The “Dear Scrotty Students” letter that supposedly addressed a controversy concerning a statue said that “a key part of the Oxford intellectual tradition [is that] you can argue any damn thing you like but you need to be able to justify it with facts and logic—otherwise your idea is worthless.” The letter did not tell us why the students said that the Rhodes statue should be removed, so we can gauge the worth of their contentions, but, on the other hand, it presented little by the way of logic and facts for keeping the statue of Rhodes other than to say that he was an Oxford benefactor. I understand that money often trumps everything else, but I hoped that the university would present at least some reasoned argument for keeping the Rhodes monument. Instead, the response attacked the change-seekers’ heritage, country, and continent: your ancestors lived in mud huts; the Bantus have not contributed to modern civilization; South Africa has high rates of murder and sicknesses. Even if true, so bloody what? That “reasoning” does nothing to explain why Rhodes statue should stay where it is. Surely, I thought, a spokesperson for Oxford ought to know the meaning of non sequitur and avoid it.
The supposed letter did say that Oxford “always prefers facts and free, open debate.” But it closed with: “you have everything to learn from us; we have nothing to learn from you.” You can’t believe both statements. That closing is not a tenet of open debate, but of the closing of the British, or at least, the Oxford mind. No one who is truly an educator should ever say that I won’t listen to you. No one who believes in open debate would ever say that they have nothing to learn from someone else.
This “reasoning” is akin to the following scenario: A brit tells me that kale is healthy and will not invariably make me puke. I reply: “I do not need to respond to your reasoning. I won’t even listen to your contentions. I have nothing to learn from you. You are English, and your ancestors were brutal, murderous, disease-spreading colonists, and your country can’t even play good rugby anymore.”
An intelligent, reasoning person should have quickly questioned the authenticity of a letter employing such schoolyard logic (“So’s your mother”). Americans especially should have had doubts when the letter asked, “Thomas Jefferson kept slaves: does that invalidate the US Constitution?” Jefferson, of course, was not a drafter of the Constitution, and the question is unlikely to have come from an informed person.
After reading the letter, I did five minutes of internet research, and I was not surprised to find that the letter was indeed a fake. It was a product of a writer on Breitbart.com in 2015. He had concerns that the relatively moderate and reasoned approach by Oxford to the Rhodes statue controversy had not been firm enough. He wrote the “letter” but prefaced it with: “Here is the letter Oriel College should have written to the campaigners from Rhodes Must Fall.”
Subsequent appearances of the letter on the internet and in emails have dropped this introduction, and without this preface it elicits many comments of praise from people who have reflexively accepted it as authentic. Why the commendations? It must be the intemperate tone towards the African students. Like the actual letter writer, the praise-givers must be fantasizing that this is what they would have said to those seeking change if they were the head of Oxford. In their fantasy world, this is a convincing letter.
Some versions of the letter place an asterisk after “Autres temps, autres moeurs” in the text, and that phrase is translated after the letter’s conclusion. Apparently whoever placed the footnote and those who forward the letter don’t expect their readers to understand the foreign language even though the letter castigates those who lack this comprehension: “If you don’t understand what this means – and it would not remotely surprise us if that were the case – then we really think you should ask yourself the question: “Why am I at Oxford?” The irony seems lost on many who read this passage.
Once again, I am reminded of the power of the internet. It places a world of knowledge at our fingertips, but many can’t spend the few moments to seek it out. They are not equipped to detect sloppy thinking and prefer to remain in the ignorance that the internet could dispel. But they can use the internet to pass along stupidities to other like-minded people.
I wonder if “scrotty” should be applied to them.