Rhodes Must Fall: Oxford's Institutional Response
Cross post from the Uehiro Centre's Practical Ethics blog.
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.