In Defence of Priyamvada Gopal | Adam Garrie

Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal has recently found herself at the centre of a Twitter storm for Tweeting the following: “I’ll say it again. White lives don’t matter…. As white lives”. Although the final part of the Tweet does not seem to mean anything at all from a purely linguistic perspective, the beginning of the Tweet is clear enough. The message is almost certainly designed to provoke and inflame and insofar as this is the case, it was mission accomplished for Priyamvada Gopal. But then something happened that was so surreal, it makes one wonder whether there are any sane societal and political observers left in the land?

As Donald Trump has correctly said, social media companies have a clear left-wing bias. This should not be surprising. Most social media companies are based in ultra-left-wing cities of northern California and beyond this, many such companies are keen to break into the lucrative Chinese marketplace. When one realises this, it is logical that such companies are keen to censor Donald Trump (and those of a similar viewpoint) whilst encouraging the proliferation of left-wing sentiments that are often voiced on China’s internationally aimed state media. All that is missing is a latter-day Orson Welles to lampoon the absurd Citizen Kanes of Silicon Valley (or is it Sinocon Valley), but alas, we are not living in an age capable of producing a Welles like character.

Whilst political bias is inevitable from all quarters, unlike the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, Twitter and Facebook are not formally classed as publishers. Instead, they are given special legal protections from what would otherwise be constant litigation. This is accomplished by the classification of social media companies as platforms under US law. This however also gives such platforms a duty of care not to promote, censor or suppress any particular set of political viewpoints. By contrast, an online publisher could be dedicated exclusively to conservative views or exclusively to left-wing views.

This legal distinction between platforms and publishers which Donald Trump seeks to enforce and strengthen is crucial because it means that a platform must act as a haven for free speech. As such, it seems anathema that Twitter and Facebook continue to act as publishers whilst expecting the legal protections offered to platforms.

But whilst the above makes for an important legal argument, perhaps more important in the long term is the moral argument for free speech. If one accepts and welcomes the plurality of the marketplace of ideas, one must also accept that this will lead to adversarial and even confrontational arguments within this marketplace, just as sure as in the less controversial marketplace of fast food, KFC is in competition with Burger King.

If one accepts the free market realities of competition between supermarkets, clothing shops, car markers and telecom providers, it should only be natural to accept the same within the context of the marketplace of ideas. And yet whilst most people have no problem with Primark and Marks and Spencer coexisting in the high street, they strangely seem to have a problem with competing ideas coexisting in the marketplace of ideas.

It is undeniable that the left have taken it upon themselves to promote a fiercely tyrannical regime of censorship that was once called “political correctness” and is now largely referred to as “woke”. That said, conservatives have shown themselves to be no less immature and for this revelation, I owe a debt of gratitude to Priyamvada Gopal.

Gopal’s Tweet was guaranteed to inflame conservatives and most moderate minded people in the context of the strange culture war and race riots that have gripped much of the western world in the wake of the Great Lockdown. And yet, I was perhaps naively hoping that conservatives and moderates would respond to Gopal’s provocation by saying “I disagree with what she says but I shall defend her absolute right to say it”. More fool me!

As soon as Gopal’s Tweet went “viral”, a substantial amount of people who defend the free speech of every inflammatory statement coming from the far-right began calling for her to be expelled from Twitter, to lose her job and some even called for her arrest. The hypocrisy is staggering. Many of the same people who defended a Tommy Robinson supporter’s right to display an aeroplane banner saying “white lives matter” called for the censorship of Priyamvada Gopal who simply stated the opposite of that which was displayed by the aeroplane flying over a football match.

It matters not that Gopal’s left wing views are more aligned with the people who operate Twitter than those with right wing views. What matters is the principle that if one wants free speech for his or herself, one cannot then deny that same right to anyone else. It is therefore all the odder that those with a history of being on the receiving end of Silicon Valley censorship are so eagerly calling for the censorship of a left wing academic.

When all is said and done, I not only defend Priyamvada Gopal’s right to free speech whether on the Twitter “platform” or elsewhere, but I would like to personally thank her. With one provocative Tweet, she helped to expose much of the so-called conservative “Twitter sphere” as a group of utter hypocrites who see freedom of expression as a kind of vulgar political football rather than an inalienable right that cannot be abrogated on the basis of any one ideology.

Those calling for censorship of their opponents imagine that in the near future, they will be able to wield North Korean style totalitarian powers over their opponents. But in reality, most western societies are thankfully more nuanced (for now) than the regime in Pyongyang. As such, one cannot be sure of tomorrow’s political and social zeitgeist. Those winning the censorship battle today might be on the losing end in future. It is therefore a matter of pragmatism as much as principle to defend the absolute freedom of speech for all people. If free speech is strengthened, the bell of censorship will never toll at all – not for the right and not for the left. This is as it should be. 

Photo by Kathleen on Flickr.

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