The Case for Contrarianism

Oliver Traldi in Quillette:

Third-World-Another semester, another academic publishing scandal, complete with calls for penitence and punishment. This time the catalyst is “The Case for Colonialism,” a “Viewpoint” editorial in Third World Quarterly. In this essay, Bruce Gilley argued that “it is high time to question [the anti-colonial] orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts.” Gilley’s article has since been withdrawn due to “serious and credible threats of personal violence” made against the journal’s editor. This obviously troubling development should make us wonder: just what evil would this article have brought about if not withdrawn? The Streisand effect is in full display here. The article – detailed, abstruse, and not always beautifully written – has no doubt been far more widely read than it would have been without the controversy.

The publication of “The Case for Colonialism” faced criticism on several grounds: it was offensive; it was unscholarly; the journal did not follow its normal procedures in publishing it (now officially disputed by the publisher); the journal is a special venue for anti-colonial perspectives. This last one is particularly reminiscent of last spring’s Hypatia affair. As in that case, we should be skeptical of appeals to “academic standards” in political disciplines. Often such standards are simply substantive moral or political stances for which the field provides a “safe space”. In a representative attack on the article’s scholarly quality, Sahar Khan says that “the article seems like a bad joke. Can someone, a scholar no less, actually make a case for colonialism?”. A petition asserts that its “goal is to raise academic publishing standards and integrity,” but then calls on Third World Quarterly‘s editors to “apologize for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism”. And a letter of resignation from some members of the journal’s editorial board even suggests that “caus[ing] offence and hurt . . . clearly violates [the] principle of free speech”.

More here.