What the events surrounding ‘that’ Rudyard Kipling poem tell us

Using the freedom of speech argument does not justify death threats

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Last week a poem was painted on a wall. The poem was Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ and the wall was in the Students Union in the University of Manchester. The students however weren't consulted and because of Kipling's offensive beliefs regarding people of colour it was deemed inappropriate. To demonstrate this the poem was painted over by UoM students with another poem, Maya Angelou's 'Still I Rise'.

Viewing it as an attack on free speech, internet trolls took the opportunity to send death threats to the students who painted over the poem. But the trolls in turn became the oppressors of free speech, something they claimed to be trying to uphold. However they failed to realise that Kipling's poem purposefully hasn't been removed and is still visible underneath to start a conversation.

Rudyard Kipling was a brilliant writer, but he was a product of his time. His work such as ‘The White Man’s Burden’, reveals a rhetoric which we now recognise as the de-humanisation of people of colour.

It could be argued that the message in 'The White Man’s Burden' was a natural step towards our belief systems today. But that doesn’t give the go-ahead to write another piece of his work in a Students' Union that is dedicated to anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko.

Culture changes, and if we don't develop we are doomed to at best stagnate, and at worst regress. This is why replacing Kipling's poem with one from Maya Angelou is poetic in multiple ways.

The incident reveals an interesting debate regarding past literature and our need to have the people we look up to as perfect images of the values we uphold.

What is abhorrent in this whole affair are the actions of those online who felt it appropriate to spew racist, threatening language, wishing death to those who changed the poem.

It's quite clear from the comments that this is more to do with an overarching anxiety on ‘maintaining’ Britain rather than being die-hard Rudyard Kipling fans. But what Britain are they trying to protect? it seems that people of colour or mixed ethnicity aren’t included in their idea of Britain, even those who were born in this country and as it happens, are British citizens.

The supposedly rigid borders between nations that some in the country are clinging onto, are in truth man-made. Few people can say they are 100 per cent British. Yet people of colour, no matter how far back and despite being born in this country, have the slogan “go back to where you came from” used as a verbal whip to push them back in line, reminding them that they either weren’t born in this country or that their family didn’t originate from England.

We cannot change the actions of those before us but we can change how people communicate with each other when two sides disagree. As the saying goes, "if you try to please everyone you please no one".

And the sad reality is, no one would have to experience death threats if the university had simply communicated to it's students about a wall in their Students' Union.