Tearing down statues

Statues have an enduring symbolism, as the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, and the fuss over each new occupant, frequently reminds us.

In this case we’re talking about removing a statue.

There’s a Telegraph headline Saturday 19th December, ‘Politically-correct universities are killing free speech.’ An exaggeration, but it focuses attention on a real issue. ‘Universities’ are not killing free speech, but an increasing number of students are attempting to limit debate by, for example, banning speakers who do not share their views. A dangerous development, and I’m with the Telegraph all the way on this.

Students are now taking exception to statuesto the dead as well as the living. They’re symbols of an oppressive past and we’ve recently seen the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes (arch-imperialist) at the University of Cape Town. Pressure is now being put on an Oxford college, Oriel, to remove a statue of Rhodes on a building (funded by a legacy from Rhodes) which fronts the High Street. The fact that most of Oxford was until very recently completely unaware of the statue’s existence is incidental.

There are arguments against the statue – Rhodes is indeed a symbol of colonial past, but there’s a powerful counter-argument that symbols, whether oppressive, controversial, militaristic, pacifist – whether statues, paintings, buildings – are important. We don’t want to sanitise our past, or interpret it according to the dictates of the present. (A friend of mine suggests another argument for its removal  – it is very ugly.)

Oriel are well aware of the arguments on both sides, and will be launching a listening exercise before deciding the statue’s fate.

They will have been surprised to read Saturday’s Telegraph leaders which asserted: ‘Shockingly college dons back the idea.’ (Maybe some do but the leader implies it is college policy.) The Telegraph’s front-page story also asserts that the college’s ‘plans’ have been ‘derailed’ by the realisation that the statue is on a listed building, and its removal requires planning permission. That the college was well aware of the planning issue is clear from the statement it issued last Thursday: the Telegraph article is the Saturday morning following.

There’s also an article on the leader page by Daniel Hannan, who read history at the college, as indeed I did a few years before him. He writes: ‘Oriel has rushed out a statement to the effect that it is talking to planning authorities about removing the effigy because ‘it can be seen as an uncritical celebration of…colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents’.

The college’s statement was carefully considered, and in contrast to Hannan’s article which reads as if it was rushed out to meet a deadline. Oriel we must remember is in the real world, attracting and extending a welcome to students from all corners of the globe.  As it argues in its statement, [the actions] ‘we are announcing today demonstrate our continuing commitment to being at the forefront of the drive to make Oxford more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds, and to address directly the complex history of colonialism and its consequences.’

All terribly politically correct, but it’s risky territory these days, when it’s all about attracting students and funding, if you don’t listen to the clamour on streets and social media.

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