the style in which the discussion is occurring. What has disturbed me and what makes me feel I cannot stay silent is that this most recent article displays the ‘rhetorical indiscipline’ its author finds unwelcome in others — or, rather, in its deployment of certain rhetorical techniques, it seems to me to be guilty of intellectual dishonesty.

This is not a claim that I wish to level against anyone but the printed text makes it difficult to avoid that conclusion. If one were to believe Prof. Biggar’s description, the controversy was created by an unwarranted attack on him and his research by an open letter, signed by fifty-eight Oxford academics. We have here an attempt to appropriate victimhood to himself, but this is no more convincing than the assertion of Cabinet Ministers during the 2016 Leave Campaign that they were ‘the people’ versus ‘the establishment’. He calls the open letter ‘a declaration of war’ but its immediate casus belli is not mentioned: that was a comment piece in Prof. Biggar’s name which appeared in The Times on 30th November 2017. It ran under the strapline ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’. Prof. Biggar himself would obviously not have been responsible for that title but he has at no point disavowed it. Many a casual observer would have assumed from those words that the article saw positive value in the British Empire, a position which is already a stock-in-trade of reactionary politics. It cannot sit well, then, with the University of Oxford’s efforts to emphasise that it is not, by its nature, a reactionary institution but, on the contrary, an inclusive place for all, whatever their ethnic or social background. The timing, appearing just before the Oxford admissions process was taking place, when those efforts have an especial importance, could not be more damaging. In that context, it is unsurprising that many responded to an article with exasperation or even anger.

Reviewing the fracas that followed, Prof. Biggar complains: ‘none of the signatories had take the trouble to raise their objections with me directly, face-to-face.’ This would have some traction, if it had been shown how Prof. Biggar had attempted to engage with these colleagues in the preceding months or if he had described how he had solicited opinions of his article for The Times before publication. That he has not provided any such evidence leaves open the worry that this is another rhetorical manoeuvre.

The deployment of these argumentative techniques is disappointing because it distracts from the valid points that Prof. Biggar has to make. For instance, he notes that the lead author of the open letter, Prof. James McDougall, has stated that moral assessments are ‘for most historians, irrelevant as well as inadequate’. Prof. Biggar responds by rightly points out how difficult it is for any scholar not to approach a subject with their own moral assumptions. In fact, if the study of the past requires dispassionate analysis, we might say that some topics are so laden with present resonance — are so unavoidably political — that the defy the distance and perspective that historical assessment requires. Those areas of study cannot, though, be sealed off from research and, of course, it is on those very issues that there is a public thirst for intellectual reflection. As a result, we have a duty to investigate, as conscious as possible of our own presuppositions, making them explicit and helping our readers appreciate the thought-processes which move us beyond prejudice to informed and rational assessment. It seems to me that such a method has been sadly absent in this debate.

This leads me back to the article which originally sparked the controversy, that in last November’s Times. It is perhaps in the nature of a comment piece which a newspaper is willing to publish that it is expected to be stronger in asserting a position rather than building up a tentative argument — and there possibly lies a fundamental difficulty for any academic in the public eye. The necessary caveats, the reservations, the expression of probabilities rather than certainties — these are too rarely what public discourse want to hear. The fourth estate turns to ‘experts’ so that they provide ex-cathedra statements which then can be waved as if they were piece of evidence or, equally as often, derided as merely the opinion of an expert. This obviously has become the fate of Prof. Biggar’s piece, but how it is written did little to protect against that fate.

As with its title, it may be that the text of the article has been mauled out of recognition from its first draft by the work of sub-editors and the demands of being confined to column inches. Even taking that into account, there are two elements to it which are so fundamental that they must come from Prof. Biggar’s pen. One is the certainty with which a position is asserted. The article is written less than six months in to the five-year project on ‘Ethics and Empire’ but it sounds as if the major conclusion of that project has already been reached. The article reads as post-rationalisation of an attitude already engrained, rather than a raising of questions for further investigation through the course of the project.

The second element involves the sense of the present use of the conclusion. Prof. Biggar suggests that shame at Britain’s imperial history is a negative emotion which should be counter-balanced by the positive quality of pride. ‘We British’, it is said, can take ‘pride at the Royal Navy’s century-long suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, for example’. Leaving aside the debate this claim has created about a ‘balance-sheet’ of good and evil acts of empire, my concern is the concept of ‘we British’. We are a nation enriched by the influx of Irish after the Potato Famine, Jews fleeing oppression from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1930s, passengers on the Windrush, post-War émigrés from the Indian subcontinent, Eastern Europeans who have taken up citizenship since 2000, as well as recent refugees from oppressive regimes. For a substantial proportion of ‘us British’, an imperial past has little relevance or, if it does, it is as the colonised rather than the coloniser. For them, the imposition of an identity that focuses on empire will alienate rather than embrace. To talk of ‘we British’ in a manner which assumes a monocultural tradition is, at best, woefully outdated.

Prof. Biggar, in response to the controversy, has stressed his right to freedom of speech. It is the case that academics should ask difficult questions and should not shy from saying what is not popular. There is, at the same time, for an intellectual who is trained in standards of evidential and logical reasoning, a responsibility to display those skills in debate, whatever the provocation to do otherwise. My fear is that this has not occurred in this case, that point-scoring has taken precedence over careful development of a valid point. Perhaps this is difficult to avoid when the quality of public debate at the moment is too often woeful. Academics have a duty to improve that, rather than to coarsen it further. We must suggest a solution, not be part of the problem.