Trust me I’m an academic

Trust me I’m an academic

What happens when the expertise of the university academic blurs with the partisan passions of social justice activism?

On June 22nd 2021 I attended a University of Brighton online symposium run by the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories (CNMH). What took place was astounding and, a year on, having tried very hard  to establish contact with the CMNH speaker that day, the article that follows represents an important response.

Back in April 2021, for this website, I wrote two articles touching on aspects of a troubling phenomenon of concern to the Brighton Society – namely, the sudden adoption by our council of a perverse form of “anti-racism” linked to Critical Race Theory (CRT). Straying in to these kinds of topics might be considered as venturing beyond the Brighton Society remit. After all, for the most part, the society exists to conserve, to scrutinise and generally monitor Brighton and Hove’s built environment. However, the adoption of what the council describes as its CRT “lens” is concerning. This, the council assure us, is a special theoretical lens through which a trained eye can detect the discrete signs of racism. These signifiers pepper a social landscape dripping in racism – or so the council say (on this truth-claim, CRT demands it be held as an article of faith).

The council approach is relevant to Brighton Society concerns for two reasons. First, CRT represents an ideological vision similarly detached and self-serving as the one that delights the council’s executive officers and planners and quickly holds our elected representatives hostage. That is to say, a vision that delights a political/managerial governing class eager to transform the way the city looks and thinks. This powerful layer yearn for a city socially and economically transformed by luxury apartment blocks, office space and modern, middle class lifestyles. All these things are gift-wrapped  in terms of  forward looking ‘progressive’ values.

Second, not only does CRT and the broader ideologies of ‘critical social justice’ fit perfectly with these modern urban lifestyles, the race-tinted “lens” (heralded and enshrined by deputy leader Hannah Clare), casts it’s gaze across our historic urban landscape. As we saw last year, equipped with its new way of seeing, the council prompted the removal of a blue plaque it deemed ‘racist’ and pondered on the removal of other commemorative items and street names with real or imagined links to slavery. Well, yes, perhaps there is a good case to present in certain instances and discuss its merits democratically. However, with something akin to X-Ray vision, summer 2020 witnessed this lens re-imagining all of Brighton’s historic buildings as owing their existence to the transatlantic slave trade.

This a moment useful worth re-capping. On 12th June 2020, council equalities lead Carmen Appich announced ‘We must recognise that, as a Georgian town, our wealth and comfort is built on the sugar trade and enslavement’. Nancy Platts (then, our council leader) later proclaimed in the press ‘…many of the city’s buildings exist because of that brutal trade’. For many who joined the 10,000 strong BLM march in Brighton (just days after the Platts/Appich pronouncements) Brighton was – as one teenager I interviewed put it – “literally built brick by brick!” on slave trade money. The July 2020 issue of the Regency Town House newsletter mischievously asked ‘where is the logical endpoint?…Should we be considering the demolition of the historic terraces… ?’

It is true that huge amounts of slave-derived wealth flowed into Britain. For decades, debates have ensued over what proportion of Britain’s economic fortunes were underpinned by slavery-derived wealth. As Historic England point out in The transatlantic slave economy and England’s built environment (2020), it is not possible to say that the nation’s industrial development was built on the proceeds of slavery. Unlike Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and London, Brighton is notable for not being a slave-port, mercantile centre or factory town. It doubtless benefited indirectly from slavery derived wealth as beneficiaries of the trade visited and occasionally resided in the increasingly fashionable resort… but literally built brick by brick on this wealth? Or even figuratively ‘built’ in the sense that the town was developed and thereafter thrived on this wealth? No.

