Busted!

Simpartas‏ @Simpartas – Spineless Dean Professor Patrick Leman should expel all non-ethnic students. Removing busts almost amounts to the same thing; Wigstontiger‏ @WiggoTigo – Leman is a fucking disgrace; BurnnnnnBebe @quintonf5 – He is the worst of self loathing white men; Duncan Rimmer‏ @duncr – Professor Patrick Leman should ban himself if he hates bearded white men so much; Holtz‏ @Biorealism – Professor Leman is a cuck

A little over a year ago, it feels longer, I attracted unsolicited (and unwanted) attention about an article that initially appeared in the Daily Telegraph. I was acting as Executive Dean at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at the time and, therefore, head of one of the most distinguished mental health research and education institutions in the world. An Institute with an illustrious history. For instance, during the First World War it pioneered the treatment of shell shock, and has led on areas of research from child psychiatry through to dementia and psychiatric genetics.

The Telegraph article described a plan to remove busts of two of the Institute’s founders – Henry Maudsley and Frederick Mott – to be replaced by more ethnically diverse images. Except, the story wasn’t true. There were plans for a new photographic exhibition of staff, students, and others involved with the Institute’s work from around the world on a wall near the entrance to the main lecture theatre. We wanted to make the environment more welcoming to everyone, whatever their background, and better reflect the international and diverse character and values of the modern Institute. But there were no plans to remove the two founders’ busts which sit in recesses on the stair wells of the main building.

The truth was, essentially, a non-story – a modest foray into interior design by adding a few new pictures to the wall – and we told The Telegraph this. In fact we told them five times on the days preceding the publication of the article. They published nonetheless: a story about an illustrious institution removing statues of founders to be replaced by “ethnically diverse images” was chum too tempting to keep from the ocean. But it worked – people took the bait and started clicking. Within hours my inbox was full of vitriolic emails. Twitter went bonkers. And then, of course, there was the newspaper’s online comments section (see here for some of that).

Now, this blog isn’t a late stab at vindication or any attempt to extend discussion of that topic. I’m a big boy, I know how things roll, and I don’t hold grudges. Rather, it’s an attempt to consider. Not really about whether it is right to celebrate diversity, or to seek to make the physical space of education environments more representative of an institution’s past, present and future; that just seems self-evidently the right thing to do and there’s plenty of research evidence supporting the benefits for students’ learning and everyone’s well being. Nor are there many lessons to learn about how to deal with the press more effectively; we could have done little more to point out the story was wrong. It was literally manufactured, fake news, and word is that’s sadly not uncommon in the Telegraph these days. But what really puzzled me, and continues to puzzle me, is what on earth it is about statues (and busts) that gets people so darn vexed!

Statues are symbols. You get a statue if you’re famous and powerful, literally an idol. That’s why dictators strew their countries’ landscapes and squares with metal facsimiles, often larger than life, typically in some authoritarian or kitsch pose. Statues, busts, can act to commemorate but many also serve as a handy reminder that you’re being watched: they tell you who’s in charge, they are manifestations (representations) and static enforcers of power. As I write this, I wonder if I should write a psychology of statues? There’s an essay to be written…

Many statues are political statements thrust upon us. If they occupy what you feel is your personal (or shared) space against your wishes, it’s not a million miles away from someone coming and sitting themselves down in your living room, uninvited (and refusing to move). Few people would welcome that imposition, even from a friend. And I think if you reverse the case, and consider moving something that has always been there, that is a similar sort of invasion of space and privacy. But putting up or taking down a statue symbolises a change that extends beyond the physical space: many people often do not react well when Microsoft adjusts the format of their inbox, let alone invade and rearrange the fabric of their physical lives! Still, the power of statues, busts, as symbols rather bemuses me. Universities can plonk eyesore new builds in the middle of a campus – just go see York – and no-one even so much as bats an eyelid. But move the statue of the founder – even one with the most dubious background – and you are in trouble. That’s what Oriel College found out when they tried to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes. That’s what has triggered murder and widespread civil unrest from Ancient Rome to modern day Charlottesville.

So we need to think about statues, what and how they represent our wider world and the effects they have. What about that Telegraph story? To their credit, the BBC, Times, Guardian and several European and North American broadcasters called me at the time, and did not pursue the story when we made it clear to them that it was untrue. But a motley bunch of publications including The Independent, Daily Mail, Fox News, and several others across the globe essentially reproduced the yarn, without bothering to check any details with us. The Daily Mail added a picture of King’s College, Cambridge. Haha… And I was invited to a face-to-face interview on Fox News Primetime with Tucker Carlson. Although an all-expenses trip over to New York to set the record straight might have appealed… I declined. The story was not a story, and we weren’t going to give it oxygen.