Life’s Fitful Fever

I have never been terribly interested in historical statues I must confess. Pigeon- encrusted metal or a moulding stone person staring blankly at nothing and rooted firmly to a static prancing horse, does little to attract the attention of passersby like myself with lives and histories of their own to contemplate. Its attempts to dominate a plaza, or commemorate a public square, still do not often produce sufficient motivation to inspect its fading plaque. Perhaps I am alone in this, but unless intentionally identified, it is merely background. I do not notice it in the Gestalt.

And yet, it would seem that there are those who would have me think otherwise and devote undue attention to its original function. They would have me reconsider its historical significance.

Historical revisionism has never been a strong suit of mine –the present, with all of its problems, occupies most of my time. As an aging white male, I suppose I am history, or at least have lived through some of its more recent manifestations and survived. But of course I am one of the fortunate ones, and have been largely cosseted by my gender, ethnicity, and geography, so I appreciate the need to consider the lives and background of those not so blessed. And, had I been one of them, I’m certain I would also be less accepting of a majoritarian view of historical interpretation. History, after all, is written by the victors, not to mention the oppressors, and it frequently ignores the darker side -or at least reinterprets it to suit the prevailing ethos of the time.

And so the current movement to amend our view of omnia praeterita, is understandable. It’s just that the solution often chosen –pulling down statues, or renaming public edifices- creates adversaries who otherwise wouldn’t exist, and problems that rise like bubbles in a boiling pot. Statues, of course, can be seen as emblems of past injustice, and the contributions they commemorate, either misleading, or frankly misinformed. That none of us –not even the protesters- are blemish-free, is lost in the fervour to acknowledge historical repression or exploitation. I neither can, nor wish to deny any calumny that may be hidden in stone, or trapped in rusting metal, but I do hope that there is a middle ground. A workable compromise.

Despite the rush to take sides, I suspect it would be beneficial for all concerned to step back from the abyss of righteousness and look for solutions that neither polarize, nor punish. The past need not be prologue, but the question of historical truth, and unfair representation, is a vexing issue, and solutions are often fraught. In my search for background, however, I found an interesting and fairly balanced discussion of the problems: There are, perhaps, no definitive prescriptions, but at least it attempts a balanced context. A philosophical analysis, of a sort.

First, there is a succinct formulation of the problem: ‘All around the world, institutions are dealing with a conundrum. What to do about statues or buildings or scholarships or awards, honouring or funded by people we now regard as seriously morally flawed?’

And then there follows a discussion about possible solutions. ‘One approach is to do nothing. The do-nothing advocates say history shouldn’t be rewritten. To do so would be a form of censorship. And, they say, it’s ridiculous to expect every great historical figure to be blemish-free, to have lived a life of unadulterated purity.’ But, as is pointed out, with that approach, ‘Even those held up as saintly figures, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, had flaws (Gandhi’s attitude to women is excruciating, seen through 21st Century eyes)… And what message would it send to contemporary philanthropists? Give generously today, and risk having your reputation trashed tomorrow.

‘But this “do-nothing” position seems too extreme. Imagine that Goebbels had endowed scholarships to Oxford, like Rhodes. Would anybody seriously claim the Goebbels Scholarships shouldn’t be renamed (would anybody want to be a Goebbels Scholar?) or that a Goebbels statue shouldn’t be demolished?’

But, of course, the vast majority of people are neither complete monsters nor complete angels. So, ‘What sort of considerations, then, should come into play? One may be whether the views or actions of the figure in question were typical for their time. If so, that could make them less blameworthy. Another is the extent of their misdeeds and how that is evaluated against their achievements. Churchill held opinions that would disbar him from political office today – despicable yes, but surely massively outweighed by the scale of his accomplishments.’

The article, written by David Edmonds of the BBC, then goes on to point something out that I hadn’t thought of before: ‘… there are what philosophers call consequentialist considerations. How does looking at the statue make passers-by feel? This, in turn, will be connected to whether the history still resonates – an ancient statue of some medieval warlord, however bloody and brutal his conquests, probably won’t bother anybody. And, arguably, a statue of Rhodes in Cape Town will arouse more offence than one of the same man in Oxford.’

In fact, ‘Intergenerational justice is a hugely complex topic, not least because over the passage of time it becomes tricky to identify beneficiaries and victims. Daniel Butt [a politics fellow at Balliol College, Oxford] believes that where there is a clear historical continuity with the past, a modern institution has a duty to remedy wrongs, most especially when the impact of these wrongs is still being felt – for example in racial discrimination. He says Oxford’s complicity in colonialism confers upon it obligations ….’ But that complicity needs recognition -it needs to see the light of day.

There are other solutions that try to mitigate any past harms that the statue or name might invoke. One such approach would be for the institute with the offending statue, to offer scholarships, donations, or aid in areas of the world affected by the individual enstatued. Or, perhaps, as has been suggested in the American south, changing the information on the existing plaques to acknowledge the injustices meted out. Make the reader, of whatever persuasion, aware of them.

It seems to me that merely removing statues, or changing a commemorative name, is equivalent to burying the past. Out of sight, out of mind. If there truly has been an injustice, then surely recognizing it, making those hitherto unaware of it confront the issues, is more likely to prevent it from happening again. More likely to be a lesson, a cautionary tale that has to be heard, a violation that has to be seen. As Brutus says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: It is the bright day that brings forth the adder and that craves wary walking.