third world quarterly retracts “the case for colonialism”

News has come that Third World Quarterly has withdrawn “The Case for Colonialism.” It’s a weak article, but I do not believe that it should be retracted. So what happened? According to the journal’s website:

This Viewpoint essay has been withdrawn at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay. Following a number of complaints, Taylor & Francis conducted a thorough investigation into the peer review process on this article. Whilst this clearly demonstrated the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, in line with the journal’s editorial policy, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.

Horrible. Nobody, including, academics should be subject to violence. I completely understand this action. At the same time, I wonder what can be done in the future to protect freedom of speech. People like to joke that sensitive academics are imposing a “heckler’s veto” but this is much, much worse. This now sets a regrettable standard – if you don’t like an idea, make a “credible” threat of violence.

At this point in time, I do not have a clear thought on how academics should respond to threats. But at the very least, we, as a community, can say “enough is enough.” Academics should be united in defending speech. I hope the next time a controversial speaker arrives at campus or published an ill argued article, that fewer of us will demand “retraction!” Now, we have seen the next step and it is not good.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 16, 2017 at 4:24 am

Posted in uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. Few different issues arise from your post. But before that let me clarify that I do not think any article should be banned. And in no case any one should be threatened. I think the article should be remain up. Also I am making the comment in most gentle way I hope I do not come across otherwise. If so, apologies in advance. So now the comment:

    1) How sensitive are you to the topic of colonization? As a thought experiment if this article was about glorification of nazi idealogy would you have reacted in same way? If yes then you should support the ban.
    [FYI – Brits killed more Indians in each of two engineered famines (3-5 year periods) than Nazi’s did in their 20 year holocaust – so they are comparable in terms of no. of victims]

    2) There is a framing issue – the author can argue that colonization had positives too. Which is true and there can be discussion about what was positive – whether colonizers built institutions? What about institutions they dismantled? etc. etc. Colonizers often put all the domestic institutions into “pagan” or “backward” buckets but not all were so. For example, native americans and some african tribes had well evolved mechanisms for managing the commons (for which Elin Ostrom won her nobel) but those got subverted by “individual rights” of property under colonizers law. The way the article appears to be framed is quite appalling.

    3) Colonization did impact the mindset – you can think of it as a variation of “Stockholm syndrome”. And colonization was as much about the mind as it was about physical control over populations. The colonizers have corrupted the narratives of the local populations so much that many are understanding the effects only now. It has only been 60-70 years since many of the colonies became independent – i.e. just 3 generations. Many of the effects will come to fore in the next few generations when the former colonies begin to assert their true identity.

    4) This colonization is only viewed as western colonization but there were others too. Some had no advantages – others had some but all were vastly and unequivocally detrimental to the colonies.

    5) There are more fundamental issues as to why such kind of research gets funded while there is much more to study.



    October 16, 2017 at 6:22 am

  2. Thanks for the comment. I am not sure what you mean by “how sensitive,” but in my original post, I noted that colonialism was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. And not just in one case, but in many cases. None of my posts were meant to defend colonialism and only in the original did I try to see things from the author’s view (which does offer one non trivial opinion that I agree with – people often glamorize brutal post-colonial regimes).



    October 16, 2017 at 2:05 pm

  3. Orgtheory’s posts on TWQ’s retraction of the academic equivalent of a hot take have been a series of interesting thoughts on academic freedom and the journal process. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve mostly disagreed—as a peer reviewer but not yet ever an editor, I do not like the idea that peer review could be so easily disregarded. I cannot imagine that the peer reviews of a piece on colonialism that cherry-picked its starting point, didn’t engage with classic and major postcolonial arguments, and even still failed to make a full case were remotely close to a revise and resubmit. But I’m not a postcolonialist scholar, I’ve taken some courses on it in the beforetime of grad school. That’s not my point here. Perhaps the editor was right to publish it, perhaps it should have had counter-arguments in the form of a symposium, etc.

    I’m more interested in this post’s argument: that threats of violence are not legitimate reasons for retraction and that we need to say enough is enough. I agree with that stance—retraction should be based on errors of academic judgment, be it in the form of omission or commission, and it’s well past time to say enough is enough. We can debate the narrow difference between my broader support of retraction as signaling academic error by author or editor and orgtheory’s more narrow support for retraction elsewhere. What is interesting to me is that this is another case where academics have unreflectively accepted a framing of the debate over academic and/or free speech that was born from an anti-university stance. Why is TWQ the moment to say enough is enough, but not the many, many, MANY threats of violence scholars of color have endured and spoken out about? By not discussing this case in light of the vicious attacks on scholarship from the right as well, it accidentally/implicitly accepts the framing from the right of whose free speech is at risk, who puts free speech at risk, and what to do in response.

    A scholar’s physical safety was threatened recently in my hometown of Philadelphia. You may already have heard of him if not this most recent case as he’s something of a leftist shock-tweeter (my term of semi endearment). George Ciccariello-Maher has been a target for right-wing grievances for at least a year thanks originally to a sarcastic tweet about white genocide that was purposefully misinterpreted as an actual call for genocide. Most recently, his employer received threats of violence. Their response? To place the target of violence on leave. AAUP has written a letter. There have been protests on Drexel’s campus. Ciccariello-Maher and TWQ are about as closely related to sociology, yet Org Theory has posts on one but not the other. I don’t blame org theory for that (blogs cover what blog authors are interested in/know about. No blog is universal), but I do hope to use that as a push to consider a sociologically informed theory of the current debate over free speech.

