There is a growing tendency in our society for people to protest what they see as offence. The Internet may have exacerbated this but, even in the real world, much hot air is dedicated to expressing a sense of “injury” over misplaced words or symbols. Many now believe that society owes them the right not to be offended and they become demanding and aggressive when this perceived right is denied.
The British are more tolerant that we are given credit for but we are also irreverent and this is much misunderstood by Johnny Foreigner. I prize irreverence. In Thailand people are gaoled for insulting the Royal Family. I respect the Thai tradition and I support their right to enforce their laws. But in Britain……in Britain I value the right to say that the Queen should abdicate, Prince Phillip is a racist old fool and the that royal kids are a bloody rabble. I support the right of the world and its mother to speculate over the monarchies involvement in the death of Princess Di even though I believe they are TALKING BOLLOCKS! I support the right to talk bollocks because I am tolerant and if I cannot tolerate what I do not like then my tolerance means nothing. I believe that irreverence goes hand in hand with tolerance and a free society. Other countries may choose to reject tolerance and embrace autocracy – Good luck with that and when you have achieved a more liberal society than The West, let me know.
Society does not owe anyone the right not to be offended but we seem to be gradually giving in to the hyper-sensitivities of anyone who can slip a cigarette paper between their own opinions and those of their neighbours. This is detrimental to diversity of intelligent debate and, to my mind, is starting to resemble McCarthyism.
One example was the shameful way that Nobel laureate Tim Hunt was forced to resign after ignorant, intolerant and mean spirited reports of what appears to have been an ironic and humorous speech in support of women in science which was understood as such by his audience. Another is the idiotic way that the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch was pilloried for standing up for black actors but using the term “coloured”. A word not on the 2015 list of acceptable words as accepted by supporters of the American National Association of Coloured People. More recently there is a campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford and Oriel College appear to be caving in.
It’s generally accepted that many, if not all figures from British imperial history, had racist opinions. They were part of a society which ran a global empire – of course they were racists. What is not recognised is that racist views were held by the majority of the population of the planet up until The Holocaust. Do we believe the Romans or the Mughals or the Aztecs were not racist? Of course not and in many parts of the world, racism is more or less the de facto norm even today. Check out Saudi treatment of immigrant labour or Racism in South Korea.
Removing statues and other artefacts from previous generations would be pandering to an arrogant and self righteous attitude that WE (the people of today) have reached the pinnacle of moral thinking. That this generation alone is the moral arbiter and may stand in judgement over all previous generations. It is akin to the beliefs of Rhodes himself who is quoted as saying: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”. The bigots of today aren’t so interested in spreading Liberalism to the rest of the world but do want to push their values back in time.
We are no more at a moral peak than Cecil Rhodes. Today in the West we obsess over equality and identity but previous generations had other priorities. One reason we are able to consider the finer points of the nomenclature of ethnic groups is because our basic needs are met but even today in Iraq, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere many might consider equality and democracy as secondary to strong leadership, security and feeding their kids. Are we to condemn them for this?
Some consider that Mahatma Gandhi’s religious zeal alienated Muslims leading to Indian partition. Should statues of Gandhi be removed? Martin Luther King is idolised by millions for his fight against racism but he had less than modern opinions regarding women. By today’s standards he would be considered not only a sexist but, probably, a misogynist. Should his memorial be torn down?
A recent article in The Economist postulated something I have long believed; that animal minds are basically similar to human minds and that the difference in consciousness is more a level of degree. Add to this the widely held belief that feeding increased human population levels will require more effiicient farming which necessitate more agriculture and less livestock and it is at least possible that the world of the 22nd century might imbue animals with similar rights to humans. Should young students of the 22nd century poor shit over statues of Barak Obama for eating meat?
It is usually the Left who support criticism of past generations because the Left believe that only they are motivated by morality. The Left cannot conceive that others may have alternative yet legitimate opinions and so they are driven to purging the world of symbols which they consider fallible by the standards of the day but this is a formula for ongoing soviet style revisionism and authoritarianism. Removing evidence that Rhodes was part of the story of how our society evolved is akin to totalitarian “Year Zero” thinking. It is immature, ignorant and intolerant and based on an unfounded and bigoted sense of one’s own absolute riotousness. It also neglects the unpalatable truth that our liberal democracy was established, not in one big bang of enlightenment, but by a gradual evolution building on foundations laid down by ancestors for whom racism was an everyday reality.
As a prestigious college Oriel should champion rationalism. As a British university it should also champion diversity of opinion and irreverence. It should not rearrange its architecture and traditions to please the current intake of students. Monuments which are allowed to gradually become part of the physical and cultural background allow us to recognise the flawed nature of past heroes and kerb misplaced adoration of current heroes. It would be facinating to know how many of those calling for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes were singing Things Can Only Get Better when he was elected.
Symbols such as Rhodes’ statue and King’s memorial teaches us humility by allowing us to learn from past deeds while recognising that we are all fallible by dint of our common humanity.
Finally, British education institutions today rely less on government funding and more on fees. Universities now assiduously court foreign students and the decision of Oriel college may be motivated partly by a desire to please a foreign, and sometimes anti-British, audience. While educating the world is a noble goal and a useful revenue stream, if Oriel do not have the balls to stand up for democratic and rational values then they may as well sell themselves to a Chinese sovereign wealth fund and start flogging doctorates in the sayings of Chairman Mao or Papa Xi loves Mommy Peng.