Last week, Third World Quarterly, a development studies journal, published an article by Bruce Gilley titled ‘The case for Colonialism.’ In his piece, Gilley not only claimed that Colonialism was good, but he went on to argue that we need a new program for colonialism. The publication of this article was followed by the protests against it by numerous scholars and members of the editorial board of the Third World Quarterly journal. A change.org petition asking for the retraction of the article has more than 10,000 signatures as of now. Today, 16 members of the International Editorial Board of the journal resigned after the journal issued an untruthful response and didn’t retract the piece. In their statement, the members of the board said that,
“We are deeply disappointed by the unacceptable process around the publication of Bruce Gilley’s Viewpoint essay, ‘The case for colonialism,’ which was published in Third World Quarterly without any consultation with the Editorial Board. As International Editorial Board Members, we were told in an email on September 15 from Shahid Qadir that this piece was put through the required double-blind peer review process. We asked for these reviews to be sent to the Editorial Board, and they were not.”
“We fully disagree with both the academic content of the Viewpoint and the response issued in the name of the journal; we are forced to resign immediately from the Editorial Board of Third World Quarterly.”
In the debates that followed the publication of the essay, two things have come up. The first is that if the journal should have published the piece or not. Vijay Prashad, one of the members of the International Editorial Board, explained the history of the Third World Quarterly in a twitter thread. He writes,
“The journal was started as an intellectual venue for the anti-colonial thought, to build ideas against colonialism. The values of the journal are rooted in the era after colonialism but when imperialism remained; to have an imperialist essay in a journal with this history is the abomination. Third World Quarterly is the home of the Third World Prize, the Edward Said Prize; the home, in other words, of values against this essay.”
The journal in its statement has said that Gilley’s article went through the double-blind peer review process and hence the publication is justified. But, the members of the editorial board have found out that the reviewers who initially examined the piece rejected it and found it unfit to be sent for additional peer review. Further, the essay has also been criticised by other scholars for lacking empirical evidence and for its historical inaccuracies. The journal must answer why it still chose to go ahead with the publication of the article.
The second is that in asking for the retraction of the piece if we are curbing the freedom of speech of the writer of the article; this is not that complicated an issue as it sounds. The freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee that every person should get a mainstream platform to publish their views. In the case of Third World Quarterly, the content is held to a certain standard and when the essay by Gilley failed to provide reliable findings, it should, to maintain the norms the journal subscribes to, not have been published by the journal in the first place. Now that it has been published, the retraction and a formal explanation is the only way forward for the journal.
The question of the censorship and freedom of speech would have arisen if the people who are protesting against the article had asked for a total ban on the publication of the said essay. Gilley will find suitable people who would gladly publish his essay without even caring for the review process. There are popular right-wing online websites dedicated just to this task. This is not the first time that any scholar has made an argument in praise of the colonialism, nor it is the first time when colonialism lovers have appeared in the public spaces. In a YouGov poll in 2014, more than 50% people in the UK said that they are proud of the British Empire and Colonialism has done more good than bad in the colonies. The ‘censorship’ narrative is a false narrative that the right-wing loves to create when it gets criticised in the public domain. Portia Roelogs and Max Gallien, in a piece for LSE Impact blog, have tried to analyze the click-bait aspect to such essays. In their opinion piece, they have sought to illustrate that the deliberately provocative articles such as Gilley’s essay, influence academia; the focus on the clicks and views takes the front seat and the rigour research that should be must for any publication loses the game.
I would like to conclude by saying that it was totally wrong on the part of Third World Quarterly that it published such a shoddy essay; only way forward for them is the retraction of the piece. The academia, on the other hand, can choose to either ignore the essay or as a few have already done it, remind the readers that the colonialism was bad and any case for colonialism would require a false version of the history.