This week, the cancel culture became a royal pain with the removal of the portrait of the Queen by Oxford students at Magdalen College because her image is threatening to some students and “represents recent colonial history.” The decision follows King’s College formally apologizing for sending out an email after the death of her husband, Prince Philip, which showed a picture of Philip opening university’s Maughan Library with the Queen in 2002.
It appears Magdalen College has come a long way since it was a Royalist stronghold in the English Civil War. Indeed, the school’s own historical account refers to its own victimization as the result of a type of 17th Century cancel movement: “During the English Civil War of the 1640s, we were solidly Royalist, and had to endure a purge of our President and many of our Fellows after the victory of the Parliamentarians.”
Now, a committee has called for the removal of the image of the Queen because, as one student explained, “patriotism and colonialism are not really separable.” The Committee found that the portrait made some feel “unwelcomed” because the Queen represents “recent colonial history.”
By taking down the portrait, the committee hoped to make Oxford “a welcoming, neutral place for all members regardless of background, demographic, or views.”
It is truly a sad moment for an institution that is so heavily steeped in history.
In the case of Prince Philip, it was considered a mistake to even email his image after his death. King’s College sent out the photo of the man who was the governor of the university since 1955. The email simply said “As the nation marks the death of HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, we thought you might like to see this photo of the duke at the official opening of the Maughan Library in 2002, which some colleagues will remember.”
Given the Duke’s long governorship of the university, it is absurd to bar any image of Philip but the University apologized after some objected that Philip engaged in “historical racism.” The complaints were made to the university’s Anti-Racism Community of Practice, according to the Mail on Sunday.
Associate director Joleen Clarke issued an apology and explained that
“[T]he picture was included as a historical reference point following his death. The inclusion of the picture was not intended to commemorate him. Through feedback and subsequent conversations, we have come to realise the harm that this caused members of our community, because of his history of racist and sexist comments. We are sorry to have caused this harm.”
Phillip had a history of controversial and insensitive comments, including comments denounced as racist like his comment in 1986 to British students visiting China, “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.” He also was criticized for sexist comments like stating “I don’t think a prostitute is more moral than a wife, but they are doing the same thing.”
Philip was correctly and regularly criticized for such comments. They tarnished his legacy and were legitimately referenced in discussions of his life. However, this was just an email acknowledging his long connection and service to the school.
As with portrait of the Queen, such imagery is part of the rich history of these schools. They are part of a broader context. Indeed, the point of higher education is to consider such images and legacies in their historical and political contexts. We can go through life removing images that trigger us or discomfort us. Alternatively, we can place such images in their proper context and learn from the history that they represent.
None of us are hermetically sealed from history or its imagery. Oxford students should celebrate that history even as they change it. Indeed, many of these students embody the changing face and values of Oxford.