This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
The Cambridge history faculty’s library is called “the Seeley”. It has been in its current, James Stirling-designed building since 1968, and named after the eponymous Sir John (an eminent Victorian) since 1897. You will not be surprised to learn that these facts, which somehow left people in my time unbothered, are now distressing the current crop of undergraduates.
We all know the drill by now:
Step 1: Activists discover that Famous Historical Figure After Whom Something Is Named (in this case, John Robert Seeley) held views that they do not agree with (to wit, the value of then-thing, the British Empire)
Step 2: Cue outrage, and loud displays about having Strong Feelings About Bad Things
Step 3: Initiate patently implausible claims about how the names of old buildings are causally responsible for perpetuating the amorphous (yet allegedly all-pervasive and overwhelming) evils known as “structural racism” and “colonialism” (never explain how or why this is so)
Step 4: Issue demands for re-naming, trading on the fantasy that language is uniquely powerful, and by merely changing the words we use the social world will become more just
Step 5: Imply (or just outright state) that anyone who disagrees is a racist
Step 6: Repeat until targeted institution(s) capitulate from exhaustion and/or fear.
On the other side of the resulting shouting match, opponents are apt to reply that this is all terribly unfair. People in the past, you see, didn’t live up to our high moral standards. They held views that were regrettable, but it wasn’t their fault. Everybody thought like that back then, so we can’t blame specific individuals for thinking that way. Cut the past some slack; they weren’t lucky enough to be as enlightened as us!
Typically, no progress whatsoever is made in such debates. Likely, what I have to say will make no difference, either, and will simply result in me being called names. But on the miniscule chance that it might, here goes.
Both sides in this “debate” are wrong. It is not true that we are now morally enlightened, whereas people in the past were not, and so we must either berate historical figures for their sins, or refuse to pass judgement on the grounds that the poor unfortunates didn’t know any better. The reason is simple. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we are more morally enlightened than they were. In fact, we just have different sets of blinkers on: different ways of shutting out the injustices of the world we live in.
Let’s not mention the cheap flights you took, whilst simultaneously spouting off about the need to address climate change
If you don’t believe me, then consider: who made your smartphone? There’s a decent chance it was made by forced labourers in China. (If not, it was still made in brutally exploitative sweatshop conditions.) Sure, we tend not to call these people slaves. And true, they aren’t kidnapped from one country, transported across the ocean in drastically inhumane conditions, and sold at auction. Modern slavery isn’t as visibly brutal as the early-modern chattel version. But the net impact is still horrendous in its human cost: lives exploited to the point of extreme degradation, trampled beneath the behemoth of global capitalism.
Do you actually do anything about it? No, me neither. For how could you (or I)? You’re just one person, after all. You need a smartphone for work and leisure, and if you didn’t buy one, well it wouldn’t make a difference — the abuses would continue, regardless. Plus, it’s all happening so far away. Sure, it’s horrible. You’d stop it in a heartbeat if you had the power! But we don’t have the power. So what can we do? You, me, everyone — we just shrug it off and get on with our day, scrolling through apps and websites. How else could one stay sane?
The same goes for the components that go into our various tech devices, in particular gold, tungsten, tin, and tantalum. Most of these are extracted by forced labour, a lot of it done by children, in regions of central Africa (especially the Democratic Republic of Congo). Extraction is controlled by armed groups, and the value of these assets is intimately connected to the astonishing brutality of the conflicts in the region, which in some cases have been raging for decades, and where mass rape of civilian populations is a long-established weapon of war. But it’s a long way away, right? And what could you or I possibly do about it?
Do you use TikTok? Well, that’s controlled by the Chinese state — which is currently engaged in genocide against the Uyghurs (some of whom provide the slave labour going into Western consumer products). Do you, like me, use any of Facebook, YouTube (i.e. Google) or Twitter? These are unregulated, overmighty tech behemoths that may be making democratic politics non-functional in the twenty-first century. But hey, I like funny cat videos as much as the next guy.
Now imagine how we might be judged by people a century hence who have of course overcome the various problems of our age (doubtless acquiring some new ones of their own). Might they not look on us with horror? How could you go on using smartphones made by slaves, linked to brutal resource extraction backed up with violence and rape? How could you think TikTok was just harmless fun, given what you knew about the Uyghur genocide? How could you not organise against Twitter and Facebook in the name of combatting extremism and saving your democracies? And let’s not even mention all those cheap flights you took, whilst simultaneously spouting off about the need to urgently address climate change.
Who we are
Even a moment’s grown-up reflection reveals a very obvious, pretty dull truth to us: most people in the past were not less morally enlightened than us. They were the same — they just lived in a different world, with different structures of oppression. For example, most people in the eighteenth century didn’t want the sugar in their tea, or their tobacco in their pipe, to be cut by slaves, any more than we want our smartphones to be made by forced labourers in the midst of genocide.
But what could they, back then, do about it? Slavery was their equivalent of a multi-billion-dollar global industry, which presented itself as a fact of life that the majority were repulsed by, but more or less reconciled themselves to living with, because for them it presented as a brute fact of life.
As for Seeley — who of course wrote after Britain’s abolition of the Atlantic slave trade — he confronted the British Empire of his day as a fact of life, the way we view Twitter, the Chinese state, or the global tech industry as fixed points of our political world. It is simply inaccurate (as the students at Cambridge have claimed) to say that Seeley was an arch-imperialist.
