Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Academic Debate in the UK: An Open Letter to Prof Mary Beard and Dr Priyamvada Gopal

Dear Prof Beard and Dr Gopal

I have just spent the evening looking through your tweets, and would like to make some observations, not in criticism of you as people, but as a casual observer of the Twitter maelstrom you are caught up in, and because I respect you both very much. My main concerns are that you are failing to listen to each other, and that what is going on between you is being played out everywhere in the UK, with the result being that debate and discussion is stifled.

Before I continue, I will say, Prof Beard, that although I respect you for your achievements and accomplishments, what has disappointed me most about this whole sorry affair has been your actions to date. I did not like your words and your views, which have been countered and refuted by Dr Gopal's excellent blogpost (and about your blogpost, all I will say is that the phrase 'comparing apples with oranges' immediately sprang to mind when you drew an analogy between intense, external pressures playing their part in influencing the behaviours of aid workers following a destructive natural disaster versus those of French citizens in a man-made world war; surely what happened at the Fukushima Power Plant following the giant 2011 tsunami in Japan would have been a better comparison), but I will defend your right to say them etc... No, it was that video and photo of you crying that really disappointed me, for they reminded me of all those mainly Victorian, man-made comments about us women being inferior because we are allegedly prone to hysteria, histrionics, and being emotional at the expense of being analytical and rational. That you did not have even one sentence to answer Dr Gopal's blogpost was a true shock, and a letdown; I truly, truly, truly expected better from you than your tears.

That is not to say that I agree entirely with your views, Dr Gopal. Although you were right to call out the pro-colonialist nuances in Prof Beard's words and the destructive effect they have, and that yes, they do reflect a racist worldview, any further deconstruction of Prof Beard's blogpost should only have been on the horrendously complex language that was used, together with the fallacy of comparing apples with oranges. Sorry if you think that I am telling you off and telling you, a professor of English, how and what to write, but please hear me out: as a British-born Chinese, I have been 'the only Chinese in the [insert place here]' practically all my life, with non-Chinese people around me who didn't hurt others or even flies, but said the nastiest things about 'them over there' without pausing to think. Their words are the products of what they were fed literally and metaphorically when they were growing up, but their words do not reflect their character. When appallingly disagreeable and/or racist words and views are aired, then yes, it should definitely be up to people like you and me who can see things with a fresh pair of eyes to point out what is disagreeable and/or racist, as well as alternatives and why such alternatives are equally, if not more valid, whilst dispassionately disentangling opinions and words from racism and discrimination that is acted upon (for example, see the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Mi Gao Huang Chen, and the admitted institutionalised failings of the police in the aftermath of these murders).

This whole debate began as a discussion of factors which could influence the behaviour of Western aid workers who are put under pressure, but it became overtaken by an even more important Twitter discussion about influences, whether conscious or not, and most especially about race, race relations, and discussions about race, and perceptions about other races, having a part in decision-making. I think both topics need further discussion, and where better than to start than to have you both, Prof Beard and Dr Gopal, in a room filled with real flowers, pretty tablecloths, fluffy tea cosies, hen-shaped egg holders, tea, coffee, and cake, LOTS of cake, and a video camera present so that your chat can be streamed live, or broadcast afterwards? As this is really important, on no account should this discussion be in private, and I personally think the more informal, the better. After all, isn't this the perfect chance for us ladies to show everyone what we are capable of when we work together?

Best wishes
B x