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Tom Goodyer responds to news of a recent petition started by students to change the name of the Wills Memorial Building because of its links to the slave trade.

History is not something to cower from. It is, as that dull cliché says, to be learned from so as not to repeat it and perhaps just as importantly to not ignore or forget the strife of those affected by it. The petition to change the name of the Wills Memorial Building and its sister campaign to change the name of the Colston Hall, both because of their eponyms’ links to the slave trade, through tobacco and ivory respectively, should learn this.

Related article: Students want Wills Memorial Building renamed over slavery links

Firstly, what do these campaigns seek to achieve? If it is to stamp out racism, then the energy of both would be better spent elsewhere. Bristol University and city both have a lot to do, in terms of tackling ethnic inequality and racism. Since the start of 2017, numerous reports of racism in the university have emerged. Changing the name of a building is not going to help that. Racist people will not stop being racist. Victims of racism will not stop feeling victimised. These campaigns are very noticeable, performative enactments of social justice, suggesting a desire to appear progressive, without engendering any real change. They speak more to the virtue-signalling vanity of their creators than any notion of ‘homogenous toleration of slave masters’ at Bristol.

More than this though, they are emblematic of a censoriousness, which is wholly at odds with what a university should be. I do not mean that the University should condone the acts of someone like H. O. Wills, but that for universities to continue to be ‘safe spaces for free speech,’ to use Timothy Garton Ash’s phrase and not turn into places of intellectual cowardice censorship of all types should be vehemently opposed by the student and staff body alike. The culture of banning, whether it is Blurred Lines or alarmingly Charlie Hebdo, is only ever detrimental to intellectual enquiry and ‘challenging accepted norms,’ a quote used by the Wills Memorial petition, without any awareness of the irony. Instead, open debate should be fostered – challenge the names of these buildings, demonstrate why the acts of these men are deplorable, but don’t ban them and deny the students that come after you that same pleasure.

‘The past is unchangeable and the best way to challenge it is to create a more open and tolerant present’

History is perhaps the field where this open debate is perhaps most crucial. History demands to be met head on, its ugliness and scars need analysing not ignoring. The past is unchangeable and the best way to challenge it is to create a more open and tolerant present. This will never come from changing the names of buildings, for ridding Bristol of the names Wills and Colston is not the same as ridding it of their crimes or how those crimes are ineluctably linked to the city. Cutting the heads off daffodils is not the same as stopping spring.

Moreover, these petitions seem patronising. The idea that university students should be coddled away from a name deeply underestimates their intellectual maturity. It undermines the hard battles fought over the last century in the name of empowerment to infantilise in such a way. If these battles have taught us anything it should be that human beings are capable of rising above a simple name, to truly tackle injustice, injustice being something there is certainly not a dearth of.

What is most worrying is not these petitions, which will ultimately falter, but how they epitomise the tendency towards the rewriting of history and cosseting of the student body, which is beginning to typify the struggle for equality, especially in universities. How the discourse of equality has altered from empowerment to disempowerment is patronising, ignorant and hinders the struggle. Discuss, criticise and challenge history. Don’t cower from it – it is obvious that changing the name of the Wills Memorial Building achieves nothing.


Should Wills Memorial Building be renamed? Let us know your thoughts.

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