Thursday, 24 December 2015

Statuary

The controversy at Oxford over Oriel College’s Cecil Rhodes statue is the gift that keeps on giving. In today’s episode, Oriel alumnus and former Australian PM Tony Abbott has written to the Independent to argue against the campaign to remove the statue. To my mind, there’s (at least!) two different arguments going on here, and it’s important to unpick the issues.

An Oxford statue which is causing offence
The background: Cecil Rhodes, an Oriel alumnus, led activities in southern Africa in the nineteenth century – political, business, colonizing - which played a large part in the development of the British colonies in that area, and out of which grew great personal wealth for him and also a political establishment which morphed into the evils of apartheid. (Note: better and more nuanced historical accounts are no doubt available: I’m not trying to make historical points about Rhodes here.) His wealth supports the prestigious Rhodes scholarships, which fund non-UK students to undertake postgraduate study at Oxford. Tony Abbott was a Rhodes scholar.

An Oxford statue which is not causing as much offence
There is agreement that Rhodes himself did things and caused things to happen which were Bad and Wrong: racist and exploitative, or, in the words of Oriel College’s statement, “…Rhodes was also a 19th-century colonialist whose values and world view stand in absolute contrast to the ethos of the Scholarship programme today, and to the values of a modern University.

From this two further arguments are derived. Firstly, that the statue should be removed because it symbolises a past which we should abjure. Secondly, that the statue should be removed because it contributes to the oppression of minorities which in turn causes, so the argument goes, the demographics of Oxford’s student population to be skewed against Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students.

(And on this latter point, the Oriel College statement concedes that there is work to be done to improve the experience and representation of BME students. Amen to that, and please could you have a think about public school bias while you're about it.)

To take the first argument – that we should remove the statue as we no longer wish to commemorate its subject - there are points to be made on both sides. Can history be changed by taking down a statue? Of course not. Further, many British institutions, including more than one or two universities, have pasts which include associations with people and activities which would today be thought of as horrifying, and assets which include the financial gains from these. If we did a thorough historical clear-out, we’d be too busy sorting out yesterday’s wrongs to prevent today’s wrongs from being done. But equally, it’s only a statue, and the logistics of removing it are not insurmountable. And we do have a duty to think about the actions of our forebears, and the part they play in the narratives we shape today about our past. History is not uncontroversial, what we say and do about our history tells others about who we are today.

(Personally, I think the problem is with having public statuary at all. There isn’t the room or resource to make a statue for everyone that someone admires, and history will always cast different lights on actions and consequences. I’d favour portraiture which is actively curated. If a painting is moved every couple of years anyway, then no-one notices if it’s here or there. It’s making the representation a fixed object of note/commemoration which is the problem, and sculptures tend to be bigger and heavier than pictures.)

I suspect the first part of the argument will be dealt with, at some point in the summer when students aren’t around, by a quiet removal of the statue to somewhere less public. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a clause in a trust deed which makes its total removal impossible, given the terms of a bequest or lease, but equally a particular position could be re-thought.

The second argument, though – the one about it contributing to oppression – is harder to make, I believe. And I do find it hard to believe that of and in itself a statue is the real problem. There’s a trend for some in university to argue that there should be safe spaces in which students are free from acts, symbols or words which cause them to feel oppressed. Witness as part of this the hoo-ha at Goldsmiths Students’ Union in relation to the speaker Maryam Namazie, and the disruption by members of one student society of her talk at a meeting of another student society, in part on the grounds that what she said was insulting and oppressive.

If universities are safe spaces – safe in the sense of being free from ideas that challenge a person’s views or understanding of the world – they will become sterile and not worth attending. It’s the process of becoming able to understand and analyse things that are just plain wrong, and provide good and convincing arguments and reasons why they’re wrong, which is part of becoming a graduate. And it’s also learning that a Manichaean view of what is right and wrong is not always very helpful – both in terms of understanding a situation and in terms of working with others. And you’ll find it harder to get these if the intellectual environment you are in does not expose you to contrary thoughts and opinions.

Safe spaces are the bigger challenge to universities than statues. There’s a legal narrative – arising from equalities legislation – with duties to promote better relationships between people, based around protected characteristics. The legislation aims to deal with actual wrongs and I’m not seeking to criticise it. But the argument which goes from a duty to promote equalities to an argument that seeks to prevent all situations in which an individual may be challenged intellectually is not a good one in a university. How to make that argument well enough, and make it stick in the face of activism, is going to be tricky, I suspect.

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