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Rhodes Must Fall and Free Speech

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The Rhodes Must Fall movement has had a whirlwind tour in 2015 and as the year winds down and out it has landed on the shores of Britain, publicity wise.

In actuality the Rhodes must fall movement at Oxford University has been building its head of steam as early as June of this year. The initial protests began in March and were originally directed at a statue at the University of Cape Town that commemorated British mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes. The protestors vandalised the statue and demanded its removal. They argue it symbolised the ever present institutionalised racism within the university and its removal would legitimise efforts to decolonise education all over South Africa. In April, after a vote by the university council, the statue was removed. As a result conversations have been sparked and space has been made for dialogue.

The movement and its British counterpart are now gaining a lot of traction in the British press and have been covered by a host of different newspapers. They are campaigning for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes at his alma mater, Oriel College, Oxford (the Rhodes Building where the statue is found is pictured above). Critique has been levelled at the British student protesters by many who claim they are trying to airbrush history. Rhodes, who most of the commentators have agreed had slightly unsavoury views with regards to race (note the sarcasm), was an ardent imperialist and true believer in the innate greatness of the Anglo-Saxon race.

Context implores us to consider that his views were probably not unique for his time.  But does that mean he should be venerated? I agree one must avoid the pitfalls of looking at history through the moral corrective lenses of the present, but lack of condemnation does not equal commemoration last time I checked. In fact erecting a statue in his name is a true airbrushing of history. It airbrushes the history of the people affected and killed by his “unsavoury views”. The truth is anyone walking past that statue who is uninitiated in Britain’s colonial history could not be blamed for thinking Rhodes an honourable and great man.

Presenting multi-dimensional narratives of historical figures is the only way we can learn from past mistakes. We know of Winston Churchill’s military prowess and tactics, but we should also know that he was callously instrumental in the Bengal famine that killed millions of Indians. These two facts are critical parts of understanding and analysing the man’s history.

I personally do not care whether the statue is removed or not, but I am very critical of the infantilising rhetoric being used as arguments against the protestors. They have managed to generate a very interesting conversation about Britain’s colonial history, one that would not have existed when all we had was a statue unopposed and unchallenged. They are not trying to rewrite history; they are drafting their own terms for the future, one where colonialism is not viewed as joke like we saw earlier this year when the Oxford union created the “colonial comeback” cocktail for a debate about reparations.

Another less valid criticism being offered up is the forever closing but never seemingly shut door that is freedom of speech. Political correctness gone mad, oversensitivity and censorship are thrown around every time university students are mentioned. Claims that protesters are heading towards a fascistic slippery slope ring very untrue to me. Are they not exercising that same freedom of speech when they protest? If their protesting is limiting free speech because it calls for some sort of reform then aren’t you limiting their free speech by condemning them and asking them for censure? When do we break this censorship circle?

When student societies have called for the removal of people they feel violate their pre-established rules of whom they choose to give platforms to, we have been quick to chastise them for hurting the free speech. This to me is another conflation of separate things, refusing to give platform to someone and censoring their speech in this day and age are very different things. Again I am not one for banning people because I fear it martyrises them, but it is not the same as infringing on their freedom of speech. 

The Rhodes must fall movement to me seems like a legitimate attempt by the students to challenge what they feel is wrong about their university: the fact that the university only accepted 24 black British undergraduates last year, the Eurocentric curriculum and the systemic racism they face on a day to day basis. They have worked hard to garner support, which is why their petition calling for the statue’s removal has been signed by over 2,000 people (that’s them exercising their free speech if you were confused), so their grievances should not be dismissed so easily.

Oxford’s Oriel College responded on the 17th of December to the petition; they have agreed to remove the plaque honouring Rhodes and have begun a six month “listening exercise” to decide what will be done with regards to the statue. If the statue is taken down, it will be a symbolic victory for the movement. But one must be wary about weighting change on symbolic victories as they can be used as meaningless gestures to placate the masses.




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