David Abulafia

Why does Priyamvada Gopal find ‘eloquence’ troubling?

Why does Priyamvada Gopal find ‘eloquence’ troubling?
The fallen statue of Edward Colston (Getty images)
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Why should anyone feel insulted when they are described as ‘eloquent’? Priyamvada Gopal, professor of post-colonial studies at Cambridge University, felt moved to speak on behalf of David Olusoga when I used that very compliment to describe him. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, I argued that Olusoga’s testimony in the trial of the ‘Colston Four’ was not relevant. After all, it was not a trial of the long-dead Edward Colston but one for criminal damage. Would Olusoga have been called as an expert witness were he not something of a celebrity whose TV appearances are often impressive? I'm not convinced. Yet in the eyes of my Cambridge colleague, my biggest error was to refer to Olusoga’s impressive way with words.

'Calling writers/scholars/intellectuals of colour 'eloquent' or 'articulate', Gopal averred, 'can quite often be a little sleight of hand dismissal: 'yeah yeah yeah, you talk a good game, people are gonna like it, but you're just whipping up passions, no substance'.

The suggestion was that the e-word could be used as a sort of back-handed compliment to those from certain ethnic minorities, a condescending way of appearing to offer praise while really expressing disdain for their views. 

I clearly move in a charmed circle, as no one to whom I have spoken since she raised her objection accepts that ‘eloquent’ carries this hidden meaning. But there are quite a few words that are having red labels tied to them. A few years ago, I was attacked by a colleague after I described an unsuccessful female candidate for a senior post as a ‘witterer’. She (the colleague) said that this was a term only used of women. No, I responded: I use it regularly of a learned male professor (not present) who cannot keep to the point at meetings. Much the same goes for the term ‘bossy’, which only today I encountered in a book as a perfectly appropriate description of an eleventh-century male customs officer; however, the word has gone round that it is only used by men to disparage women.

The meaning of words does change over time, of course, but a shift in the definition of a term like ‘eloquent’ needs to be considered carefully. This is especially so when it is given new meaning by one of the generals in the woke activist army. The teaching of how to express oneself concisely, accurately, persuasively, fluently and favourably was part of the standard syllabus in medieval universities, under the label ‘rhetoric’. This was an art with much longer antecedents, taking one back to the oratory of Pericles and Cicero and the writings of Aristotle. 

Around 1300, Dante’s fascinating little tract ‘On vernacular eloquence’ considered the relationship between Latin and the romance languages. Classical texts provided the basis for a grand revival of the cult of eloquence in the age of the Renaissance. The study of Greek and Latin in English schools no doubt was intended to promote martial virtues by making pupils read about Caesar’s many wars; but it was also predicated on the assumption that good Latinity would promote better writing of English, so that one says exactly what one means without descending into the gobbledy-gook of modern academic jargon. Some of us lament the fact that without that background in classical grammar, people can no longer distinguish between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ or ‘may have’ and ‘might have’, and do not know that ‘media’ and ‘data’ are plural words.

A case can be made that criticising errors of that sort is pedantry. More important is the argument that the redefinition of terms, and the outlawing of some words, is unacceptable in a free society. It is the world of Newspeak conjured up by George Orwell, though he was well aware that he was not inventing an imaginary world – all of this could already be seen in the Soviet Union. It is not absent in milder form in the modern West, where all sorts of euphemisms are put to work to cover embarrassing truths: ‘we let him go’ in place of ‘we sacked him’.

Eloquence is about being persuasive. Pericles was eloquent. Churchill was eloquent. Martin Luther King was eloquent. Their eloquence was effective. As it happens, two were white, one was black. Gopal has a long way to go before anyone can describe her as eloquent, in the true meaning of the term. 

A final point: strangely, in 2019, Gopal described the black poet Benjamin Zephaniah as ‘eloquent’ in an article in the Guardian.

Written byDavid Abulafia

David Abulafia is emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge.

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