When students at Manchester University recently painted over a mural featuring Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, backlash was swift. Commentators branded the students “snowflakes”, their actions akin to “vandalism” and their motives “asinine”, part of a broader movement to “erase controversial figures from campuses”. Others balked at the notion that Kipling’s poem, a perennial British favourite, could be considered “offensive to minorities” – Serena Williams likes it, so it can’t be racist!
But Manchester’s Students’ Union officers – who were responsible for replacing Kipling’s poem with Still I Rise by Maya Angelou – never said the poem itself was racist, nor were they seeking to efface Kipling from history. “We weren’t trying to erase Kipling – we did it deliberately so you could still see his words,” Deej Malik-Johnson, one of the officers, told the New York Times. Instead, they had sought to spark a wider conversation about the ways the history of western art is entangled with colonialism, an ideology that continues to affect people of colour in Britain and across the world.
Kipling is far from innocent in that regard. He has long been criticised for his views on empire, lambasted as a “jingo imperialist” by George Orwell and infamously writing of “the White Man’s burden” to colonise the “sullen peoples”. As Stephen Bush points out, even If was written in praise of British colonial politician Leander Starr Jameson and his botched raid against the South African Republic, an act preceding conflicts that would eventually produce apartheid.
The palimpsest that now stands in the Manchester Students’ Union building (which, it should be noted, is named after Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist) allows readers to examine the complexity of these issues. By juxtaposing the words of a white British imperialist with those of an African-American civil rights leader, anyone who passes is encouraged to consider the contrasts between those writers, and to contemplate how their respective ideologies might be linked to contemporary social problems.
Such nuance was lost on many of the students’ critics. Indeed, it seems that any time a student of colour makes even the mildest statement on a race-related issue, the statement is wilfully misconstrued and the student dragged through the mud by the rightwing press. In my first year studying English at Cambridge University, I signed an open letter co-authored by Lola Olufemi, a recent graduate who was calling for more focus on authors of colour in the English curriculum.
Despite explicitly stating, “This is not a call for the exclusion of white men from reading lists”, Olufemi was lampooned on the front page of the Telegraph for “forc[ing] Cambridge to drop white authors”, a blatant falsehood. The paper later issued a tepid clarification, but it didn’t stop the torrent of online abuse directed at Olufemi, a pattern that has been repeated against the women who helped paint over the mural.
In both cases, the complexities of student opinion have been flattened into a screeching caricature, designed to whip up as much anti-PC outrage as possible. A small-scale democratic decision taken by an elected student union to change their decor is being treated as if it heralds “the end of literature”.
Suffice to say, this is a bit of an overreaction. A few undergraduates are hardly going to overturn centuries of British literary history in the stroke of a brush. Manchester’s Students’ Union are not censoring Kipling, nor are they denying anyone the right to read Kipling’s work and judge it for themselves. They are simply saying that he is not an author who represents their values.
Far more censorial is the notion that canonical authors like Kipling should never be questioned, and that any student who does should be publicly shamed. Students are derided for their supposed sensitivity, but their critics would do well to consider why they are so offended by someone choosing to celebrate a black woman rather than a white man, and whether such a decision warrants nationwide condemnation.
Time and again, students have called for a meaningful, nuanced debate of social issues, and time and again, those calls have been met with ignorance and mockery. If students’ critics want their arguments to be heard, they need to start by listening.