Last summer, the United Kingdom witnessed a sustained attempt to silence one of our most eloquent political voices. The attach was directed not at a speaker from the centre- or far-right, but at am intellectual associated with the left. The Cambridge academic and author of a superb history of the British Empire and its critics, Priyamvada Gopal, was accused of having employed hate speech and, after hundreds of complaints, her Twitter account was briefly suspended. The story began on 23 June 2020, when Gopal had posted on Twitter the following message: “I’ll say it again. White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives.” The day before, supporters of Burnley Football Club had paid for an aircraft to fly a banner above their ground as their team played: “White Lives Matter Burnley”. (The club distanced itself from the stunt and banned its organiser from the club for life).
Both American and British politics had been polarised since the death of George Floyd, with advocates of racial equality complaining that the police were repeatedly killing young black men and women, while their opponents insisted that it was in principle wrong – and on occasion hateful – to demand that the state treat black people no worse than they treated whites.
Gopal’s tweet was intended to summarise in just a few words a point she has made repeatedly elsewhere, including in a comment piece for the Guardian. In her words: “White lives already matter more than others so to keep proclaiming they matter is to add excess value to them, tilting us dangerously into white supremacy. This doesn’t mean that all white people in western societies are materially well-off or don’t experience hardship, but that they don’t do so by virtue of the fact that they are white. Black lives remain undervalued and in order for us to get to the desirable point where all lives (really do) matter, they must first achieve parity by mattering. It’s not really that hard to understand unless you choose not to.”
Some 15,000 people responded to Gopal’s message on Twitter; most of them with hostile comments of their own. I’ll say that again: some 15,000 people responded… Her employer and the police were inundated with demands her sacking and arrest. Since Gopal’s original post had been by no means unpleasant, it was rapidly supplanted by further fake tweets, purporting to have been written by her, including one that her readers should “carry out a resolute offensive against the whites, break their resistance, eliminate them.”
Some but by no means all of the messages directed against Gopal were ultimately taken down by Twitter. After that, Gopal’s harassers took to emailing her directly at her university address. Gopal herself therefore took the unusual step of posting more than ninety of those emails online, including repeated threats to rape or murder her: “You will be the first to perish…” “Go and neck yourself before someone else does…” “We know where you live, we know your way to work…” And there were dozens and dozens more messages of this sort.
Right-wing journalist Douglas Murray (pictured) attacked Gopal. He attacked her for complaining about having received death threats (“a renowned cry-bully move”). What was she supposed to do, take those threats in silence – or indeed welcome them meekly, like the grateful natives of British imperialist fantasy?
Murray called Gopal a “racist” for standing up to bigotry. And, while not directly calling for her dismissal from the University, he made it clear that such an act would be wholly appropriate: “Surely nobody who acts in such a deranged and deliberately provocative manner could possibly have any role at an institution of higher learning?”
The Daily Mail agreed, with its journalist Amanda Platell claiming that Gopal “supports and endorses the subjugation and persecution of white people” and that she was “incit[ing] an aggressive and potentially violent race war”. Faced with the threat of libel proceedings and belatedly grasping the very high likelihood that it would lose, the Mail apologised, and paid Gopal £25,000 compensation.
Over the past five years, it has been more common for anti-racist lecturers to be dismissed by their university than protected. We might compare Gopal to the American political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher, who, annoyed by the offensive claim that the mere presence of black people in that country amounted to an actual or imminent “white genocide”, decided to expose the conspiracy theory by pretending to take at face value, and tweeted in December 2016, “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” On this occasion, Drexel University sided with the critics, calling the professor “utterly reprehensible” and “deeply disturbing”, and placing him on administrative leave. After multiple death threats and threats to attack his family, Ciccariello-Maher resigned his university post.
