Should Cecil Rhodes Stay?

OXFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02:  A statue of Cecil Rhodes is displayed on the front of on Oriel College on February 2, 2016 in
OXFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is displayed on the front of on Oriel College on February 2, 2016 in Oxford, England. Oriel College has decided to keep its statue of Cecil Rhodes despite the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The campaign for the removal of Sir Cecil Rhodes' statue at Oxford University will not earn history's approval; like faded graffiti it will remain a sore denial of a reality and not a genuine purging of a societal attitude.

The statue to this racist and gender-divisive figure, erected at a time when Britain imposed its colonial will in the world, should be a reminder of how and where we must not tread again. It should also serve to acknowledge all those Rhodes scholars who have benefitted from his financial largesse, many of them driving these troubling issues of the past towards future irrelevance in a modern context of fairness and equality.

Photoshopping history's complicated picture feeds into today's trend towards expediency and instant results. And, by setting this precedent we should also review our choice of statuary to those who are considered to be heroes of our recent history, such as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara and JF Kennedy, for no one is a saint working outside their own human fragility or the accommodating morality of their time.

And, just as work places, board rooms, panels of discussion and political benches without equal numbers of women are beginning to look like a demential blip, we remember the likes of Cecil Rhodes for a way of life that is now wholly unacceptable. The fact that commemorations of past historical figures remain open to the elements and defecating bird life does not mean we hold them up unquestioningly on a pedestal of inherited esteem, but rather as sedimentary layers of our evolution. Rhodes' statue is a historical record that an arbitrary line of conscience a century later should judge, but not erase. Humans should have to live with it; it has the power to condemn the past by reminding us of it.

Perhaps the era of reverence of a lone figure in a public space is over; certainly snarling lions and mounted riders à la Napoleon belong to a different time and place. A commemoration of war, not its victory or defeat, is more often acknowledged by the bravery of many, and, equally, by their suffering and sacrifice. However, blotting out the greater context of history and its lessons bows to the arrogance of successive generations and the reality of the mitigating circumstances of an entangled world whose moral challenge is still about choosing between the lesser of two, three or four evils and where answers to difficult questions are yes, no and maybe.

That is not to say that a compromise should not be considered with regards to the statue's prominent positioning on the facade of Oriel College, uncomfortably defining the purpose of a building hosting future generations of doers and thinkers. It could be moved, into a quadrangle, next to a small fountain or garden without excluding for posterity the individual responsible for the future opportunity of many.  

We could also erect in its place a statue to Bill and Melinda Gates. But then should we honour the likes of Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi or Justice Antonin Scalia? Each is thought by millions to be a courageous forward-thinker and actor, except by those who are immigrant-skeptic, from a muslim ethnic minority or by gays aspiring to the same reproductive and marriage rights as others.

We live in an unrecognisable world to Cecil Rhodes, and better that he remain a visual anachronism than to try to wipe out the acceptance of racism that erected him in the first place. To be a moralist in this way today opens up the path to the same hypocrisies of Rhodes' time.

The existence of his statue remains, however, a moralising influence. Scars are often catalysts for fighting against the norm, while unblemished skin absolves us from maturity and ageing, and can perpetuate do-gooder hubris. 

Rhodes' statue should be allowed to remain, to languish publicly, if perhaps more peripherally, with a 21st-Century proviso: "Giving is commendable, but it does not absolve the giver from those circumstances of injustice which made the giving possible, nor should its recipients be constrained from challenging the historical conditions of that giving." Something along those lines anyway.