In the midst of a school year where campus debates and outrage over diversity and perceived racism have resulted in outrageous examples of student immaturity and inability to engage in free discussion, it is particularly refreshing when a debate on institutional racism and the controversial reminders of an institution’s past is able to occur. Although held on the other side of the Atlantic, the Oxford Union—long heralded as a bastion of free speech and rigorous intellectual discussion—held a debate on January 19th to consider if a statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed from Oriel College.
The group advocating for the removal of the statue, Rhodes Must Fall, has all the accoutrements of recent American campus protest movements: a penchant for anti-intellectual renderings of history, a focus on a symbolic removal rather than productive discussions on the value of diversity, and a charismatic and controversially privileged leader—a Rhodes scholar himself. The debate itself provides an interesting insight into the ideological and intellectual underpinnings of campus activists.
The William F. Buckley comment, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views,” best captures the tone and character of the debate that ensued. What was particularly frustrating and unsurprising in the debate was the RMF side’s refusal to engage with an alternative to removing the statue. When confronted with contradictions to their Rhodes narrative, members of Rhodes Must Fall reiterated Rhodes’s alleged use of slave labor, the killing of hundreds of thousands, and the disenfranchisement of blacks. Their argument failed to provided evidence or specific examples of these alleged crimes, a distressing illustration of activists’ tendency to lack knowledge or understanding of the historical narrative when supporting their claims. In response, Professor Beinhart, the Rhodes Professor of race relations and one of most sympathetic members of the opposition, cautioned, “You [the affirmative side] need to be a bit more cautious of your use of history.” Although Beinhart tacitly agreed with aims of RMF, he stressed the greatest flaw in their underlying argument and movement: a disregard for the actual historical record.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement ironically resembles the actions of the man it is trying to remove. Rhodes had lofty ideals about creating a more peaceful world, but he was often too unscrupulous in his pursuit of them. RMF members advocate for a better and more racially equal world, but have no qualms about fabricating history to suit their ideological interests.
The affirmative side won the debate with 245 in favor and 212 in opposition, so the House did decide Rhodes Must Fall. But, it was a shallow victory. They were up against an opposition in which two of the three panelists conceded Rhodes should probably fall. The debate at times felt as though it were an extension of a RMF rally with the affirmative side speaking in declarations rather than arguments. Although, according to a local poll, 54% of Oxford students believe the statue of Rhodes should stay, no students argued in the opposition.
The similarities between Oxford and American campus outrage fortunately end at external appearances, and the most profound difference is what American universities need to learn: how to say "no" to student activists. The board of trustees of Oriel College ruled the statue will stay in its place, and Chancellor Christopher Patten later remarked that students who dislike the statue “should think about being educated elsewhere.” Vice-Chancellor Louise Richards provides a modern vision for an ancient university that American universities could learn from, when she said, "Let’s keep our eyes firmly fixed on the future, without forgetting the traditions that bind us to our forebears." Oxford has shown it has the institutional self-confidence and leadership to refuse the demands of campus protesters which American universities should take careful note of in their future dealings with campus radicals.
Will Brantley is a member of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. He is pursuing a Master’ s in Global and Imperial History with a focus on British intellectual movements in British India during the early nineteenth. He graduated Summa cum Laude from Hampden-Sydney College in three years in the spring of 2015. He is a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association and a social officer at his college. Will is an avid reader, a politics junkie, and music lover. He is originally from Memphis, Tennessee.