With statues of colonialists and defenders of Empire falling like dominoes, should Oxford’s Oriel College get in line?
The small monotone statue of Cecil Rhodes perched above the doorway of Oriel College, Oxford, which gives passers-by a stern downwards gaze, has been a topic of controversy over the past few months. Characteristically English, the statue is an understated reminder to the Victorian imperialists whose estates helped to fund the building which Rhodes presides over.
Following the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign at the South African Cape Town University last year, there has been a similar call from campaigners at Oxford University to remove the statue of Rhodes at Oriel College, claiming that it acts to glorify a man who was outspokenly racist and directly responsible for killing countless innocents in his quest to create a global British superpower.
The values championed by Cecil Rhodes seem very out-of-touch with the image of modern, liberal Oxford and indeed the West at large, where discrimination is viewed as a scourge that we must reject.
It is very important to recognise that Rhodes’ actions were reprehensible and certainly criminal. Indeed, the Guardian has noted that a 21st-century Rhodes would most certainly have faced an international war crimes tribunal (although, of course, this is rather anachronistic, given that Rhodes was born in 1853).
Yet, we should not follow the dominant trend on university campuses and ban the Rhodes statue. Far from addressing past wrongs, this would merely be a short-sighted, emotive response that would consciously neglect the histories of whole groups, nations and peoples. It would remove a vital link to the past that, among other things, reminds us of errors we should be wary to avoid.
So, instead of pulling down the statue, why don’t we add to it?
A placard of some description could easily replace the current one. This sign could describe the actions of Rhodes, both good and bad. Thus, instead of being faced by Rhodes’ domineering glare, passers-by and students would instead be able to reflect upon the man and come to their own conclusions.
Human morality is not binary; there is no such thing as absolute good and absolute evil, there is just an ambiguous blend of both in between. We are creatures that are characteristically grey; we are capable of both good and bad things – though no action is wholeheartedly good or bad.
The society that Rhodes lived in, Victorian Britain, contributed huge human advances in terms of technology, and yet subjugated a quarter of world’s population – justified on the grounds of race.
University is supposed to use education as means to allow students to grapple with complex intellectual issues so that they can form their own, mature conclusions. By keeping the statue and adding a placard, Oriel students will have successfully confronted the past of the institution whilst allowing future generations to make up their own minds – in the true spirit of intellectual freedom.
If Rhodes fell in Oxford as he has done in Cape Town, there will no doubt be a sense of immediate satisfaction that justice has been done. However, this act will only serve as an example of society pursuing blissful ignorance – rather than confronting and countering difficult truths. Not only will it be viewed as a compulsive, knee-jerk reaction by generations to come, but as another example of the growing self-censorship of universities.