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Rhodes Must Fall: Oxford’s Institutional Response

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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12 Comment on this post

  1. What self righteous snobbery. Who are we, the benefactors of many of these people now being blamed for all that is wrong by our current standards. I happen to agree that slavery was and is wrong. While I am not a religious person, a quote from the Bible does come to mind – “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”. I wonder if we all adopted that as our guideline, how many of us would qualify to criticize other people.

    Slavery is a horrible part of human history that has been practiced by almost all races since human’s existed on this earth. That includes the blacks of Africa who not only enslaved other blacks, they sold excess fellow black captives into slavery elsewhere and also earlier raided the European coastline for white people to sell and enslave back in their homelands. I find it very interesting that the only slave history being talked about today is the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and then only the version being promoted by the current leftist, politically correct and #BLM groups etc.

    It must indeed be wonderful to have led such a morally perfect life that we now feel entitled to demand that “same” level of perfection from everyone else that ever lived. I think that we all should start looking much closer to home for things to fix that might make this world a better place. Stop blaming others who were long dead before we were born. Then do something that matters in today’s world, something that might make everyone’s life better. Make a positive contribution, stop tearing things down, destroying things, try making a real difference for the people who are here today. Do something constructive with your life.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ed. I don’t think you need to think you’re perfect to oppose slavery, or to think it was (and is) a particularly egregious wrong. I also think there’s a slight internal contradiction in your post. You suggest that we should avoid criticising past figures because we’re far from perfect (“let he who is without sin”, etc); but I’m not clear why that doesn’t just apply to any criticism whatsoever, including your criticism of me! (To be clear, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t criticise – I’m just unclear how it fits with the spirit of your post).

  2. Alberto Giubilini

    Thanks Ben, this is very interesting.
    There is a 5th argument that I have seen put forward, which might actually be a version of the ‘hypocrisy” argument. It is an argument from consistency. According to it, if “Rhodes must fall”, so should a huge number of other statues, works of art, even names associated with institutions or universities. I don’t know if this would actually count as a 5th argument against “Rhodes must fall” or as an argument for the radical move of taking down many other statues, changing names, removing woks of art, etc. It seems the trend at the moment is actually toward the latter option (with Princeton renaming its Woodrow Wilson School , Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge removing its Fisher window, and quite a few other cases). I think this argument is more challenging, because, if we apply consistency consistently, we would presumably have to consider a number of other issues, beyond racism ( sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and probably others; Gonville and Caius has applied it to a certain understanding of ‘eugenics’, for instance).
    The problem is that the more issues we include, the more difficult it becomes to be consistent (both practically and intellectually). Of course, that it is difficult does not mean that it is wrong, but it probably means we would need an in-depth discussion about what kinds of past wrongdoings, and what degrees of wrongdoing, justify taking down monuments, works of arts, names, etc. It seems this debate is going to raise interesting questions about what it means to be consistent, and perhaps about whether we are prepared to be.

    1. Thanks Alberto. You’re right, of course, that the implications of all this could be immense. Perhaps this also magnifies the worry about priorities, which Ed also mentions in his comment: if we’re focusing all our energies on removing statues and changing names, we won’t focus on more material advances in racial (and other) justice.

      I have two thoughts about this: firstly, as you suggest, we might think that some wrongs are more severe than others. At the very least, that might suggest an order of priority, though I agree that it’s not something one can decide a priori, and needs to involve community discussion.

      Secondly, as I said in the original post I think the Rhodes Must Fall movement shows a good example of how to engage symbolism and more material changes. I definitely think that there’s a danger of institutions using name-changes or statue-removals as evidence of a commitment to justice without actually having to improve the material lives of people who are affected by it today; but that means that those protesting statues, etc. need to be careful in articulating a variety of demands, making it clear that symbolic changes are the start rather than the end. The good news is that the people behind these various movements, including RMF, very often are clear about this!

  3. Andrew T. Robinson

    This article seems to be an inversion of the burden of proof. Those making the affirmative claim, that Rhodes’s statue must be removed, have the burden of proof–and a high bar to clear (with thanks to Thomas Sowell):

    1. Removing the statue will change WHAT for the better?
    2. At what cost, economically, politically, and morally?
    3. Based on what evidence are we to expect these benefits?

    The “institutional response” is little more than puffery, which is why its rationalizations are so easily dismantled. But the problem is that the case FOR the removal has not been made. And I cannot see how it COULD be made, even on purely moral premises, though I am willing to be convinced.

    1. Thanks Andrew. You’re right that this blog post is a largely negative argument, and not an outlining of the positive case for removing the statue. However, it’s simply not true that we can decide who has the burden of proof simply by identifying who is making the ‘positive’ argument. You seem to identify the ‘affirmative claim’ with those who challenge the status quo, such that we have:

      Affirmative: “The statue should go”
      Negative: “No it shouldn’t”.

