There can be little doubt that the Oxford students campaigning over the academic influence of Cecil Rhodes are right about one thing: the man was racist and imperialist, and held views that would be pilloried today.
Yet this concerted effort to remove his likeness from university campuses, and to bury the positive aspects of his legacy along with the problematic facts of our colonial history, is deeply damaging.
One hopes it is naivety that motivates such activists, but they should pause to remember that labelling heroes and villains among the figures of the past is a practice that lacks the necessary nuance of a first-class scholar.
The call for the removal of statues depicting Rhodes is part of a wider campus culture threatening not only the freedom of speech but the freedom to think, question and learn. It has spawned the creation of “safe spaces” on university campuses, in which individuals can expect not to be challenged on their views, and an allied call from US students at Colombia University for great works of literature to be prefixed by “trigger warnings” alerting readers to the presence of racist or otherwise offensive language. This clamping down on open debate is the enemy of liberty and a progressive society – the very social standards these campaigners would otherwise be promoting.
The Rhodes scholarships, also potentially under threat, have offered transformational opportunities for study and cultural exchange across the world – particularly for students from the countries that bore the brunt of British colonialism. Removing those opportunities today in the name of a wrong committed 150 years ago is regressive and does nothing to absolve blame from those long dead who perpetrated them.
A mature and thoughtful debate about Rhodes and his role in creating the society we have today is required to understand his legacy fully. The removal of a statue will do little to achieve that.