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

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.