There’s plenty of discussion around at the moment about statues of mostly dead famous people who were wealthy. They also had the unfortunate problem of being slave owners or traders or racists etc. This is causing a lot of discussion across the country and in my mind it’s one of those binary things that means subtlety doesn’t really come into it. A statue can either be in place or it can not. Those are your choices. So, it’s quite tricky to decide what is right for us to do. There is no room for nuance in these matters where the outcome is either yes or no.
A statue on display or the naming of a building or football team or military base venerates that thing. Let’s take the Colston statue which was torn down in Bristol. Colston made a load of money and was very influential in the Bristol area and also a MP. He made this money, or a large part of it, from the slave trade. The slave trade was wrong and many countries current wealth relies on the fact that slaves were used as part of its history. So, in my view, this is an easy one. Remove the statue from public veneration in the city. I will explain later what I would like to see done with it.
That was the easy one. Let’s think about this using someone less controversial and who many people won’t have heard of. Then we can thought experiment around with it to see where we go. So, in Kirriemuir there is a statue of the early AC/DC singer Bon Scott. Now, I adore the songs of AC/DC and I love the lyrics that Bon wrote. I remember watching the video “Let There Be Rock” and I cried at the end when it came up with the title “For Bon . . “. He was an influential singer and songwriter and so this is easy. It is currently morally right for that statue to be in the town where he was born. Was Bon Scott an angel? Most likely not. Did he piss off a few people in his life? I expect so. Is there any credible evidence that he did bad things? Not that I’m aware.
Now Bon Scott had a lot of sex. As far as we all know it was consensual. So, what if evidence arose that he had raped someone? I think that would be enough evidence for a public discussion about whether the statue should remain. I think it should be removed. Will people still listen to his music? Quite likely. It is a sad world currently where the level of rape and sexual assault is underestimated and under reported because it’s not seen as “serious”. The #metoo movement should have opened our eyes, I fear it did not, to the fact that almost EVERY woman has had some experience of sexual assault and it’s seen as “not a problem”. This attitude even affects the way I write this, as I’ve re-drafted it a few times because it was almost natural to minimise the effects of rape and its consequences because of its portrayal and current standing in society. I have corrected this thought process with the words I changed and feel ashamed of my first draft as I know three women who have been raped. This minimising societal reaction to female sexual assault needs to change.
Let’s ramp up the level a little bit. Let’s say that Bon Scott fucked a child. Now, by definition, this is non-consensual and also this offence is accepted as fundamentally wrong by all. In this case I think the public mood would be very different and there would be immediate public argument for the removal of the statue. It’s is not a good sign in society when the age difference of the victim plays such a large role in the outcome of public mood. There is still much work to be done for crimes to be recognised and taken seriously.
All I did in that thought experiment was to have a singer of a band that most people don’t listen to have a dubious past. Our emotional attachment to the statue is minimal and we can clearly see how wrong-doing would change our perception of the necessity to have the statue on public display in a town or city. There is some argument to be made about whether we celebrate the art of a person but not that person and I struggle with this a bit but then I think the actual answer is easy. We remove that art. So we listen to the songs of Gary Glitter anymore? Do we listen to the songs of the LostProphets anymore? No. It’s easy isn’t it.
If you feel the need to defend people because of “what they did for our country” then maybe you need to look at the history of the country and re-evaluate your conceptions about the righteousness of that country. Maybe the country was built on the pain and suffering of millions and maybe that country needs to do something very serious to compensate for that. Defending these statues also means that you possibly need to look into your own thoughts and why you feel uncomfortable facing up to the horrors of your country. What is it that you are defending? What is it that you align with so strongly that you think a slave trader should be on prominent display in a city built on the slave trade and the human suffering that caused. Maybe you need to think a little bit about your white European elitism and privilege.
So, there are now calls for statues of Baden-Powell [homophobe and racist] and Churchill [eugenicist] to be removed. I’d even support the removal of any statues of Roald Dahl [anti semite]. I don’t have a problem with these being removed. It’s like the easiest question ever. Should we venerate people who had “troublesome” thoughts? No. Easy. It’s done. Just think back to the Bon Scott thought experiment. I personally think that our collective veneration for Churchill is strange. Yes, he led the country through the second world war, but was he just the man who happened to be the leader at that time?
It turns out that people are complicated and any form of veneration leads to complex thoughts and problems. Does owning a book by Roald Dahl make you an antisemite? No. Does it mean that you endorse his views? No. Are you allowed to enjoy his stories? I guess so, if you wish. Should the nation have a statue to him on public display for the nation and world to see? No. The nation would endorsing his views.
To make things better this country needs to recognise the pain in the past and make reparations for that. This country needs to do that, I suspect it will not, to make things right. A verbal apology doesn’t really cut it does it? Remember gay mathematician Alan Turing who helped win the second world war. He died after being hounded and sentenced to chemical castration because of homophobic laws. The government “apologised” in 2009. Turing died in 1954. What does the apology do? It’s just words. People are still hounded in society because they seem “different”. To make an apology work you have to be willing to change your behaviour. If you want to apologise for things in the past then we need to fully accept the past and be ashamed we need to change our society for the better and accept all people for who they are while denouncing behaviours that aren’t nice. I’m not sure that shame is a natural part of most Britons I know.
What to do with those statues? We keep them. In a national hall of shame and sorrow. We put these racists, homophobes, slavers, murderers and elitist figures into a large display area. Then, next to each figure we need to have displays showing why their statues were made in the first place. We need to list the “good” they did. Then next to that there needs to be an explanation of all the bad they did and things we now disagree with. Along with that there needs to be a list of all the work the country has done to right those wrongs. What money has been paid. What projects have been produced and how this country admits to its past along with what has and is doing to make sure the future is fairer to all.
Some of you might cry that “everyone was like that at the time”. We, no they weren’t. There were people who weren’t homophobic, there were people who weren’t antisemites, there were people who weren’t slave traders, there were people who weren’t responsible for the killing of thousands, there were people who weren’t sexists. There were people who argued against those things. Those are the people we should venerate.