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Who belongs on a pedestal?

Pulling down statues is a form of protest with a long and varied history. When I hear of a statue or other public monument being destroyed I either cheer or am appalled. I was horrified by the wanton crass destruction of the Buddhas of Banyan by the Taliban in 2001. I was uplifted by the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The former was an expression of hate and cruelty, the latter the action of a people who had been repressed for decades, literally breaking down the wall that held them back.

I love history, and I love being surrounded by ancient things. One of the few things I prefer about England to Finland is the way properly old buildings are still littered about. Visiting places like the USA and Australia, it feels like the culture hasn’t had time to sink into the landscape. Everything sits on the surface. In Italy you can see towns and countryside than appear mostly unchanged for five hundred years. 

I love that, but it isn’t necessarily a good thing. If we never tore down anything, there would be no change, no growth. And most of the old buildings I love so much are built on the ruins of an older building that got torn down to make way for the shiny new state-of-the-art castle that’s now centuries old.

I’m never in favour of destroying a work of art, but as I see it there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong with preserving or removing a work of art from a public place. It really depends on what that thing represents, and what it is replaced with. The question I ask myself whenever I hear about a statue being pulled down is this: is it more like Banyan, or Berlin?

Edward Colston was a slave trader, Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, the British Imperial slave trading company (yes, the British state traded slaves, and made a fortune out of it). He was also a local philanthropist, founding schools, almshouses and so on, using the money he made out of the most profound human misery to reduce misery in the town he lived in. It’s the latter part that’s the justification for a statue of him in Bristol. By the standards of his time he’d earned a statue, no question, though it was only erected in 1895, over 170 years after he died. 

But imagine the outcry if someone tried to erect a statue of Colston today. The protesters that tore it down and threw it in the canal were doing so to make the clearest possible statement that keeping Colston on his pedestal is not consistent with the values we hold now.

I imagine that black people having to walk past a statue of Colston on their way to work would be similar to a Jewish person having to walk past a statue of Goebbels every day. A very clear statement that the powers-that-be where you live are quite comfortable with the history of the enslavement and murder of people like you. I’m just surprised that Colston stood so long, and him being thrown in the canal is clearly towards the Berlin end of my scale.

Likewise, in the USA we see statues erected to Confederate heroes, who fought bravely to prevent the freedom of their slaves. Really, what’s more important? Their bravery or their stated goals? Tearing down the statue doesn’t change the history, it’s a statement about how we view that history.

We erect monuments to the people we revere. We literally put them on a pedestal. No human being actually deserves a pedestal- every saint was a sinner, and nobody has a long and successful life without making mistakes. But this is not about holding historical figures unfairly to modern standards of good behaviour. Pretty much every historical figure would fail that test. It is about what historical figures we choose to put on a pedestal because their contributions outweigh their flaws and they can reasonably be held up as examples. 

In a perfect world nobody would vandalise statues because in a perfect world nobody would erect statues to slave traders. Or, as morals changed, historical figures whose cons come to outweigh their pros would have their statues taken down as soon as they were no longer a figure to be looked up to. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and so it takes acts of protest to do what should have been done already. In that same perfect world, the statue of Colston would have been removed long ago and placed in a museum (because it has cultural and artistic significance, and he was extremely influential in the history of Bristol) with a full and fair description of his life, the evil and the good. Or perhaps been put in a “statue park of people we don’t like any more”, such as Coronation Park outside Delhi became after Indian independence. But that did not happen, and so the people took matters into their own hands. Museums can handle nuance, historicity, the full story, and preserve artefacts from every kind of culture. Public monuments ought to represent only the ideals of the public they serve.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for this balanced, thoughtful piece. I especially like the suggestion that museums can present nuance, in a way that a statue in a public square cannot.

    And whilst we should not honour evil doers, to forget them is to ignore the lessons of history. We need to know that there was a Hitler: but we don’t want a statue of him in a public square. Art works made for the Third Reich need nuanced appraisal and careful consideration of the story we are telling, should we decide to present them.

    But these examples are easier to analyse, because there is a strong consensus view that Hitler was bad. It’s more difficult, and more inflammatory to make decisions about ‘unacceptable’ statues, in cases where a significant number (even if a minority) support the values represented by those statues.

    As (contrasting) examples, Confederate symbols in the USA, and memorials in Estonia to Russian soldiers killed fighting the Nazis remain ‘hot topics’ today. In the latter disagreement, there are honourable reasons to sympathise with both (opposing) views. Stopping Hitler was a Good Thing: Stalin’s violence against citizens was a Bad Thing. But it’s difficult to deal with even that very small dose of nuance in the midst of a passionate public demonstration.

  2. Explanation vs. Excuse

    I think one should take care in not making an explanation to an excuse. In my opinion, your blog post, Guy, is a very well written explanation for why some statues may need to be removed and eventually placed in a museum for example. However in the end it becomes an excuse for what people did in Bristol. I don’t think this is OK. What they did was from a legal point of view wrong. It doesn’t matter how good the arguments are. In a democracy under the rule of law, one shouldn’t oppose wrongdoings by other wrongdoings and also expect to get no punishment. If I would topple a statue I would also accept the punishment for what was illegal in my action. This would be fair in a healthy democracy were all citizens should be equal under the law. If the laws are not OK, do fight for better ones. One may also disobey the wrong ones, but, as long as they are valid, one should not expect a special treatment just because of disagreeing with those laws. If I would be a citizen of Bristol I would sue the mayor for not doing his job and allowing illegal destruction in his town. If I would be the mayor I would take the statue out of the river, put it back and let it be protected as long as necessary.

    Moreover, as much as I could find out, a bronze plaque had been cast quite some time ago with wording as follows:
    “Edward Colston (1636–1721), MP for Bristol (1710–1713), was one of this city’s greatest benefactors. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations continue. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy. A significant proportion of Colston’s wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods. As an official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, he was also involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African men, women and young children, of whom 19,000 died on voyages from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas.”(*)
    It however didn’t get installed because of the opposition of the mayor, who wasn’t happy with it (too soft, as much as I can understand) and “promised to continue work on a second plaque”(*). Thus, there was a clear process of making people aware of his wrongdoings. The toppling of the statue had at the time it happened no justification yet.

    In one of his speeches(#) Martin Luther King, without saying it directly, shows, in my opinion, that he makes the difference between an explanation and an excuse. He addresses both the fact that he condemns riots and violence and that riots and violence have causes which should be also condemned. By condemning riots and violence he basically opposes using the explanation as an excuse.

    (*) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statue_of_Edward_Colston

    (#) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-lWsXKRbeI

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