Anatomy of a book cancellation

By Nigel Biggar for Compact. 2 February 2023.

Photo by Designecologist on

It was the second week of December 2017, and my wife and I were at Heathrow airport, waiting to board a flight to Germany. Just before setting off for the departure gate, I couldn’t resist checking my email just one last time. My attention concentrated when I saw a message in my inbox from the University of Oxford’s public-affairs office. I clicked on it. What I found was notification that my “Ethics and Empire” project had become the target of an online denunciation by a group of students, followed by reassurance from the university that it had risen to defend my right to run such a thing.

“For more than a fortnight, my name was in the media every day.”

So began a public row that raged for the best part of a month. Four days after I flew, the eminent imperial historian who had conceived the project with me, John Darwin, abruptly resigned, pleading “personal reasons.” Within a week of the first online denunciation, two further open letters appeared, this time issued by academics. The first bore the names of 58 colleagues at Oxford. The second, signed by about 200 academics from around the world, was addressed not to me, but directly to my university, calling for it to withdraw its support. For more than a fortnight, my name was in the media every day.

What had I done to deserve all this unexpected attention?

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