There were two distinct ways in which Gopal and Ciccariello-Maher might have defended themselves. In the first, they might have argued that the accusations against them of racism were false. They were speaking against hate speech, and the accusations against them of bigotry were manifestly bogus. The difficulty with this approach is that it requires an adjudicator motivated by good faith and with a minimal political intelligence so that they are capable of distinguishing racism from anti-racism. As the case of these two universities makes clear, that is a considerable assumption. Many administrators concede in the face of right-wing social media trolls.
In the second approach, Gopal and Ciccariello-Maher might have argued that there is such a thing as free speech, and that this is a demand which should (in theory) protect the left as well as it protects the right, and that it ought to protect left-wing teachers against hostile outside critics demanding their removal from their posts. Yet neither used “free speech” in that way and it is worth thinking though why not. The simplest reason is that all participants in contemporary political debate have become used to a highly ideological conception of free speech, so that when genuine free-speech crises occur outside that context, almost no-one in politics (on either the left and right) is capable of recognising them as such.
Let me give another example: the history of the post-fascist British far right began effectively, in 2009, when a homecoming march by British soldiers was disrupted by a group of political Muslims in Luton seeking, in their own way, to highlight the cruelty of the Iraq war. Waving placards and denouncing soldiers, they antagonised Luton residents to such an extent that a movement of far-right protesters, the English Defence League, was born. How would Tommy Robinson, the leader of the EDL have responded if one of his supporters had approached and said that the principle of free expression is universal and protects all speech, even a (rhetorical) attack on British soldiers?
To ask the question is to answer it. Of course, any such argument would have been rejected with derision. Of course, free speech is for whites, and not for Muslims. And, in this part of his politics, Robinson was no extremist. Rather he was in line with a policy consensus that stretches from the far right to the large majority of British liberals at the centre of politics and to our state, which in programmes such as Prevent polices Muslim speech and threatens with imprisonment those who test the boundaries of what can be said.
The example of Islamist speech illustrates what is in fact a general phenomenon. In contemporary discourse, we have all taught ourselves to understand that free speech applies to certain situations but not to others. It applies to people seeking a platform to speak within a university, i.e. coming from outside. It does not apply to anyone (whether a student or a lecturer) who is already there. It applies to the leaders of right-wing parties who want to employ social media to advance their positions without having to deal with the problem of anyone arguing back against them. It applies to monologues but not to dialogues. It applies to the instigators of political arguments, and not to those who disagree with them, who criticise, or who heckle.
There is seemingly no space within our “free speech” debates to recognise that the people criticising hate speech are themselves speaking, or that any serious application of a right to free expression must protect them too. “Free speech” applies only to the white racist and never to their anti-racist critic. And, because we have all drifted into this shared assumption that only one person’s speech rights can be protected at a time, critics of racism or other forms of bigotry unsurprisingly tend to see “free speech” as a politics which is incapable of shielding them.
There is a longer history to these conflicts. For centuries, free speech was a cause associated with the left. Centre-right discourse around free speech changed quickly, in Britain and America, from the 1960s onwards (in the aftermath of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Chicago 7 and Oz trials). After many years of seeing free speech as of limited and partial value, something which the right was obliged to accomodate to but without enthusiasm, conservatives began to use free speech discourse actively. Then, from 1989-90 onwards, the right began to treat free speech as an indicator of which side you belonged to: George Bush supported free speech, while “politically correct” students were accused of abandoning constitutional principles. If the students demanded the right to express an opinion, then by definition their demands were not really “free speech” claims, but something else and unworthy of protection.
Since 2016, there has been a further shift in our shared understanding of free speech, so that it has become a value around which conservative and those further to their right can co-operate. Our ordinary “free speech” debate assumes something like the scenario with which this book opened. The body issuing the invitation is a part of the mainstream right: a group of college Republicans inviting Milo or someone further to their right – even a fascist. Everyone has become so familiar to that scenario that we forget that free speech might be employed in other contexts: in defence of a worker’s employment, or by the left as well as the right.
(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).