      But it’s just as plausible to see both sides making affirmative claims, namely: “The statue should go”, and “The statue should stay”. The fact that one of these represents the status quo doesn’t stop it being affirmative; nor should we think that those criticising the status quo always have the stronger burden of proof. Rather, I would say that both sides have some burden of proof, and we should favour whichever position comes out better.

      To answer your first question, one might think that it is intrinsically for the better not to have statues celebrating people like Rhodes in institutions which claim to be inclusive. That’s a moral claim, and obviously a disputable one, but you seem to assume that any benefit must be a consequence of removing the statue, rather than constituted by it.

      Finally, I’m not sure I agree that the Patten and Richardson’s claims are just ‘puffery’, insofar as they are substantive (and, indeed, affirmative) moral claims; but even if they were, they offer arguments that are brought up repeatedly in the context of this debate, and come from influential leaders of the university.

      1. Andrew T. Robinson

        The affirmative claim is that the statue should be removed. To the extent you are critiquing the university’s rebuttal, I accept your correction. But I am more concerned with the original claim: even a substantive response to a fallacious argument doesn’t validate the fallacious argument. To say “the rebuttal is an affirmative claim” leaves us breezing past the fallacies of the original claim.

        The case here is “the statue should be removed,” which is based on premise that the intentions and dispositions of Rhodes in life somehow manifest themselves as the negative experiences of people seeing his statue (or even knowing it exists) in the 21st century–the “power of symbols,” as you have expressed it. But the symbols themselves have no agency and cannot influence anyone or anything. Rather, we who behold them decide what meaning to invest in them.

        To remove a thing because some invest negative meaning in the thing obviates all physical expression. The fact that a high expression of racism today is statues of those who died at the beginning of the 20th century tells me that racism is not a serious consideration in the 21st century, no matter how many people demand it is, and no matter how the definition of ‘racism’ is expanded to encompass literally anything anyone might do that yields disparate outcomes for some other group.

        While we might do better not to idolize individuals, and to move existing idols to a museum, it is not a lack of empathy to refuse to engage in iconoclasm without better justification. To do so is to indulge, pander to, and ultimately infantilize those to whom we must look in some years to take up the mantle of our civilization. It is not a promising preparation.

  4. “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.”

    I don’t understand this- if it was in his will, surely one would have to assume that it was his considered view and and an accurate expression of what he wanted to achieve with his money. Even if his will is at odds with his former actions, you would surely have to assume that the will comes last so he recanted and tried to redress some of his past wrongs in his will? Or is there some context I am missing

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Of course it’s possible that Rhodes had a last minute change of heart – but it’s so entirely out of character with everything else he said about race that this seems unlikely to me. Additionally, Rhodes would have had good reason to think that scholarships would largely be offered to white applicants – and indeed there were very few black Rhodes scholars for many decades after it was established – while in South Africa he specifically allocated four scholarships to pupils of white-only schools.

      But you may be right that my wording is off. Rhodes was a white supremacist, but may not have been directly motivated by animosity towards other races (I don’t know enough detail about his views to say for sure). In a sense, this is consistent with the formal equality in the wording of the will, i.e. that any black student who did qualify should not be excluded, but that he thought it unlikely that many would. I certainly don’t think it’s the case that the stipulation on race was intended to make up for past wrongs – as far as I can see, there’s no evidence for that.

  5. Such a strange coincidence how the arguments of the two blog entries on this subject resonate with Lautréamont’s observations on the “chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table”. Symbolised in contextual conflict with the original, here considering it as where machine stitches are perfectly distanced and any rain is expected to conform to the same pattern, yet the necessary umbrella disturbs the pattern as much as a maladjusted sewing machine produces imperfect stitches. In this time of controlled conformance, such a relief to see.

    With a wave to Jose Saramago for an initial mention of the quote, although he seemed to be using a jazzier more condescending approach.

  6. Our father is dead, cried the black Africans at Rhodes funeral.

    But you would know better than the people who were actually there., just as you know the intention better than the man who wrote his will, and the men who witnessed it, and the executors who saw to its fulfilment

    Do you expect people to take you at your word, or do you prefer them to doubt your good faith and your expressed intentions? Because your attitude to others, and your bizarre certainty as to their ‘real’ intentions and feelings, can be extrapolated to your own statements on as much evidence. Perhaps one day someone will believe that you are racist, or homophobic or islamophobic, or whatever the current wickedness may be – in spite of your statements to the contrary – and accuse you and find you guilty.

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