Last week, ThinkFest, a literature festival convened by the Information Technology University (ITU), hosted Niall Ferguson, an academic well known for his views on empire — those views being in favour of it. In particular, Ferguson celebrates the British Empire, arguing in favour of the benefits it brought to the places and people the British colonised, and providing a strange calculus for comparing and contrasting British colonialism with other empires past. The calculus, in his opinion, comes out in Britain’s benefit and our loss.

Several of my colleagues and I, from a variety of disciplines including history, sociology, and anthropology, criticised ThinkFest’s decision to provide a local platform to Niall Ferguson. Our view, roundly, was that Ferguson’s pro-colonialism views could not be set aside, overlooked, or excused, even if his talk touched on apparently unrelated topics. This was a moral argument at a time when black people across the world are protesting the lasting legacies of colonialism, the chief of which is a world ordered on the basis of race.

The principle upon which this moral position is based is simply this: that there is a global consensus on colonialism as having been, roundly and without qualification, a system of oppression, exploitation, and violence, and which requires — locally — an unequivocal position; that we could not tolerate any defence of a racist system of occupation, governance, and extraction. Colonialism, to put it simply, was a historical crime.

Nevertheless, several learned colleagues from the legal profession and academia were quick to point out that ThinkFest, as a private forum, had the absolute right to invite any speaker of their choosing. This, they pointed out, was the entire point of the right and principle of free speech for all. And that, if we disagreed with ThinkFest’s decision of speaker, we were obstructing the right to free speech for a private forum. Finally, they argued that, though one could not necessarily abide by Ferguson’s pro-colonial views, the remedy to bad speech is more speech. Indeed, that free speech requires a free marketplace of ideas where all views, right or wrong, can be debated with vigour, and be proved right or wrong as is their measure.

When some sections of society opposed ThinkFest’s invitation to a controversial historian who romanticises colonialism, were they really opposing the free marketplace of ideas? Why was their criticism taken as such a threat that it had to be shut down completely

Of these arguments, these colleagues are only correct as to their first contention — that the right to free speech provides ITU, or any other institution, the right to invite any speaker of their choosing, to speak on any topic of their choosing, except if such topic is prohibited by law, as is hate speech or an exception to permissible free speech under law. 

Indeed, the talk went forward, as was ThinkFest’s intention, and no amount of criticism or opposition to their speaker ever held the power to infringe upon this right. Nor was it ever the intent to do so. In any case, constitutional protections generally serve to protect private individuals and their associations from government overreach. The theory behind this is simple: that the constitution is a legal document that recognises the unequal relationship between a state and an individual, and seeks to provide that individual, powerless by comparison, protection against the tyranny of an otherwise unlimited state.

Criticism of an academic conference by private actors does not graduate to state intervention in protected speech acts. Nor, more importantly, even though this is an irrelevant fact to the legal calculus, has anyone sought to forcibly stop Ferguson’s talk on a virtual campus. The gist of it is this: that critique and objection to a public position taken by an academic institution is not by any means an infringement of free speech under law.

The world is moving on. Caribbean countries are suing for reparations from Britain for slavery and colonialism. Racial tenets are being challenged everywhere. Pro-colonialism views and ideas of racial difference are no longer an acceptable opinion to hold.

Alternatively, our colleagues argue that the principle of free speech demands that all views be entertained without qualification, that all views should be heard and be allowed to organically burn themselves out if they carry no fuel. This reasoning, while tempting, is also wanting. In a society of equal resources, equal distributions of power and equal allocations of resources, such a fictional marketplace of ideas could easily exist. Views would be exchanged without having an impact on anyone’s material lives, and differences would be resolved by spirited debate.

Another reason, of course, why this notion, born out of a liberal ideal of the arrangement of society, is tempting in our context, is because we have been witness to routine efforts at intimidation, gangster tactics to silence people’s right to speak their truth. For my colleagues on the other side of this debate, most alarming is the prospect that any criticism of the principle of free speech would excuse those on the other side of thought — the conservatives and religious right — to also be justified in objecting to ThinkFest’s choice of speaker next time. And perhaps these conservatives would go one step further, and shut down these few remaining fora for intellectual debate by force.

In the context of imperfect state power, our colleagues see this, perhaps rightly, as a very real threat, and argue that the best protection is to tie ourselves to the mast of the principle of free speech so tightly that any attempt to critique it is seen as an existential threat. Ruled by fear, our colleagues leave not even room for the freedom of speech to operate. They permit no criticism at all of the speech they champion, and use free speech as a pretext to bludgeon all opposition dead.

The consequence, in the Niall Ferguson debacle, is this: that pro-colonialism views are excused, set aside or overlooked as long as they lead to a good debate. We do not accept that. Colonialism has been, and is, a historical crime. It was a political system of violence, plunder, and exploitation. As early as 1902, the venerable Dadabhai Naoroji was writing of the draining of India’s resources by the British. Laws were created on the basis of imagined racial differences. The legal theorist Nasser Hussain has written of how the edifice of criminal and civil law was constructed on the notion of the Indian native as indolent, incapable of productive output, and generally inferior.

The legacy of colonialism is also lasting. We live with it: the chronic lack of resources, an innate sense of inferiority that all formerly colonised natives suffered, and a repressive machinery of laws and state that was created to hold the natives in their rightful place in the hierarchy of races.

The world is moving on. Caribbean countries are suing for reparations from Britain for slavery and colonialism. Racial tenets are being challenged everywhere. Pro-colonialism views and ideas of racial difference are no longer an acceptable opinion to hold. We can have our freedom of speech and still hold, morally, that some ideas that have historically and empirically been proven to be outrageous are not debated any longer. The moment demands it.

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Lawat LUMS and tweets @EmadAnsariH

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 28th, 2020