Academia and teaching Politics

Rhodes”Pathetic capitulation” or principled decision? More on #RhodesMustFall

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

rhodesI’d encourage you to read Michael Cardo’s piece on the “sinister underbelly” to the campaign that has succeeded in having the Rhodes statue boarded up, pending its removal from campus. I seconded the motion to have the statue boarded up, and voted in agreement for its removal, so while you might expect me to disagree with Cardo – and I do – he nevertheless makes many strong points.

The primary challenge he presents is in the form of questioning whether UCT and the Senate lacked courage in making the decision that we did, and whether we capitulated to both illiberal bullying as well as ideologically-flawed arguments in doing so.

I’m sympathetic to the dangers he points out – it’s certainly true that loud and persistent pressure, as well as muddled political thinking, can result in hasty and unfortunate decisions. However, I think that he’s wrong in this particular instance, and that his error rests in regarding all support for the removal of Rhodes to have originated from majoritarianism, mob rule and the worst sorts of identity politics.

Starting at the end of that list, I have to agree entirely with his criticisms of the arguments that come from the likes of Gillian Schutte. Any writer who regards words like “privilege” as trump-cards in arguments is shouting from a pedestal, rather than debating.

As I’ve argued before, though, there’s a difference between the mindless use of a phrase like “check your privilege” and the (correct, and necessary) acknowledgement that privilege exists, and that it can affect our objectivity. In this instance, writers like Cardo are assuming a certain norm, namely that Rhodes is there, and the burden of proof is on those who want him removed.

But there’s no reason that we should accept that as the norm, rather than recognising it as an accident of history, which we now have the opportunity to correct. In other words, can we not be said to be assuming a certain epistemic privilege in saying that the burden of proof is on those who want its removal, rather than on those who insist it should stay?

Yes, something is lost with its removal – but the case needs to be made that this loss (context, history, opportunities for debate etc.) is of more significance than what might be gained. In this case, the obvious potential gain is the sense of a more inclusive campus, and one that is clearly committed to working harder at its transformation goals.

As for our being bullied into this, it’s telling that Cardo only refers to Maxwele when speaking about the student voice. And even though I think Maxwele has been far more articulate than the quote Cardo uses to discredit him with (“I don’t have to justify anything to a white male or a white institution. Nothing whatsoever.”), even if he were not, there are many other student views that are persuasive to varying degrees.

Also, it’s not as if we only relied on student views. I’ve been party to four different staff debates on these issues now, where in each case, the pro-statue people were persuaded by arguments, rather than persuaded to shut up because of the negative political consequences of their view.

Cardo notes the possibility that “the senate [sic] was swayed by arguments so persuasive and unassailable that it had no choice but to heed the demand that #Rhodesmustfall”, but seems to have done no work in establishing whether that was the case or not – he segues from there immediately into his caricature of Maxwele as an intransigent racial nationalist.

Two other brief points – first, moving the statue is not necessarily equivalent to “erasing… the historical record”. For one, as per my burden of proof point above, it could be said that his presence erases another historical record, and that these protests were sparked by that. We can argue that a method needs to be found to note both (and potentially other) historical records, but that while we do that, this thing – that some find offensive – has to go because the negatives of its presence outweigh the positives.

It could return once we’ve figured out what to do, or something else could go up that does a better job of representing history. But to glibly assert that taking it away is equivalent to erasing a historical record begs the question of whether it necessarily does so, and furthermore assumes the primacy of a particular historical record – in other words, it also assumes that conclusion before the argument has even been conducted.

Lastly, seeing as Cardo’s argument rests on the view that as a “liberal” university, UCT should be embarrassed by acceding to “illiberal” demands for taking the statue down, I must note that I also reject his understanding of what a liberal is, or rather, what a liberal perhaps must be, since I read him as being quite ironically prescriptive on this point.

Broadly speaking, a liberal values liberty (surprising, I know), and attempts to secure that via vehicles such as democracy, rights and so forth. In terms of free speech in particular, this statue case could be interpreted as an example of Mill’s “marketplace of ideas” in full-flow, where the arguments in favour of taking it down won the day. That’s what I think happened.

Or, you can frame it as UCT having bowed to pressure – in effect, having been held to ransom. And there’s a danger of a false dichotomy here also, in that while I think that (some of) the students acted shamefully at times, that’s a separate issue to whether they – and the staff who support their arguments – are correct or not.

More broadly, the liberalism I subscribe to recognises the human flourishing that can result when people are treated equally, respectfully and so forth. Keeping a statue of an arch-colonialist on campus, in such pride of place, sends a signal that can quite plausibly be read as a lesser commitment to the interests of some rather than others.

I would have kept it on campus, and that was in fact the first proposal that Senate debated, before an amendment suggesting it be removed entirely was proposed. In later years, we might decide to bring it back, and have it form part of some new installation.

