You’re all aware of the controversy surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University, right?
To recap: Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was the colonialist, businessman and white supremacist whose career in Southern Africa had huge impact on the continent. The celebrated Rhodes Scholarship programme at Oxford University was established by his estate. As such, there is a statue of him at Oriel College at Oxford. Some current students are campaigning to have the statue removed on the grounds that Rhodes was a racist and not someone who should be glorified in stone.
This campaign is happening in a milieu of renewed debates about freedom of expression and decency at universities. I am against ‘no platform’ policies, and against the abuse of useful innovations such as Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings as a way to shut down offensive speech.
So one might expect me, as a free speech activist, to be categorically against any removal of the statue. It’s historical revisionism, right? The imposition of one modern historical reading onto a complex Man of His Time?
I am not so sure. For me, the question is whether the statue of Cecil Rhodes can be considered public art. Or is it something else, like decor?
And if the statue is a piece of art, then do those who commissioned and created it have the right to see it ‘exhibited’ on the outside of Oriel College in perpetuity? If this is the case then it would be a curious and possibly unique privilege that very few statues are granted. I think Horatio Nelson on his column is probably secure, but those who occupy the plinths in the four corners of Trafalgar Square are not nearly as safe. Indeed, the artwork on the fourth plinth changes regularly—not because the Mayor of London is censorious, but because there is a virtue in freshening up the space by displaying art that is relevant to the times. Similarly, our public galleries regularly change their displays. No painting or painter has a God-given right to be on show forever. That’s not censorship, it’s curation. And in the case of statues and gargolyes cemented to the side of buildings, it’s just architecture and (for want of a better word) fashion.
What the Rhodes Must Fall campaign says to me is that the statue is tasteless, ugly, and not appropriate for the era in which we live. Is this not the best and only reason why public murals, statues and sculptures around our country are periodically replaced? If there was an ugly statue in the middle of the village green near my house, I would certainly petition the parish council to replace it with something better, and I do not think that doing so is should be branded as ‘censorship’. Why do we get so angry when students do essentially the same thing? Surely we should all get a say in how our surroundings are decorated? Or are we lumbered with the wallpaper chosen for us by the Victorians?
To be clear, I accept that there are also good reasons to keep the Rhodes statue. There is no consensus among historians on his legacy and he is a benefactor of the university. In my opinion, the case for the removal of the statue is not yet proven. However, I remain to be convinced that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is an illegitimate and undemocratic attempt at censorship, or that the students supporting it are thin-skinned ideologues imposing their reading of history on the rest of us.