Rhodes Must Fall, the gang of spoilt Oxford brats who want a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College, is being chalked up as another outburst of campus craziness. The media are having a field day mocking the hypocrisies and idiocies of the Rhodes-fearing students, one of whom is a Rhodes scholar — so he’ll take Rhodes’ cash but doesn’t want to look at his likeness — and all of whom describe walking past the statue as ‘an act of violence’. At the end of a year in which students have complained that doing yoga is ‘cultural appropriation’ and reading The Great Gatsby can trigger PTSD, Rhodes Must Fall is being viewed as the latest loopy pursuit of bookish youth who inhabit a different moral universe to the rest of us.
But to treat Rhodes Must Fall in this way is to miss a trick. For this movement is in fact infused with some very mainstream ways of thinking. The true engine of Rhodes Must Fall is the culture of victimhood, the view of the self as a hapless object to which things happen, upon which wicked words wreak havoc, a creature easily propelled into trauma by ideas or images or experiences. And that’s an idea which exists far beyond the quad of Oriel College, Oxford. Indeed, for all their pretences to radicalism — ironically fuelled by a media that treat them as extreme and exceptional — the Rhodes Must Fall people only express in gruff, Year Zero-style terms what is now one of the key, and most depressing, outlooks of the 21st-century West.
It is of course tempting just to slam the Rhodes Must Fall brigade. They typify today’s super-sensitive students, who fear the content of books and claim to be ‘triggered’ by the arrival on campus of anyone who has a different point of view to theirs. So they describe the statue of Rhodes as ‘aggressive’. They claim this stone representation of a man who plundered Africa harms black students. As I argued in a piece for Newsweek in August, Rhodes Must Fall is ISIS-like, sharing with those statue-smashing Islamists ‘a Year Zero attitude, a desire to rewrite history… to cleanse all remnants of a “problematic” past from the present’. This is the irony of today’s students who pose as caring: their flipside is a desire to destroy with extreme prejudice any idea or icon that offends them. They’re soft and tyrannical at the same time.
Yet Rhodes Must Fall is not some out-there group, as demonstrated by the fact that Oxford itself is kowtowing to it. It is better seen as a rougher expression of an everyday culture: the cult of the victim. The most striking thing about the Rhodes Must Fall activists is their self-negation of their moral autonomy, their reduction of themselves to mere products of history, created and damaged by historical circumstance and their cultural surroundings as surely as cells in a petri dish are rearranged by a scientist. They claim the statue of Rhodes does ‘violence’ to them. They say they are victims of ‘the colonial wound’. They argue that ‘the festering, rotting wound that is the ideology of white supremacy’ continues to do damage to ‘our black and brown bodies’.
Here, black students — intelligent, autonomous people — are reduced to mere ‘bodies’, shoved and shaped by the inanimate representations of history that surround them. One supporter of Rhodes Must Fall says it is unacceptable to have such ‘cultural detritus of empire’ on campus, as it can be ‘stifling for non-white students’, speaking to how history ‘continues to harm black and minority ethnic people living in Britain today’. The irony of a supposedly anti-racist movement treating black students effectively as bovine, as less capable than whites of negotiating public or controversial spaces, as acted upon by long-gone events, is as profound as it is dispiriting: in seeking to speak up for blacks, it actually diminishes their autonomy, their humanity.