But whatever happens, there will no doubt be some significant recognition of what was in his place, and why it was moved. We’re not obliterating history at all, in other words – we’re making it.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

10 replies on “Rhodes”Pathetic capitulation” or principled decision? More on #RhodesMustFall”

Cardo’s argument, similar to many I’ve heard, seems to be it mustn’t be taken down because of the tone of voice which asked for it to be removed. He doesn’t offer any reasons for it staying; or any understanding why its presence might be more important than its removal. Belligerent refusal because of ‘tone’ is almost as ugly as tossing a canister of pooh.

Now that Rhodes is boarded up, as shown, can you see the difference? Can you feel the difference, perhaps some people might now begin to realise it does not make any difference at all to what the world thinks and how South Africa will be seen in the future. Lets start to live for today and make a positive difference, instead of throwing “c**p” around

Thanks Jacques, I agree pretty much with all of it.

I find it terribly depressing to read the comments of fellow UCT alumni on this issue; the comments on this piece shared by UCT’s FB page is a case in point. I took on a couple of them on Linkedin the other day and the bitterness and drama (“culture cleansing”, “selling the soul of UCT” etc.) was astounding. There is very little use engaging with such people online but I unavoidably still feel depressed reading such views. It’s like scrolling the News24 comments section;, you’re only going to get a substantial helping of melancholy about the human race.

I am completely in agreement with the fact that many of these pro-statue folk are completely ignoring the case being put forward by those in favour of having it removed. They are so caught up in both the methods of the ‘revolutionaries’ and bitter about irrelevant larger South African issues that they cannot or plainly refuse to see the point. No one has said that they want to ‘delete history’, but you also don’t see many statues of other offensive historical figures remain in prominent/revering public places. In Europe there are number of examples of controversial regimes’ memorabilia that have been relocated to less prominent and accessible locations.

As an aside, I wonder how far this conversation would have progressed by now had Maxwele not adopted the approach that he/they did? I’m sure we would like to think that as rational and conscientious leaders the Senate might have engaged and got to the same conclusion….but somehow I have my doubts. The conversation needed a spark that was big enough to create the necessary momentum and maybe, just maybe, a bucket of poo was that spark?

Thanks Manie. Yes, I feel that frustration at the comments I read also. On your concluding point – I have little doubt that Maxwele accelerated things greatly. Perhaps it’s possible that other forms of protest might have resulted in the University responding as comprehensively/broadly as they have – we can’t know. But I doubt it, and therefore think it missing the point to criticise him – as I said in another post on this, most of those who criticise him (or worse, think that many students were throwing excrement) simply seem desperate to deny the legitimacy of the movement overall, and clutch at straws to do so.

Yep, shooting the messenger. I guess the historic SA context creates a bit of precedence for fairly abrasive language/methods in getting a point across. It’s another unpleasant consequence of centuries of segregation and oppression, people are reluctant to engage openly and constructively, they prefer to discredit the other rather than to cede ground. It takes violence or drastic measures to open an issue up.
And as you say, we are making history, thus there is hope.

I’ve been following this discussion of the Rhodes statue at UCT by reading all of your posts and the links to other discussion you have provided, Jacques.

In all of this discussion I have seen nothing which makes the point that “#Rhodesmustfall” because, artistically speaking, it screams unimaginative. It’s the typical ‘person sitting or standing’ statue that doesn’t really say much or anything about the person depicted. Just a guy sitting there like so many other guys who have been memorialized in the exact same way.

So, my recommendation, for what it’s worth (which, admittedly, isn’t much) is to commit to transformation by asking for submissions for a new memorial which has something of value to teach all of us.

In essence, I’m suggesting that you aim for a “Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision” type memorial. The memorials that Maya Lin has designed make strong statements about our history and what we should strive for going forward. If you haven’t seen the documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” I would highly recommend it as a way of moving the transformation discussion in a positive and productive direction. A truly inspirational memorial will have a great deal to say about the past and what UCT is aiming for in the future.

I imagine they were aiming for something like Rodin’s “Thinker” pose, but even so, I agree that it’s a fairly unimaginative statue. We haven’t even started talking about what might come next, if Rhodes goes, but there will of course be strong – and appropriate – calls for it to represent something strongly African. And I certainly agree with you, in that it will hopefully be something inspirational, that we can all be proud of and “own”.

It certainly looks to me like they were aiming for “something like Rodin’s “Thinker” pose” which is why it’s got “unimaginative” written all over it – sort of a knockoff of the original. 😉

I understand that work is still being done to review the current state of things so discussion has not yet begun about what comes next. However, I would say that after many years of ignoring a serious problem which resulted in someone feeling it necessary to resort to more extreme measures to get some actual movement on this issue, perhaps it would be a good idea to provide more tangible proof that UCT is committed to making changes – something proactive rather than reactive.

To me, something proactive would be along the lines of making a concerted effort to raise the funds necessary to make the appropriate changes to the physical environment of the campus. UCT might consider setting up a finance committee to do cost assessments and start the fund raising necessary to make the changes which the review process flags as needed or desired to achieve the goals of UCT.

There is truth in the cliche “Money talks” (which is why that Rhodes statue has had a prominent place on the campus for so many years). Without the necessary funds to implement change, change won’t happen. So, starting the financial oversight process now will do a great deal to prove UCT’s commitment to change.

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