The destruction of statues is in vogue right now. Destroying businesses, homes, and people isn’t enough, our heritage and history has to be butchered as well. In the UK it was best personified by the infamous toppling of Edward Colston. He was a deeply flawed man who became rich from the exploitation of slavery. He is directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Africans, and forced hundreds of thousands more into slavery. I think it’s fairly unquestionable that his actions were outrageously evil.
The reason why his statue was there was because he donated very generously to the good city of Bristol and was involved in many charitable activities. It wasn’t there because he made himself rich through slavery.
Should he have stayed there? Maybe I could have supported its removal and instead have it placed in a museum. What did we get? A whipped up hate mob of predominantly white students who committed vandalism and a public disturbance.
It was undemocratic and illegal.
Certain BLM representatives insisted the statue would never have been removed had they not done it through the mob. Except of course for all the other statues in the UK and worldwide that were removed recently through the local government authority. Once again signifying the pointlessness of what they did, and the dangers of their self justified thuggery.
In some ways though, state-sanctioned statue removal has other chilling effects. Not only in what it represents but also what it does to our heritage and history. Removing public historical figures instinctively feels wrong - like it’s censorship or even post-dated revenge. It feels like we are taking a vendetta out against people who can’t defend themselves, who can’t make their case against the mob. Critically, it demonstrates how the common man can’t cope with flaws in their heroes.
Can you not celebrate someone for their achievements even though they had flaws?
Of course it does depend on their flaws, how great was the achievement and how severe the flaws were.
Take Winston Churchill for example, he freed Europe, fought against Hitler in our darkest hour and set up western Europe for freedom and democracy. The freedoms and equality we have today are because of him. No brainer, right? Except of course he was really quite racist, describing Indians as filthy beasts and was completely indifferent to the famine that killed 4 million of them. Definitely not ideal comments and attitudes to have. His one saving grace was that in his later career he praised the Sikhs who without which the UK wouldn’t be free now.
So he wasn’t completely racist, or maybe he changed over time? The thing that surprises me the most is that people are genuinely shocked to hear historical figures they like weren’t modern progressives that waved rainbow flags.
Gandhi was extremely sexist and hated modern medicine, Martin Lurther King was a serial adulterer, George Washington was a slave owner. These men did great things in their own right, but it’s highly naive to think they didn’t have really quite offensive flaws. Of course they were sexist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, women beating, children beating, anti-science, imperialist, elitist, insensitive, bigots.
Often we don’t have historical evidence to prove it, but I would be able to guarantee that at the time if we would have asked them we would have been offended by at least one of their views.
I think that is where historical grace has to be applied. We desperately need to appreciate people for the time they were born in and the challenges they faced then. They didn’t know what we know, they didn’t understand what we understand, and they didn’t have our hindsight. It’s quite a luxury to stand on someone else’s achievements but then judge them for it.
What will future generations think of us? Will the people of 2120 think the people of 2020 were self righteous and judgmental, failing to recognise their own flaws?
There could be things we do today that nobody bats an eye about that future generations see as outrageous evil. Forgive us we cry, we didn’t realise that what we did was so wrong. Will they delete us from history? Will they look at the good we did and decide to destroy our representations because of our unwitting flaws?
Perhaps the biggest fear is how far this will go. We took down statues of slave traders, what about slave owners? We took down slave owners, what about people that said and did racist things? When we took down the people that said and did racist things, what about the people that benefited from slavery? What about the buildings that were built by slaves? What about the books, films, media, music that had racist undertones or overt racism?
It’s never ending.
If we have to destroy, remove, replace, silence, demonise all the history we have because of its roots in just racism alone then we would lose half it. If you consider all the other “isms” we would have nothing left. Our history would simply be - “all previous people and things were evil by today's standard which is why none of them are allowed in public.”
It feels a lot like mis-directed anger. Tearing down a statue isn’t going to heal your scars from discrimination, nor will it stop it in future. The problem is that it reminds you of the problems you're facing now, and so destroying history is a small victory in that. The only problem with that is, when you destroy history, you also destroy your own journey. Even the racist statues remind us of the journey we have been on, how things used to be, and how we are not like that now.
I’m not sure how I feel about the recent statue removals - they were after all slave traders who became rich by exploiting people. Then were commissioned statues, because they gave some of that wealth to charity - not exactly the best thing to celebrate. Maybe it’s okay to move them to a museum. But we need to draw a line really quickly, otherwise we will lose our history. All the good they did will be lost/forgotten because - like every generation in history - also did things wrong.
The best thing we can do is know our history, not delete it.
Dr Sam Gascoyne, Head of Digital and Midlands Coordinator for Conservative Progress