He condemned the conquest of India by force as grossly unjust, but he also thought Britain’s presence there was something that couldn’t simply be wished away. This inaccuracy should matter. Asserting otherwise should be a painful untruth for Cambridge history undergraduates to have to mouth, even as weary, conformist political slogans.
Likewise, Britain’s extended network of settler colonies were sandwiched between the rising powers of the USA and the Russian Empire, and could not simply be abandoned. Seeley thought that pulling out of Empire would have created power vacuums that led to blood-baths. He was, in effect, a forerunner of those who recently condemned the US for unilaterally scuttling from Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to return.
If you’re appalled by what Putin is doing to Ukraine, then you share Seeley’s fears about allowing rival powers a free hand in undefended territories.
None of this is really about making life better for people whose lives are disadvantaged due to the effects of history
Seeley may have advocated the wrong policies, coupled with a morally controversial assessment of the overall benefits of the British Empire. But to criticise him for thinking that the British Empire wasn’t going to magically disappear, and hence that it would need an ongoing policy orientation in a world of hostile powers, is to criticise him for taking reality as his starting point. That’s not so much unfair, as it is bewilderingly silly. Again, the people whom dons admit to read history at Cambridge ought to be better than this.
Destinies robed in modern brick
We return, as strike-observing, Covid-dislocated Cambridge undergraduates so seldom do, to the Sidgwick site, home of the Seeley. Calls to rename it on the basis of displeasure at the views held by a long-dead historian, who responded to his context in ways that are litte different from how we respond to ours, are not only facile, but ultimately hypocritical.
Before you condemn Seeley at the bar of moral judgement, pause to reflect that future generations will judge you. On many counts, they will find you deeply lacking. If you think that you are entitled to at least some of their sympathy, then you might consider extending some yourself.
If the response instead is the usual weak sauce about “dismantling structures of power” and “ending the legacy of colonialism”, that simply won’t do. Not only is this deeply implausible (only students and academics could make the mistake of thinking mere names of libraries could matter that much), it also achieves nothing for those who really are being harmed by the injustices of the past. The continued impacts of historical racism and colonialism are real, and are certainly evils we ought as a society to overcome.
But changing the name of the Seeley Library makes not one iota of difference. Are you seriously telling me that economically-ruined members of the Windrush Generation, or inner-city minorities disproportionately affected by crime and poverty, or migrants from the Indian sub-continent facing discrimination in Britain’s economically collapsed northern cities, are going to be made better off by the renaming of a library at the University of Cambridge? Such insulting condescension!
But that’s the giveaway. Because none of this is really about making life better for people whose lives are disadvantaged due to the effects of history.
Back in 1968 (a depressing reminder of how history repeats itself) the moral philosopher Bernard Williams noted that student protests often exhibits a peculiar logic. When it is pointed out to students (as well, it has to be added, as to academics who really ought to know better) that the real injustices are not occurring in the university, but somewhere else entirely, the reply often comes: but we are here, now, and so is the university — hence we will direct our anger and rage against it.
But as Williams noted, this “is straightforwardly childish; it is on all fours with admitting that the reason one is nasty to one’s father is that, while he is actually a bit nicer than the people one really hates, he is the one who is at home and gets upset.”
The past has no automatic authority to bind; sometimes we do well to throw it off
To which we can add two points. First, that these campaigns also have a further, psychological, function. Namely, of enabling those who partake in them to pretend that they too are not thoroughly entangled in complex webs of global injustice, in the face of which they are almost entirely impotent, and which they opt to either ignore, or to try and rationalise away through empty rhetoric about “doing the work” and “dismantling structures”. We aren’t morally better than people in the past — but we’ve certainly developed some novel mechanisms of self-deception.
Second, student protest by itself is inherently weak: it gains traction only when those in positions of authority (typically academics and administrators) indulge it. For various sociological reasons there is a tendency for those who, like myself, work in universities to want to be (seen to be) on the right — i.e. the left — side of history.
There is also a tendency to see the most radical leftist students as the true exemplars of the true left. This is heightened by yet another unfortunate tendency: that of seeing the world in dichotomous binaries. Given that what the protestors oppose — racism, colonialism, injustice — really are evil, it is easy to slip to the conclusion that because the protestors oppose the bad, they themselves must be good, and all their means the same. But life is never that simple.
For what it is worth, I do not think we ought to be bothered about changing the names of buildings per se. That some people in the past decided to name a library after some other person, is not, by itself, an especially important reason to keep the name. There may be good reasons to change the names of buildings and a blanket appeal to “the importance of preserving history” is unwise: witness those portions of the American right who appeal to “preserving history” as a way of continuing to celebrate individuals who slaughtered their fellow countrymen for the right to hold black people in bondage. The past has no automatic authority to bind. Sometimes we do well to throw it off.
So why care in this instance? Just this: becasuse if academics in Cambridge today capitulate in cases like the Seeley Library, upholding the confusions of our students as if they offered shining truth, then they give up on our role as educators, as defenders of the value of scholarly enquiry, and the importance of seeing the world in anything other than the crude monochrome of the ideologue. In other words, we abandon our vocation.
More than that, we will also abandon any limited authority we might previously have claimed with which to speak to society about the issues that really do matter: not the names of buildings in elite universities, but of how and why we ought to address the injustices that really are still happening out there in the world today. And if we forfeit all of this just because we want to look good in the eyes of our tribe, or because we are scared of being called names on the internet, then as well as being hypocrites, we will also be cowards.
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