    In short, free speech “absolutism” is, like any absolutist ideology, a case where one’s own blinders make the absolute far more relative than one claims it is. This morning, I also read an inside higher ed report about a U of Chicago symposium of 66 presidents and provosts about free speech in higher education. Somehow, they all got together after GCM’s involuntary leave and didn’t mention that as part of the crisis when talking with Inside Higher Education. How does that happen? Are they not strong supporters of free speech? IT JUST HAPPENED LAST WEEK!

    UC Berkeley famously spent 500k for outside speakers this semester. Drexel put a tenured professor on leave. As Victor Ray pointed out months ago in a fantastic piece (, by only focusing on cases where the left is at fault, we allow the right to gain a moral high ground their history has proven they do not deserve. Currently, Trump threatens media outlets, while one quick glance at tweets by academics of color confirms that the threats against non-white and leftist whites in the academy have always been a part of America and haven’t stopped. GCM is just the most recent example of this targeting that has also forced scholars to cancel appearances, to have to have their mail checked and sorted by admins for violent threats, and to have to delist their courses from master schedules to protect them, etc. At least two of those three had to happen at Penn in 2016 to a tenured WOC–thankfully, they protected her instead of themselves. I just opened my copy of Sociology of Race and Ethnicity and the editors open the issue by calling for more support for these same scholars in the face of growing attacks against critical scholarship backed by organizations like Campus Reform.

    These debates over TWQ’s retraction do not happen in a bubble, devoid of this context. The cynic in e questions if T&F’s retraction notice was them jumping on a framing to quash the serious debate about TWQ’s process (I do not doubt that threats existed, just T&F’s decision on how to frame a retraction in light of controversy). I hope sociologists can rightly speak against retractions for threats of violence, but also forcing professors to be on leave for threats, for good faith speakers from the right to get the chance to speak if invited but also for good faith speakers from the left to get that same chance (Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, for one). We should be a discipline that can formulate a strong, coherent, consistent belief that the freedom for everyone to engage in good faith intellectual debate is fundamental to a moral society. We already are the field that has pointed out that free speech beliefs are very much racialized and very much a “for me, but not for thee” ideology for a shockingly large number of Americans. We’re the ones who have correctly critiqued think tanks and journalists for over-hyping bad surveys that don’t prove that students are anti-free speech. We can and must do more. We must articulate a better version of academic freedom than a reactive one that is so easily manipulated.

    If we only criticize the one form of silencing but not the other, it is no surprise that students of color and their allies see it as hypocritical–because it is, either consciously or not. And it plays right into the false narrative of a leftist university that is far from reality (the greatest current threat to free speech in the academy, I’d argue, is Wisconsin’s new anti-protest policy). No political stance has a clean record on free speech in the academy (though I would argue the left has a better record, it is certainly not clean) and we need to not get played by those who claim so. You are not a free speech absolutist if you only speak about it when the left is at fault. Sociology is the natural home of an accurate understanding of free speech as as a political cudgel, as structurally unequal, and as a moral ideal to which we all strive. Now, more than it ever before in the 21st century, we need to articulate and coalesce around a sociological understanding of free speech because it is under threat.



    October 16, 2017 at 2:20 pm

  4. Rory: Thanks for the comments. I must go to class soon, but you asked why the TWQ incident? Well, I can’t speak for others, but I think it is important to note that this blogger has defended free speech for people on the left like Rebecca Tuvel and Johnny Williams as well as people on the right like Mark Regnerus and Charles Murray. I urge people to defend free speech rights of everyone, not just those they agree with.

    TWQ is important because it shows the slippery slope does happen and has already happened. Yes, people on the right will try to exploit these incidents, but that is why we have to adamant. We have to tell people, consistently, that we may think you’re foolish but we’ll stand by your right to express your opinion.

    And I love your final phrase: a sociological understanding for free speech. Why don’t you write a proposal around that idea and send it to Contexts?



    October 16, 2017 at 2:35 pm

  5. I am off to class myself in a few minutes. I briefly noted that I’m not accusing you of being inconsistent or inaccurate, but rather that seeing this post + that IHE post + nothing from FIRE (yet, but it’s been five days) about GCM + a tweet about this post and reading some tweets from fellow scholars about the bs they endure because of their scholarship inspired that rambling, coffee-barely-functioning post. It was an inspiration more than anything else.

    I gotta make way for other sociologists to have Contexts features :) This isn’t my field and my tenure packet is due Nov 8th–but I’d love to engage in this further somehow. You may or may not get that proposal…



    October 16, 2017 at 3:14 pm

  6. arrgh. briefly should note, not briefly noted.



    October 16, 2017 at 3:14 pm

  7. Great discussion. Ciccariello-Maher reports his fantasy of white genocide, on Twitter, then suggests the Tweet was a joke directed to those in the know. Yet he’d have been aware that his tweet would be misinterpreted and may go viral. So you have to wonder how this political theorist conceives of political responsibility. Is it OK to yell “fire” in a cinema? Indeed, in light of his subsequent Tweets about Las Vegas (which suggest that the cause of mass killings is that white men feel entitled to everything and turn murderous when they don’t get it) is such an idiotic proposition that we can only assume that Ciccariello-Maher does not believe it. So what does he intend? He wants to shock people and he presumably does not care if the means of shocking people is stirring up racial hatred. And so again we wonder about his understanding of responsibility. Matters of free speech aside, I’d venture that Ciccariello-Maher deserves about as much respect as a scholar as does Steve Bannon as a news editor.

    I’d also venture that an enduring and serious intellectual and political problem for Marxists (broadly conceived) is that they do not have a defensible normative theories of political responsibility or of free speech. These notions arise from other traditions – traditions that Marxists denigrate when its convenient but depend on when (for example) they’re placed on administrative leave.



    October 16, 2017 at 11:38 pm

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