Oriel College man Alexander Ewing joins ‘that’ statue debate

It is an indication of the current academic climate that I write this column about the Rhodes statue controversy – what a great deal of quad chat is about nowadays – with a sense of foreboding.

The interests of self-preservation often require members of the academy to keep their heads down. This view is especially apposite for your columnist, who remains a graduate member of Oriel College, from where the statue peers down on the High Street, and where I used to be a dean.

Still, at times we academics, the aspiring and well-established, must step away from our primary functions – teaching and research – to reflect on institutional matters, especially given the anger brewing out in Oriel Square (and now in newspaper pages around the world).

My primary concern is not whether we retain the statue or the legacy of Cecil Rhodes. Though, I think the campaign distracts from needed efforts to address the experiences and under-representation of minority students at the university.

I am in no position to question whether for many students the statue plays a significant role in the “festering, rotting wound that is the ideology of white supremacy”, to use the language of the protest group.

What is of serious concern, for me, is the real threat the controversy poses to the intellectual life of the university and its space for broad thinking, discussion and intellectual diversity its members have a duty to assiduously protect.

Of particular worry is that Oriel released its statement, much derided in the press, in the middle of the admissions period. I would not be surprised if applicants are put off.

All this reminds me of an essay written in 1965 by Nathan Glazer, a sociologist and committed liberal at Berkeley. He spoke of the difficulties that increasingly militant student advocacy (of action, not ideas) posed to a campus more acclimated to promoting openness in the form of speech and intellectual exchange.

For the liberal principles of intellectual discourse and diversity are precisely what many ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ activists are against.

They have shown little to no interest in participating in a symposium on the legacy of colonialism, and show contempt for the “insidious violence” of Oriel’s “management liberalspeak” used to propose it.

Their aim is “decolonisation, not diversity”. They go on to say that, “the foundational crimes of colonialism and our present experiences of racism are not, in fact, up for debate [even though] the liberal regime demands that we engage in the performative spectacle of discussion”.

At the recent protest, their leader, a Rhodes Scholar, made a similar refusal because “the terms of the conversation will already be violent… until they have changed their ways [and bring down the statue], we refuse to give them a platform to speak”.

It is a great shame that the good intentions of many sympathetic to concerns about the statue are associated with this kind of regressive language. For it is a discourse we should resist – and indeed speak out against.