• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Academic says students pulling down Rhodes statue is no better than ISIS wrecking temples

Students at Oriel College, Oxford, want to remove a statue of 19th century empire builder Cecil Rhodes from the campus, saying he helped pave the way for apartheid in Africa.

They claim honouring the Victorian colonialist – who left money to Oriel – is incompatible with an “inclusive culture” at the top uni. But critics point to a growing list of things banned from campuses, ranging from Robin Thicke’s pop song Blurred Lines to feminist icon Germaine Greer.

Here, one academic says axing the statue would mean whitewashing British history.

By Professor Frank Furedi

Once, students marched to change the world and improve humankind.

These days protesters are more concerned with immunising themselves from anything that might upset them.

Ridding campuses of anything students find offensive has turned into a crusade.

Statues of historical figures are now the target — setting a dangerous precedent.

In Seventies Cambodia, the brutal Khmer Rouge declared war on the past and sought to purge all reminders of its history. It used the term “Year Zero” to express its attempt to rid society of its historical memory.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban had its Year Zero moment in 2001, destroying two sixth century statues of Buddha.

And IS has turned the destruction of ancient monuments in Syria and Iraq into an art form. They don’t feel comfortable walking past statues that celebrate values different to their own.

Waging a crusade against 19th century statues confuses the present with the past and threatens the loss of the nation’s historical memory.

Even worse is the cowardly manner in which Oriel has responded. It has agreed to remove a plaque honouring Rhodes and hold a six-month “listening period” to decide the statue’s future.

The Oriel campaigners claim that since Rhodes was a racist, imperialist figure, it is intolerable to display his statue on college property.

They say forcing students from ethnic minority backgrounds to stroll past the statue is a form of violence against them.

Yet their true focus is their own sensitivities rather than what Rhodes did in the past.

They are more concerned with establishing a safe space for themselves than with 19th century history.

For the record, Rhodes was a colonialist who believed in Europeans’ racial superiority.

He made a fortune as a mining tycoon and was a leading figure in the colonial politics of 19th century southern Africa. The colony of Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — was named after him.

Rhodes was also a student at Oriel and left a large chunk of his estate to Oxford University. Nearly 8,000 Rhodes Scholars have benefitted from his largesse, hence the plaque and statue on college grounds.

Paradoxically, Ntokozo Qwabe — a leader of the anti-statue campaign — came to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Presumably he wants to abolish the statue but not his scholarship.

Like many protestors, he is comfortable with a double standard that lets him enjoy the privileges of an elite institution while denouncing the privileges of others.

That Rhodes’ views on race directly contradict the values of a 21st century democratic society is not in doubt.

His sentiments are indeed incompatible with those of a modern university.

But so are the views of virtually any Victorian political, military and religious figure.

Must their statues now be pulled down because they offend our sensibilities?

Rewriting the past may make protesters feel good about themselves but it does not change what happened in bygone days.

There was a time when Oxford University defended its members from religious persecution. But that was in the “bad old days” of Empire.

Today Oxford is in danger of losing the moral battle against censorious, intolerant crusaders who want to ban anything that they find remotely offensive.

And whether protesters like it or not, what made Oxford great is not the activities of its current generation but all the academics and students who built its reputation over centuries — many of whom held now outdated values.

If students are concerned about the values upheld by Rhodes, there is a lot they can do to clear the air.

But first they must stop playing the role of outraged censors and embrace the ideals of tolerance and freedom of expression.

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