OPINION: Quest to tear down statues over racism is intellectually vapid

The late 19th century was a great age for putting up statues, and the early 21st, for pulling them down. As the states of the European empires gained their independence, the statues and other memorials of their colonial masters came to seem ridiculous.

The Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko ordered the statue of King Leopold II of Belgium - a more than usually rapacious imperialist - removed from the capital, Kinshasa, in 1967. Re-erected in 2005 on the grounds that the king had some 'positive aspects', it caused widespread offence and was taken down again in hours.

The British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes has fared less well. The man who 'created' Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) lived and died in southern Africa, making a vast fortune from diamond mining. He believed that Britain should run the world - a version of his will directed the trustees to fund a "secret society… the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world."

The novelist John Buchan, himself strongly imperialist, described Rhodes as "a murky and distorted genius". Rhodes lived in an age where the doctrines of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus and even Charles Darwin inclined the imperialist British to regard British white men as the summit of a descending hierarchy of intelligence and fitness to rule: to believe the empire's motherland should inherit the earth was no large stretch.

The statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town was removed last April, as the university authorities supported the students' Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Yet in neighbouring Zimbabwe - once Rhodesia - President Robert Mugabe has not bowed to pressure from war veterans to dig up Rhodes's body from its grave near the city of Bulawayo: Godfrey Mahachi, head of the country's museums and monuments, said that "it is part of national history and heritage and therefore it should not be tampered with" - and it hasn't been.

No such view among many students of colour in Britain's most famed university. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign has come to Oxford, where there's a Rhodes statue in a niche of Oriel College, Rhodes's alma mater. Brian Kwoba, a PhD student and leader of the campaign, said that, "Cecil Rhodes is responsible for all manner of stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of Black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labor exploitation in the diamond mines and devising proto-apartheid policies" - and he's right.

Oxford's chancellor, the former Conservative cabinet minister Chris Patten, has robustly told the protestors that if they "aren't prepared to show the generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history… then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere."

In the United States, as in the United Kingdom, students have seized on memorials they deem oppressive and speech they deem offensive - and are prepared to campaign militantly to have these wrongs removed. The campaign at Yale University, where racial tensions began to escalate last fall, is the most complex. In a detailed piece on the dispute, the Columbia Journalism Review's Danny Funt wrote that "protestors demand exemption from the rules of open discourse."

That isn't how they see it. One of the exhibits in the racism charge is that black women students seeking entrance to a fraternity party last October were allegedly turned away, because the organisers would accept "white girls only": the reporting of the event by the Yale Daily News was judged as racist, according to the _CJR _piece, because its account "incensed some students, who felt it made the denial too prominent and reduced allegations to a he said, she said stalemate."

Around the same time, back in the UK, the writer Germaine Greer, a leading, highly individualistic feminist of her generation (she's in her mid-70s) was the target of an attempt by students at Cardiff University to ban a talk she was to give because she did not believe that transgendered men were women. She was labeled 'transphobic' for expressing views hurtful to transsexuals. She seemed at first inclined not to give the talk - but assured of security, she did, and repeated her views with her usual clarity: "I don't believe a woman is a man without a cock. You can beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It still won't make me change my mind."

A recent poll by the magazine Spiked showed that half the UK universities have some form of curb on free speech, applied by the student unions. Many of those restrictions are at the top universities, such as the London School of Economics, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

At both Yale and Cardiff, the notion that speech should be free is being inverted: freedom can be oppression, where what is freely said is judged to hurt, or show lack of respect, or contain masked prejudice. That's intellectually vapid: it speaks to a space populated by groups and individuals unable to speak to each other, struggling for the right to have their view accepted before they discuss.

The Yale protests, and those against Rhodes's statues in Cape Town and Oxford, however, raise the more substantial matters of race, the legacies of imperialism and the low representation of students of colour in the student body, and even more among scholars. On this, something can be done: at Oxford, especially, student admissions are heavily skewed to pupils from British private schools, who tend to be white. (Though a rising proportion are of Asian descent. Afro-British student numbers are rising more slowly, and Afro-British scholars even more so.)

But the statues of Rhodes should be left where they are (too late, for Cape Town). In keeping with the spirit and practice of a university, they could be accompanied by a plaque of some size, linking to a website, with an unvarnished history of the man's actions, illuminating what Buchan called his 'murky' qualities, as well as what Mahachi wants: an account of his contribution to Zimbabwe's, and South Africa's, heritage.

Statues erected to commemorate should remain to spur reflection, and criticism. In these eruptions of cultural warfare, the only guide is mutual commitment to understand - which can never end, if we retain liberal values.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including 'What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics'. He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.