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Posted on June 29, 2020 at 10:36 AM

Written by Ben Davies

I recently watched an excellent panel discussion, ‘Statues, Slavery and the Struggle for Equality’ with Labour MP Dawn Butler, historian David Olusoga, philosopher Susan Neiman, chaired by writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied. The discussion was wide-ranging but, as the title suggests, included a focus on the recent resurgence of demands to remove various statues of figures associated with the slavery and colonialism. One example that will have escaped few readers of this blog is the University of Oxford’s own statue of Cecil Rhodes, which has been the subject of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement since 2015 and is once again in the headlines. Since initially writing this blog, Oriel College has voted to remove the statue; but it is still important to interrogate the university’s (rather than the college’s) initial response.

That response from university leadership was not promising. The university’s chancellor, Chris Patten, suggested that calls for removal are hypocritical, and that focus should be on “more fundamental” issues such as education and health. Vice-chancellor Louise Richardson claimed that removal of the statue would constitute ‘hiding’ our history, and that we should instead learn from it. She also advised that morally repellent views need to be seen in their historical context.

In these two responses there are at least four arguments against the removal of Rhodes’ statue. I want briefly to explain why none are very plausible. It’s worth noting from the outset, though, that little which I have to say has not already been said by others, including by those involved in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Nonetheless, I think it is important as someone employed at Oxford to write about ethics to engage the recent arguments of its institutional leaders.

So, the four arguments are that demands to remove the statue:

1. are hypocritical: Patten notes that Oxford receives money, some of which has benefitted individuals who are calling for the statue’s removal, in the form of Rhodes scholarships;

There is nothing inherently hypocritical about receiving a benefit while also criticising the individual who benefits you. For instance, it is not hypocritical of me, despite the fact that I benefit from Oxford University’s employment, to write this blog post which is critical of their response. Indeed, it seems more plausible to say that those who benefit have a greater obligation to criticise.

Moreover, the charge of hypocrisy seems to presume that the correct attitude to Rhodes Scholarships should be one of gratitude. Yet despite formal assurances to the contrary in his will, it is highly unlikely that Rhodes himself, a racist, would have been glad to see his money supporting black students. Considered in the context of the broader injustices perpetrated by Rhodes, and the present context of Oxford’s (and UK academia’s) record on race, it becomes harder to see the Rhodes Scholarships as a largesse to which uncritical gratitude is the most appropriate response.

2. are a distraction: Patten suggests that our focus should be on more material changes, and that focusing on symbolic change constitutes a distraction from the real issues.

There is a genuine danger that a protest that has been placed back in the headlines by the murder of George Floyd and demands for concrete changes in support of racial justice might be reduced to focusing solely on more symbolic issues. Changes that could improve people’s lives in significant ways certainly should not be side-lined by merely symbolic gestures.

Yet if this is a genuine concern, it can hardly be one that is laid at the door of those demanding the statue’s removal. The protests are explicitly not only focused on the statue, setting out a broad array of changes to tackle racism and racial injustice in the Oxford context. Rather, the genuine worry is that the protests will be portrayed as focusing solely on symbols, and thus reduced to a single issue.

It is important to add that symbols do matter. If symbols were entirely powerless, we would not make such extensive use of them. The symbols we choose to adopt or retain tell us what we value, what we don’t value, and what we are indifferent to. Patten is right that Rhodes’ statue should not be the sole focus of any discussion, but wrong to think that it doesn’t matter at all.

3. constitute ‘hiding history’: Louise Richardson suggests that any removal of the statue would be a sanitizing affair, intended to pretend away the legacy of Rhodes, and colonialism more broadly, in Oxford.

Statues are not (merely) ‘history’, but also symbols and commemorations which express values whether they are intended to or not. Richardson has supported the idea of a plaque providing context about Rhodes; yet as she also notes, although it was discussed in 2015, it did not happen. Experiences of Bristol activists’ attempts to secure a similar plaque for the now-infamous statue of Edward Colston speak to the difficulties in reaching agreement on the relevant text.

As Valerie Amos notes, it is also not clear that the statue’s continued presence is either necessary or sufficient for a critical discussion of Oxford’s history. On the question of sufficiency, it is not clear that Rhodes’ presence would have prompted any discussion without the efforts of those protesting it. There are also other ways to mark and discuss an institution’s history; indeed, it would be worrying if a university could not come up with at least a few ideas.

4. ignore the historical context of Rhodes’ views/behaviour: Richardson suggests that while Rhodes’ views and actions may have been morally appalling, he must be judged by the context of his time, when imperialism was a prevailing view.

There is clearly room for disagreement on what conditions absolve an individual from blame for immoral actions. Yet even if Rhodes’ social context did lessen the blame he personally faces, they do not make his views and actions morally acceptable. One can oppose the statue for what it represents even if blaming Rhodes were unreasonable.

In fact, though, blame is not unreasonable in Rhodes’ case. While imperialism and racism may have been common in his social circle, opposition to both was hardly unheard of at the time. Unless we are wholly pessimistic about the possibility of moral change, we can blame Rhodes even while recognising that he was, as we all are, a product of his time and situation.

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