The campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College, Oxford is a hollow display of moral vanity. It must stay.
I was extremely disheartened last week upon reading that over a third of Oxford students want to see the statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes removed from its Oriel College building. You would hope that the supposed greatest young minds in the country would be able to see the dangerous precedent the removal of the statue would set.
It would signal the start of the writing out of history of important figures to fit in with our modern, “liberal” worldview. It would attest that the only part of our history worth remembering is that which is palatable by modern day standards. But human history is not always palatable. It is often ugly, barbaric, and depressing. Rather than erasing all trace of mankind’s atrocities, we should focus on these evils specially. For how do we know what is “right” now without a thorough knowledge of what was “wrong” then?
Our most revered prime minister of all time, Winston Churchill, held many unsavoury views that would render him unfit to hold public office by today’s standards. But does that mean we should undermine or erase the invaluable role he played for this country during the Second World War? Should his statues be torn down the world over? Quite ironically a statue of Nelson Mandela – a terrorist by any objective definition – stands beside that of Churchill’s in Parliament Square. Should his be removed as well? Of course not, but these are the questions we would be forced to confront should we begin re-evaluating historic figures by today’s standards.
It is simply unreasonable to hold historic figures to our modern moral standards. Human morality – our perception of what is right and wrong – has adapted over time, and continues to do so. 21st Century attitudes of imperialism are completely different to those that predominated in the 19th Century. That is not to absolve Rhodes of any wrongdoing, but rather an acknowledgement that far from holding alien or unorthodox views, he merely conformed to the ideology of 19th Century Britain. That might not be a very pleasant fact, but it is a fact nonetheless, and one we must not shy away from. Only through an understanding of our past mistakes can we ever truly hope to correct them.
And whilst it is easy now to condemn the imperialist precepts of yesteryear, we must not make the mistake of placing our current society on a pedestal as the pinnacle of human morality. Future generations could look back on our society with similar disgust at many of the dogmas of today. Who is to say that the worldwide practice of abortion, the lawful killing of millions of unborn babies each year, will not be viewed as cruel and inhumane in a hundred years time?
Another unpleasant fact is that our most important institutions – the monarchy, parliament, universities, hospitals – require above all else, money. And as we know, money is often ill-gotten. Take for example the famous Guy’s Hospital in London, named after its founder Thomas Guy, a man who made his fortune through the slave trade. Oxford itself would not have become one of the finest universities in the world without funding from figures such as Rhodes. We all reap the benefits of our chequered past every day. A hollow display of moral vanity such as removing Rhodes’ statue does not alter this fact, and only serves to erase a source of the privileged lives we all enjoy out of history.
The leader of the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, student Sizer Mpofu-Walsh, rather amusingly described Oxford University as being “institutionally racist.” Considering that nearly 15% of Oxford students come from overseas, you would have thought somebody would have noticed by now. I would also love to know why he not only studied as an undergraduate, but then chose to come back to do a PhD at a university which he claims so systematically discriminates against him.
The response from the leaders of Oxford University has been heartening however, refusing to bow to the protesters. This is in stark contrast to one of America’s finest universities, Yale, which recently sacrificed the principle of free expression in the name of political correctness. It does seem inevitable however that soon enough our universities will submit in a similar manner.
I can’t help but be reminded of George Orwell’s famous quote: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Liberal social reformers have seized the present, and are very close to stealing our past too.
If you enjoyed this, why not try:
The Rhode to Racial Justice by Joanne Reed
The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement is driven by the desire to change Oxford’s attitude to race. In a university where privilege still has a part to play, the statue of Cecil Rhodes needs to fall to make way for a new outlook.