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Oxford don warns “peer pressure” is stifling debate

The Oxford Union

Prof Nigel Biggar, professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, claims that “informal peer pressure” is being used to shape debate regarding controversial historical topics at the university.  

According to the professor, some graduate students and junior fellows have expressed that they were not at liberty to share opinions regarding “challenging orthodox views” on topics like imperialism – perceived to be “always and everywhere wicked”; as it “might be dangerous and they may be penalised when it came to jobs or exams”.

The history department denied these claims and declared that it actually “encouraged diverse views”, as they consider this to be a welcome and distinctive characteristic of the department.

Prof Biggar has repeatedly shared his beliefs regarding “certain aspects of the empire that Britain can take pride in”, a belief that has drawn controversy. In a project titled Ethics and Empire, Biggar aims to explore ethical questions of the British empire.

Following Biggar’s declarations, nearly 60 Oxford academics published an open letter last December in which they criticised his approach and qualified it as “too polemical to be taken seriously”. A second open letter regarding the issue was also printed by a group of historians not based in Oxford.

Biggar, who is described in one of these letters as an apologist for colonialism, stated that his work is not about defending the British empire and that, moreover, he perceived that some Oxford scholars wanted to pressure him into halting his work.

Prof James McDougall, one of the academics who helped write the first letter, remarked that the criticism to the Moral and Pastoral Theology professor’s work was not based on the idea that it contradicts “imagined orthodoxy” but rather that many of the signatories have contrasting views and that criticism was focused on the selected aims and approach.

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