The academic term has barely started, and the campus-censorship debate is already blazing. Going on the coverage splashed across the national media in recent weeks, you’d have thought the Stepford Students had declared their own Caliphate. In fact, they’ve just been doing what they’ve always done – only now everyone seems to care.
At the centre of it all is Rhodes Must Fall, an Oxford student campaign that is calling for the statue of Victorian-era colonialist, Cecil Rhodes, to be removed from Oriel College – a college that was built using his ill-gotten gains. Led by Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African student who was inspired by the RMF campaign at the University of Cape Town, it is calling on the college to remove the statue and destroy it, or, maybe, put it in a museum. While Oriel has said it will consider putting up a plaque, to ‘contextualise’ the statue, Historic England has insisted the statue should stay as it is.
The RMF crew’s arguments are drenched in a mix of entitlement and victimhood, and underpinned by the notion that hearing an idea you disagree with, or seeing a statue that makes you bristle, is the equivalent to being punched in the face. ‘There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures. There’s a violence to having to sit with paintings of former slave holders while writing your exams – that’s really problematic’, said an RMF campaigner on Sky News.
This latest campus dust-up has had the commentariat talking and arguing for weeks. National newspapers have been reporting on Qwabe’s Facebook spats; RMF stalwarts have spoken on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme; and now Oxford bigwigs have waded in, slamming these Year Zero students for their illiberal and authoritarian ways. Oxford’s new vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, used her installation ceremony this week to call on Oxford students to broaden their minds. Meanwhile, Oxford chancellor and former chair of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, suggested that students should feel robust enough to come to terms with the ills of the past; he said that if they don’t want to engage with difficult ideas, then they should go and study in China.
Aside from some awkward comments about why universities should ‘never tolerate intolerance’, and should be ‘institutions where freedom of argument and debate should be unchallenged principles’, Patten hit the nail on the head. The rise of campus censorship, and the terrifying shift from political, No Platforming censorship to the new, free-floating offence-taking culture of Safe Spaces, is not just students’ union muppetry: it’s also a palpable threat to the founding principles of the academy, and, by connection, democratic society.