About those statues

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how nuance was difficult to come by these days. Twitter once again did a sterling job of proving the point. Somebody, having read this in yesterday’s post:

The issues of racism still exist. Systemic, institutional and personal racism abound. And it seems to me, the BAME experience of life is going to be different to that of white people. There are issues that will be faced by BAME people that white folks simply do not face in their everyday lives. What a shame if that legitimate point gets lost on those who most need to hear it because of our chosen terminology.

Wondered how I could also post this twitter thread:

But that is only because nuance is hard to come by.

I don’t think the answer to our racist and colonial past – and even more so for the problems of racism in the present – is to whitewash our history by removing monuments to those who are condemned by modern mores. I share entirely the view of Scotland’s first black professor – Sir Geoff Palmer – who had this to say:

Few of us will shed any tears for Edward Colston or Henry Dundas’ legacy. But we cannot ignore the fact that they are important figures from our history. As Prof Palmer said, it won’t be long before people begin to forget who Colston or Dundas were. It will then be even easier to forget how the cities in which their statues were erected were so significantly affected by their philanthropy and how those places have come to be what they are as a direct result. That, in turn, allows us off the hook for engaging with how we, who live in these places, have also benefitted as a result of these things.

Moreover, what begins with statues will inevitably move onto other monuments, buildings and, before long, people. If statues from the past can be removed, what of the buildings that have dubious histories. Should we begin dismantling the Port of Liverpool building with its slave ships embossed in stone? Street names in the city tell of affluence built on the slave trade. Bristol fares similarly. Many insist this is a false equivalence and that wouldn’t happen. But Liverpool did, in fact, suggest changing all the street names related to the slave trade, until they realised that Penny Lane would also need to be changed and decided the money from tourism was more important to them. But if the people were immoral and ought not to be remembered, then the things they built and the things with which they were associated must also be removed lest people begin to ask, ‘so, how did this come to be here?’ and the name that must not be spoken is uttered.

It has been my contention that we should judge history in its context. It is perfectly possible, for example, to consider Winston Churchill both a great leader who did much good as well as a racist who advocated eugenics. The problem with almost any historical figure you care to mention is that they almost certainly held views that would be seen as seriously problematic by modern standards. If we judge (and remove) historical figures by modern standards – and no ability to recognise that all people will hold some good and some bad views – then there will be no historical figures left for us to study. Equally, those we laud today will be the toppled statue of tomorrow as future generations determine that we held abhorrent views on something or other. It is the height of arrogance to assume this won’t happen to us.

I don’t have any great love for statues. But I do recognise that people are placed on plinths because they were significant figures in our history. Many of those people will not be likable or good people. Even we put up controversial statues today. Margaret Thatcher is not exactly well known for the universal love she generates among the British people, yet there is a statue of her in parliament because she is – like it or not – a significant figure in our country’s history. Annie Kenney – the Suffragette – has been made into a statue in Oldham. But the Suffragettes remain a divisive group, with many considering them terrorists and responsible for delaying women’s suffrage. That is why Millicent Fawcett – the leader of the peaceful NUWSS that distanced itself from the militancy of the Suffragettes – was chosen as the subject of a similar statue outside Parliament (though even she was pro-Empire). But that doesn’t stop Annie Kenney being a significant figure in the history of Oldham. These people are chosen – regardless of other considerations – because they are historically significant. To remove them because we have determined that we don’t like some of their views distances us from how our history is inextricably bound up with theirs and allows us to forget how we have benefited from the views, behaviour, representation and philanthropy of those whom we would rather we were not linked to at all.

And this is the point about the whole statue debate. It has taken the focus off the very real issues of structural, systemic, institutional and personal racism that continue today. It has allowed us to distance ourselves from the issues at play today by loading the blame for it all on our historic forebears. We don’t have to ask ourselves about the attitudes and prejudices in our own organisations, institutions and personal lives because we can content ourselves with pulling down former slave traders and cheering on a symbolic act that has zero value in addressing any of the present issues. We have done something and that something has made us feel good whilst simultaneously making sure the spotlight is pointing far away from us.

The toppling of statues does nothing to address the societal issues at play today. In my view, this does not help us to address inequalities we see today; it is detrimental. It helps us load the blame onto the past and makes it far more likely that future generations remember neither our ignominious history nor the problems of our present. As Prof Geoff Palmer put it, ‘you remove the evidence, you remove the deed.’ By whitewashing our history this way, ironically, we are whitewashing our history. By removing the evidence of the individual, we are actually ameliorating their guilt and simultaneously allowing ourselves to no longer be confronted with either that problematic figure from our past (because, other than historians, let’s be honest, who really goes looking this stuff up in history books) and thus allows us to rest easy in the knowledge that we no longer have to deal with that nasty niggling sense that maybe we, in a very personal way, might have benefited from it too. It’s not just the problem of the nasty man in the past, it’s the problem for how those inequalities have continued into the present and have – like it or not – had a significant impact on our own lives.

Of course, it might just be easier to write off those who aren’t keen on tearing down historic monuments as apologists for colonialism and racism. But nuance is hard to come by.