Opinion: Why it would be wrong to rename Wills Memorial

A response to the creator of the petition

The debate around the petition to change the name of the Wills Memorial Building – the main building of the university and home to the departments of Law and Geological Sciences – has descended into delirium.

Supporters and opponents of the petition have been exchanging comments dismissing each other without actually addressing the arguments they take issue with. The debate has created an arena in which everyone within it engages in a game of passive aggressive, ad hominem ping-pong.

In this article I will be responding to an opinion piece published by Asher Websdale in which he explains his support of the ‘Rename Wills’ petition.

The SU endorsed the name change earlier this week

He begins his argument by addressing the charges of ‘whitewashing history’ that have been levelled at him and his fellow proponents. Some have argued that to change the name of the building would amount to erasure of history; Websdale counters this charge by pointing out an irony, namely, that ‘If anywhere we have seen the erasure of history and whitewashing’s most dominant triumph it is the era beginning in the 17th century.’

The petition to not rename WMB has now overtaken the pro-rename one

It does not follow that changing the name of the building can be justified because, as Ros Martin writes in an article quoted by Websdale, ‘there are missing voices.’ A building erected as a result of profits made through immoral practices is unlikely to have an effect on how people think about the transatlantic slave trade, nor is it a glorification of that trade.

Moreover, the privileging of one form of erasure over another, which is what is being argued for, isn’t enough reason, nor is it convincing enough, to change the name of a university building.

A picture of the author

Websdale goes on to point out, quite rightly, the lack of education on the legacy of slavery or the Wills family and their connection to it. This issue could easily be rectified by a plaque in the heart of the Wills Memorial Building and/or a pamphlet distributed to all students in first year detailing the history of the institution.

The building in question

Another point is one of seeking justice. Namely, seeking the justice of those that suffered in order that Henry Overton Wills – the individual after whom the building is named – profit greatly and subsequently have a building erected in his honour. The removal of Wills’ name would amount to a renunciation of sorts. As a symbolic gesture, one can see the power it would have but the building still stands. The memory of the Wills family is as it were still embedded in the fabric of the building and removing the name will not change that.

A far more powerful gesture, and one that would follow the logic of the arguments put forward, would be to replace the building altogether. I suspect the movers of this petition are aware of the impossibility of this option, so a simple renaming appears, quite frankly, as a compromise.

If this petition fails to achieve a renaming of the building – putting aside the issues of choosing a replacement name, difficulties in tampering with the fabric of a publicly listed building, or opposition from students – it will do so because the arguments have not been constructed to convince ordinary students, or the upper echelons of university management who can bring about the change they seek.

Although well intentioned, the movement appears to be a classic exercise in student ‘activism’: virtue signalling posturing that fails to fix any of the underlying issues of racism or remembrance.