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History is not a morality play: both sides on #RhodesMustFall debate should remember that

The grave of Cecil John Rhodes in Zimbabwe’s Matopos Hills. Susan E Adams/, CC BY-SA

Oriel College at Oxford University has decided not to take down a statue of the beneficent imperialist Cecil Rhodes despite the high-profile #RhodesMustFall campaign.

The campaign against Rhodes because of his white supremacist plundering of Africa points to an important truth about the man and about British history – but it is not the only truth. In its announcement the college noted that it would address how best to offer the statue historical context and “do justice to the complexity of the debate.”

This acknowledgement of the complexity of history is welcome in a climate that encourages its simplification for the sake of present-day emotional well-being. Flattening out historical meaning for the purpose of producing a therapeutic salve for the slights and injustices of today is a mistake, both politically and intellectually.

In his 2015 autobiography, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates vividly recounted some of the horrors that African Americans have faced historically, and continue to face. His own understanding of history was transformed through the study of history at university. He began studying it, he declares:

Imagining history to be a unified narrative, free of debate, which uncovered, would simply verify everything that I had always suspected.

But history upended and complicated his understanding and he realised that “the gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a kind of beacon”.

The beacon of knowledge and enlightenment wrought through intense study and an embrace of complexity is something that all students, at Oxford and elsewhere, would do well to keep in sight.

Instead, the #Rhodesmustfall campaign presents history as emotional therapy; an exercise in self esteem. The fact that Oriel has been so amenable to its demands by removing a plaque and initially agreeing to the consultation is not a sign of the college’s own intellectual robustness.

Campaigns spreading in the US

It would be a mistake to view the Rhodes debate in isolation. Princeton students forced their university administration into a conversation bent toward the removal of former president Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus buildings because of its racist connotations.

Students at the College of William and Mary in Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Virginia want his statue removed from their campus. He too is tagged, like Rhodes, as racist.

But African American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King’s commitment to full diversity has also come under scrutiny by students at the University of Oregon who recently debated removing a quotation from his 1963 “I have a Dream” speech from the wall of their student centre on the grounds that it wasn’t inclusive enough for current sensibilities.

Defenders counter the charges against these American icons with citations of their more positive aspects or actions. Wilson racially segregated federal buildings, but he was a liberal internationalist who worked tirelessly for peace between nations. Jefferson was a slave owner but also took a stand against colonial rule and heralded the equality of all men when he penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

In Africa, Rhodes’ imperialist adventures were brutally racist but his legacy includes an endowment that has made possible an Oxford education for thousands of scholars from around the world – including the current leader of the #Rhodesmustfall campaign Ntokozo Qwabe.

Martin Luther King was a philanderer and sexist according to the students in Oregon, but he was also an inspiring champion of civil rights.

Yet historical reflection should do more than plot people on axes of good and evil. In a scene in the cult US movie Donnie Darko, an officious teacher with a penchant for therapeutic learning styles passes out moral dilemma cards to her students, asking them to respond by placing an X on a chalkboard “lifeline” marked with Love and Fear at either end.

Reading his card, Darko has to make a judegment about whether somebody is driven by love or fear in returning a lost wallet but keeping the money inside. Bemused, Darko points out that “things just aren’t that simple … You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and then deny everything else.” He earns a zero for the day.

Both sides of the Rhodes debate would score full marks in that class. But there is no room for contradictions, irony, nuance or paradox in the history they conjure.

Examining the role of history

History is not, and should not be, a morality play. But the debate today is not really about morality. Campaigners are not arguing for right over wrong, neither are they contesting the past in order to change the world. Instead, they are insisting that they shouldn’t have to feel bad.

They argue that they are traumatised at the sight of a statue or a flag. They accuse those who resist their demands to “decolonise” knowledge production as continuing the violence of colonialism, as if an academic curriculum were akin to genocide and imperial conquest. These students are not fearless crusaders for justice, they are fragile victims demanding protection from words and images. They are not making history but eroding it.

It is not a new debate. Twenty years ago, American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr argued against history as a form of therapy – for both “militant monoculturalists” and “militant multiculturalists”. His conclusion, that “both ideologues distort and corrupt history” has merit. But there is, as ever, more to it than that.

Statues won’t make a difference

The Cecil Rhodes statute (top right) on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford. Eddie Keogh/Reuters

In the abstract, it is not important whether any of the relics in question go or stay. Except that if they go now, they go for the wrong reasons. Campaigners are deluding themselves if they think that removing a flag or statue will make any difference to inequalities of race, class or gender – or even indeed to who attends Oxford.

In fact, trying to shield minorities from the sight of past racists or from the full story of Britain’s imperial heritage suggests that campaigners think they are not capable of coping with, let alone making, history. This in itself is a form of elitist racism. And it is not true.

There are many historical examples of real challenges to oppression and racism. Some of those challenges failed, some succeeded and some were only partially successful. But to grasp the how and the why, and to build a better and more equitable future, history must be a fully open book.

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