What to do about Rhodes and other evils

I recently read Joanna Williams’ piece in the Conversation, “Safe space hand wringers are attacking academic freedom – we must fight back“. I have also been party to both academic and dinner-table conversations that addressed freedom of speech and cultural representation, currently exemplified by the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) debate. A number of themes merge into a wider discourse of freedom: freedom of speech, academic freedom, cultural representation, the infantilisation of students, protection from hate speech and similar.

Learning can be uncomfortable. To what extent do we have a right or expectation to not be made angry by people around us? To what extent, when the world around us makes us angry ought we to simply take it? Is there a statute of limitations on such matters? This is one of my favorite kind of questions, which I call thousand-mile questions. (I started here, and have since tried to draw the idea out through a number of short essays, like this one.)

It is safe to say that many historical figures were significantly more cruel than Cecil Rhodes. We could start with Charlemagne or Henry VIII. Christopher Columbus has been exposed as a genocidal maniac (See Howard Zinn’s excellent People’s History). Yale university is wrestling with the legacy of one of its 19th century benefactors John Calhoun, a slave-owner and outspoken defender of the institution of slavery. Do people and events ever become just history? At what point can we consider it ok to leave a statue of a slave owner in a public place? Say Thomas Jefferson? What if it were Solon or Pericles? How much of the values not only of a time but of a cultural group should be brought to bear upon the past?

This came home to me in a personal story. I went to an all-boys boarding school, finishing in 1971. In about 1973 or 74 the school started taking girls. Through the late ’70s and into the ’80s, we now know that a number of students, mostly female but also male were subjected to sexual abuse by staff members and by other students. At least one was raped. The headmaster at the time dealt with the perpetrators summarily but apparently was slow or reluctant to inform authorities. It has been suggested that he was possibly less than sympathetic to victims: concerned to protect the reputation of the school as much as to alleviate suffering. Was he acting with what might have been considered prudence in the cultural norms of the time? A hall of residence was built and named after this headmaster.

Partly due to the climate of the present day and to the persistence of one of the victims these matters have now come to light and are being investigated. None of it surprises me. Bullying was rife in my time there. One consequence is that there is now an initiative to have the headmaster’s name removed from that hall of residence. An initiative, which on the evidence I have read, I support. For me, in this case the statute of limitations has not passed.

So what about Rhodes? It is only a matter of degrees.

I do not care that there are statues to Charlemagne even if he is credited with ruling by terror. That was, for me, the past. The headmaster’s case is present and felt by living people. I do not want his name memorialised. I do not want to be protected from my difficult feelings.

So is Rhodes “safely” in the past? Given the persistence of racism I suggest that he might be considered a present case and it is no mere “hand-wringing” to speak out with anger against his memorialisation.


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