Taken in isolation the Appich/Platts exaggerations seemed both well-intended and unremarkable. Surely a few activists chatting excitedly about “literally” dismantling racist buildings is run of the mill stuff? However, fuelling the council leaders’ statements was something else.  The city’s university (or at least a section within it) appears to have played a role in legitimising the council’s outlook.  Posted on the University of Brighton (UoB) website, a 2019 news article titled Tracing Brighton’s forgotten slave-owners evidently inspired Appich and Platts (or their advisers). When Platts wrote her Argus column in June 2020 and made her point about Brighton “built” on slave profits it was, she said, “…research done at the University of Brighton” that had shocked her into action. The ambiguous brick-by-brick connotations of her words lead back to the UoB research itself. The published essay, based on the research, was fascinating but it included a lyrical flourish describing Brighton’s slavery derived wealth as “congealed in the city’s brick and flint”. Together with the news article and the council statements these truth-claim bloomed via articles, social media posts, campaign meetings and numerous conversations. You would think that at some point – given Summer 2020s passion and volatility around these matters – the council and/or the university would have issued a clarification? But think again – Appich, Platts and, more to the point, those who advised them are campaigning activists. The same applies to the current Green leadership who prioritise and serve the goals of their activism as though it were their civic duty.

‘Welcome to Brighton and Hove City Council!’ you might wearily say. But equally troubling are the UoB academics who view their humanities scholarship as indivisible from their activism. In June last year, Gill Scott – a visiting researcher at UoB’s Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories (and a researcher for the UoB study) – presented a paper to an online symposium. When asked a question by local historian Peter Crowhurst she stated:

‘I would not subscribe to the view that Brighton was built on Slave wealth or slave derived wealth – nobody here [UoB] has made that claim…I don’t know why Nancy said what she said…’

Exactly one year on from the Appich/Platts statements, finally, belatedly, came this admission. Was this a U-turn from the UoB academics? Not quite. Despite the fact that Nancy Platts had publicly cited the UoB research (seemingly with the aim of having us all ‘subscribe to the view’), Peter Crowhurst’s reference to Platts creation of a myth about Brighton developed on slave money was swiftly shut down. He was not allowed to speak again at this symposium session.

Co-author of the UoB study Anita Rupprecht spoke next. Rupprecht was more or less sure Crowhurst’s claim was entirely false. She said, “It’s interesting that we are now talking about the myth of Brighton being built on slavery, which I’m not sure actually exists unless we pull it out of a hat here”. Watching this symposium session unfold, my heart went out to the calm and courteous Peter Crowhurst, scolded and silenced for his softly spoken and entirely reasonable challenge. Do these people really work in a university?

I have no doubt that Peter Crowhurst had plenty left to say. His own well-researched published commentary merited discussion. Instead, he was treated like an online troll – or something akin to an unwelcome heckler gate-crashing an activist group meeting. When, shortly before Peter’s question, I contributed my own point the response from Scott was frosty to say the least.  Referring to the Appich/Platts statements, I sought the views of Scott et al on whether they thought their work had been exploited by local politicians in order to legitimise policy. Before I could finish Scott interrupted, “This is turning into a monologue … time is not unlimited … you’re not engaging, you’re monologuing”.     

Let us cut to the most significant thing about this symposium session. The paper Gill Scott read out at the start had been something of a tirade against an unspecified enemy. Referring to the summer 2020 BLM protests and demands that the council remove a blue plaque to Admiral Codrington, she said this:  

“While some acknowledged an historic wrong and the need for rectification, others engaged in damage limitation, mining the past for proof of Brighton’s ‘innocence’. Most notable is the insistence that the impact of such wealth on the town was negligible and/or eclipsed by abolitionist activity, with the latter perceived as more representative and, therefore, more deserving of attention”.

The villains of the piece – Scott described them as “the filleters” – are the people who seek “to fillet slavery out of Brighton’s past”.

Now, it might be that Gill Scott had other nefarious individuals in-mind but she seemed to be referring to this piece by Crowhurst and several written by myself for the Brighton Society (principally this one). At the end of the session, Scott spoke of the “received wisdom” evident in today’s Brighton (a mind-set that had been “built on conservation and protecting architectural heritage…”). Thus, Brighton’s ‘filleters’, it seems, seek to uphold “the reputation and heritage of an enlightened imperial state”. Scott’s argument surely can’t have the Brighton Society article The transatlantic slave trade: our city, its heritage and its people in-mind?   

