Where there could and should have been a story about engaged students, attempting a transformation of their institution’s practices, there will remain the image over matters of exterior decoration
I cannot help but express a triumphant glee in reading how the #RhodesMustFall campaign, taking place at Oxford University, has fallen face-first to every single hurdle in its way. Donors, professors, their chancellor, a majority of students, have all slammed shut the door in the face of social activists, who have tried to scrub the history and monikers of Cecil Rhodes from their institution. Only yesterday, they were told that even the name of the Rhodes Scholars Computing room (a morsel victory that the university could have thrown them) is non-negotiable.
Part of my satisfaction is perfectly justifiable. There is something particularly worrisome about seeing the monuments and artifacts of history – the inheritance of future students of the university – subject to political hacksaws. No toppling of the Berlin wall is this. The ‘cult of personality’ apparently surrounding Cecil Rhodes hardly holds up to the scrutiny of a brief Google Search; for those visitors and denizens of Oriel College, who care to look briefly at his life, it will be made clear that Cecil Rhodes was as controversial and multifaceted a historical character as any other. I must also admit a personal dislike of the habit we westerners have of confining items of historical representation to the sterile rooms of museums and private collections (the pyramids of Egypt are made evermore fascinating by the sands they sit upon). Having Rhodes overlooking the cobbles of an institution he influenced is more powerful, irrefutably more historically interesting, than any alternative.
However, my satisfaction is largely laced by the heavy-handed, dismissive contempt that I hold for the ‘safe-space’ politics of the campaign’s students. What much of the media surrounding the issue fails to mention – occasionally, meagerly, mumbled in the lines near the bottom of articles – is that the push towards removing Cecil’s figure is only one of the demands submitted by the campaign (a point mentioned in an article on this site last week). Their ill-thought attempts to ‘recontextualise’ the physical aspects of the university have overshadowed their wider campaign, against perceived racial problems in the university’s culture and hiring processes, as well euro-centric biases in the curricula. Not being a scholar of Oxford, I have no idea of the former – but there is no question that education regarding the links between the colonial world and our lives today is both essential and fulfilling (as would giving a serious ear to the victims of such a world). My current studies, at Queen Mary, involve a ’Modernity’ module that identifies past (and occasionally still present) opinions of racial and cultural superiority, and traces how they developed into many of the economic and social structures that we largely operate within today. If only as a chance to question our own assumptions, more chances of the sort should be available at academic institutions.
So, #RhodesMustFall is largely a victim of its own campaign. In associating itself with the memes of ‘safe spaces’ (which most people outside of Student Union bubbles and Twitter echo chambers look at in amused disgust), they have been crushed by their own symbolism. Even if they try and push it, at this point, very few people are going to be able to look past the fucking statue. Without question where there could and should have been a story about engaged students, attempting a transformation of their institution’s practices, there will remain the image – in the eyes of many – of easily offended, unstable, anti-historical, losers – paroxysmal over matters of exterior decoration. Take note of them: this is how you fall on your sword.