Professor Priyamvada GopalThe Laura Flanders Show (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, at 0:47)

Does there exist, in all the world, a single person or institution whose stature has improved since they began to use Twitter? QCs were revered for their fastidious wisdom – and then Jolyon Maugham clubbed a fox to death while wearing his wife’s kimono. Political punditry once had a grubby charm – and then we became privy to the humdrum of Dan Hodges’s shower thoughts. Richard Dawkins could have matured into a national treasure – if only he had managed to resist the seductive chirrups of that blue bird. Presidents neutered, governments felled, livelihoods destroyed in 280 characters: how many reputations have gone the way of Maugham’s fox?

“The Twitter ecosystem isn’t meritocratic: it rewards outrage”

No one is safe, least of all the Oxbridge dons. Perhaps they should go cold turkey. But as the dog returns to his vomit, so academics return to Twitter. Cooped up in stone halls, they yearn for an influential platform. On Twitter they can attempt the coveted leap from cloistered academe to ‘public intellectual’ status and all that it entails: appearances on Radio 4; columns in the Guardian; improved book sales; invitations to the Oxford (or Cambridge) Union. But the Twitter ecosystem isn’t meritocratic: it rewards outrage, encourages emotion, and splinters into echo-chambers that stew in their own dogmas. It is, in short, an unscholarly environment, which does scholars a disservice.

“What’s she done now?” I sighed a few days ago, as my own Twitter feed became inundated with students musing on Priyamvada Gopal’s latest antics. Perhaps something incendiary, like tweeting “White Lives Don’t Matter – as white lives”. Or bigoted, like “invit[ing] Western countries to block naturalisation for Hindus” and calling Hindus “sickos”. Or something borderline, but doubtless in poor taste, like comparing Tony Sewell, the chair of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, to Joseph Goebbels.

Prof. Gopal – or, more accurately, her online persona, for I have no idea what she is like in real life – has a curious knack for undermining potentially reasonable arguments with spasms of foulness. She alleges, for instance, that the Home Secretary is a racist. But rather than making a fair argument to that effect, adducing Priti Patel’s policies, she connects her prejudices to her East African Asian origins. In other words, Patel is racist because of her race – which sounds quite racist to me, but perhaps I am not sufficiently well-versed in Theory. This bore more than a passing resemblance to one of our Prime Minister’s infamous utterances: that President Obama, being “part-Kenyan”, nursed an “ancestral dislike” of Britain.

Cambridge’s Professor of Postcolonial Studies has a particular obsession with Asians who dare disagree with her. But rather than debating them on matters of substance, she points instead to accidents of their identity in order to discredit them altogether. She notes, for instance, that Munira Mirza’s name is “outright ‘ashraf’ or nobility”. It doesn’t matter to Prof. Gopal – who, incidentally, is a Brahmin – that Mirza is a second-generation Pakistani immigrant from a working-class Oldham background. What matters is the etymology of her surname. There is something chilling in the implication that she keeps tabs on the conjectural caste of every right-wing South Asian who succeeds in public life – or, as she calls them, “sycophants of colour”.


Mountain View

Caius historian slams ‘insulting’ Gopal racism claim

In the latest iteration of Gopal-gate, her points are again suffocated by specious appeals to identity. David Abulafia, formerly chair of Cambridge’s history faculty, penned an article lamenting the acquittal of the “Colston Four”. Prof. Gopal could, if she so desired, have engaged with him properly: she could have argued that Prof. Abulafia understated Edward Colston’s involvement in the slave-trade, or that he neglected the circumstances of his statue’s construction. So accomplished a historian as Prof. Abulafia would, I am sure, have welcomed the discussion.

But that isn’t Prof. Gopal’s style. Instead, she alleges that Prof. Abulafia’s use of the adjective “eloquent”, to describe David Olusoga, possesses some hidden racist meaning. If this is a racist microagression, Prof. Gopal was presumably guilty of it too, when she used the same word to describe Benjamin Zephaniah.

How, I wonder, should one refer to a scholar with whom one disagrees, but whom one respects, if not with terms like “eloquent”? Perhaps the notion that an academic could respect someone they disagree with is, for Prof. Gopal, an absurdity.

“There has been no greater beneficiary of the policy she so bitterly opposed”

Just over a year ago, Prof. Gopal argued for a free speech policy at this University that would require everyone to be “respectful of the differing opinions and diverse identities of others”. There, again, her arguments were riddled with bad faith, as she accused her opponents of being puppets of Toby Young (and Peter Thiel). She even managed to get the UCU on-side, before they were crushed in a landslide vote at the Regent House. Then she baselessly suggested that her side’s defeat was “government-engineered”.

I am, by virtue of my liberalism, enormously relieved that the vote went the way it did. There are plenty of people in Cambridge whom I disrespect, and it is good that I am now required only to “tolerate” them. But there is, I admit, a tiny part of me that wishes Prof. Gopal had got her way – if only to see how she now would fare, as one so habitually disrespectful of others. There has been no greater beneficiary of the policy she so bitterly opposed.