Scotts insinuation that ‘filleters’ set out to minimise the town’s links to slavery is shocking. With no evidence presented to back it up, the insinuation relies on a stereotype of the odious reactionary who feels, as Scott puts it, “traduced by fanatical political correctness”. Use of this stereotype infers ‘we know their sort!’. It infers that ‘they’ are the curmudgeonly types who show their true colours by reacting angrily and defensively in the face of righteous social justice activism. Scott duly invites her audience to bundle these prejudices together and use them to denounce a despicable attempt to de-rail the progress of social justice. Whilst she presents an unnamed demonised ‘other’ (a caricature unworthy of a university academic), her gambit is par for the course for a campaigning activist (ironically prejudice is woven in to the new CRT-compliant anti-racism).

The story Scott spins is also a little contradictory. She talks of “the bid to establish Brighton as an abolitionist town”. Again, she is referring to the ‘filleters’; to Crowhurst, perhaps the Brighton Society too, perhaps other malign elements which, like all dark-forces lose their allure if they are named. Scott invites her audience to view these unpleasant people as engaged in something especially wicked – the mounting of a deliberate backlash designed to play down the role of slavery derived wealth in the development of the town. Yet, in an interview with Sussex Live Scott herself states, “Brighton was an abolition town, it had an anti-slavery society and the MPs voted for abolition – there was quite a large dissenting community and the general tone of civic life of that time [was]for abolition”. That’s right, she said Brighton was an abolition town. She also said of Brighton “[It] never had any connection with the slave trade, it wasn’t a port, or a centre of commerce – it was just a humble fishing town”.

But let’s be generous to Gill Scott: never had any connection? She didn’t mean that (she was referring to a time before the transatlantic trade created obscene amounts of wealth for Britain’s investors). A town, which in the 1830s we might characterise as an abolition town? Yes! As Bergin a Rupprecht themselves unveil, the campaigning here was impressive. Was it a town where slave derived wealth got spent? Yes, of course! Scott said it herself in the Q&A, “the history of Brighton is much more complex and much more richer than the received wisdom indicates [which ignores]the social and economic and political contradictions of the town…”. Exactly!

In 2020, amidst the fervour of BLM protests, counter narratives included opinions as one-sided and fixed as any of the more dominant ones. The process by which fixed opinions are unglued from their sense of unassailable certainty is discussion and debate; A process that requires a grown-up approach that sets aside animosity and pre-judgement. Criticism of arguments perceived to be wrong-headed can be fiery and untrammelled of course. Out of those clashes come, we hope, greater understanding on all sides.

An academic’s primary focus is testing truth-claims, weighing evidence and ‘following the facts wherever they may lead’. The best academics do this with curiosity, humility, and honesty. An activist, however, is invariably someone who has dispensed with this task having arrived at a set of conclusions compelling them to act. No more talk, action! They do this with all the urgency, grit and determination needed to implement goals commensurate with what they believe to be true.

The Sussex Live article was written amidst a febrile mood that seemed to transform a layer of Brighton’s anti-racist activists into excited revolutionaries. In the article, Gill Scott exudes that excitement. BLM represented “an enormous amount of rage being channelled”. This was the emergence of a new movement determined to settle accounts with “a legacy of deep racism”. “Moves to really challenge that and harness the turbulence created by the coronavirus lockdown will be welcome”, she said.

Of course, academics are free to be activists. Our reasonable expectation of them, however, is that they keep a clear separation between these two spheres. Today however, ‘social justice activism’ centred around CRT, intersectionality and gender studies is certain of the correctness of its one true cause (a certainty on a par with religious faith). It is, as one advocate puts it, “everyone’s duty” to change unjust social arrangements “through activism”.

Thus, the activist-academic performs a confidence trick when stepping on to a ‘trust me I’m an academic’ platform, only to betray that trust by speaking as an activist of faith. Doubtless this produces excruciating levels of irritation when challenged (‘how dare you challenge me, I am part of the UoB!’). As academics, the experience of being challenged is surely grist to their intellectual mill?  But, it seems – at UoB – the activist-side elbows its way forward and shouts ‘this is not up for debate – go away filleter!).

In these increasingly fractious times, when our city’s political/managerial governing class seek to by-pass democracy in favour of their own exclusive vision for Brighton and Hove – how the city looks, how it thinks – we should question the authority of politicians who float policy on the back of a ‘research shows…’ rationale. It’s sad to say, but academic-activists that shimmy back and forth between these two things erode the trust we place in intellectual integrity.

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