Judging the Past versus Saving the Statues

by Peter Wells

“A man has been arrested in connection with the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston. A bronze memorial to the 17th Century slave merchant was torn down in Bristol during a Black Lives Matter protest on 7 June and was dumped in the harbour” (BBC, 1 July 2020).

Here is a poem by the current Poet Laureate of the UK, Simon Armitage. It takes the form of a ‘eulogy’ upon an imaginary man of a previous generation. As in a funeral, it lists the ‘achievements’ of the deceased, but includes, unlike a normal funeral oration, his failures:

And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night
And slippered* her the one time that she lied. [hit her with a slipper]

And every week he tipped up* half his wage. [handed over]
And what he didn’t spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed* when she went from bad to worse. [sobbed]
And twice he lifted ten quid* from her purse.  [stole £10]

Here’s how they rated* him when they looked back: [evaluated]
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

To summarise, for most of his life this nameless man was a model householder, father, husband and son, but he erred at least four times – once by spanking his daughter, once by punching his wife, and twice by stealing from his mother. In English lessons for 16-year-olds in the 90s this poem created an interesting polarisation. Half the class (mainly the boys) thought the man was basically OK, whereas the other half (mainly the girls) thought he was a monster – for, after all, he was a child-abuser, a wife-beater, and a thief (and all his victims were female).

In other words, all the students (not just the girls) fell into the trap set by Armitage, by allowing one side of the man’s story to trump the other. The boys (wrongly) insisted that his misdeeds were minor and irrelevant, considering his generally blameless life, whereas the girls, equally wrongly, thought that the four bad actions nullified all his good deeds. This clever little poem neatly illustrates the difficulty of judging (‘rating’) people, even when they are fictitious. We should not ‘judge’ people, not just because Jesus is said to have forbidden it (Matthew 7.1), but because it is wrong in principle and impossible in practice.

We can only judge actions.

Hitting a daughter is a bad action, tucking her into bed regularly is a good action. Armitage has crammed a good deal of forensic information into this sonnet – for example, the little girl told a lie, which to some degree justifies her punishment; on the other hand, it was the only first time she’d done it. Nonetheless, to begin ‘rating’ the man we require much  more information – was the girl’s behaviour generally good; had the man experienced corporal punishment as a child, and so on. However, this is not vouchsafed. In the end, all you can say about the nameless man is that sometimes he did bad things, sometimes good ones. And if it is difficult to judge a character in a poem, it is even more difficult when the people are real, because we are not inside their minds. We do not know the reasons for their actions – or, even, all their actions.

To take the bull by the horns, let us look at the life of Edward Colston (1636-1721), the philanthropist of Bristol. There is no doubt that Colston was involved in the slave trade. However, the precise extent of Colston’s involvement in the trade is disputed – for example, to what extent he traded in slaves himself, rather than merely investing in a company that did. We are not certain – indeed, can never be certain – about what he thought, and how he felt and behaved (and why), especially in the later years of his life, when he was making his endowments. Perhaps, like John Newton, another famous slave-trader, he repented. We just don’t know. Sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

Pointless arguments, incapable of resolution, rage on with regard to Colston’s character. Passionate supporters of the BLM movement want to find evidence that Colston was directly and knowingly involved in the slave trade for a considerable period of time, whereas their conservative opponents want to prove that he wasn’t. But the evils of the slave trade remain exactly what they are (very great), irrespective of the degree of involvement in it that a particular long-dead individual might have had. There is no logical connection between the inaccessible truth about Colston’s inner self and the fact that Black Lives Matter. How could new information about Colston’s precise actions and motivations (even if it was verifiable) have any bearing upon a discussion about interracial issues today?

What is clear is that the memorials to Colston, including the notorious statue, were not intended to celebrate his achievements as a slave trader or his support for that industry. They were in honour of his endowments to schools, houses for the poor, alms-houses, and hospitals in Bristol. While Colston’s may be a challenging case, because the connection between his philanthropy and his business was so intimate (the poor of Bristol were helped with ‘dirty money’), it is surely a mistake to think that that destroying a statue of him could in any way advance the cause of racial equality, even if it made some angry people momentarily happier. You can’t prevent the exploitation of one set of vulnerable people – especially not retrospectively – by trashing a statue erected to honour one who aimed to assist another group of vulnerable people. What would the irate mob have done if they had found Colston’s body buried beneath the statue? Would they have ripped it limb from limb, in order to demonstrate their ethical credentials?

It has been powerfully argued that public statues have, or had, a distinct (and morally dubious) political aim, and in the case of Confederate generals or monarchs of England this may well be true. However, statues of the Colston type have an aim which is ‘political’ only in the softer sense. Ostensibly created to honour deceased benefactors, they actually seek primarily to encourage further philanthropic acts in the future. “Look!” they say, “this is what happens when you give lots of money to poor people / overturn an unjust law / fight for the freedom of an oppressed group of people / found a beneficial institution! We’ll put up a statue of you in a prominent place, and name streets and buildings after you! After you’re dead, generations of people will be told about your good deeds, and your family will be honoured!”

While we may wish that people were altruistic enough to do good without such encouragement (and perhaps some are), it’s a practice that generally does very little harm, and encourages philanthropy at a small cost to the community. It works – at least, it will work, unless there is a risk that in a century or two people’s political views might change, and your statue might get thrown into the nearest body of water.

It is too easy, and not particularly profitable, to condemn the behaviour of people in the past. We are kidding ourselves if we imagine that, living in the 17th century, we would definitely have spotted that slavery was wrong, or that we would have had the courage to protest about it even if we had. We don’t know what the folk of the 24th century will condemn us for. Nor do we know exactly what evils are involved in the systems that lie behind the food we eat, the products we buy, or the banks we use, and, on the whole, we have no particular desire to find out. Because we have to eat, and buy stuff, and use banks, and there are no sources or systems that are guaranteed to be entirely clean. So there is no justification for self-righteousness in our ‘rating’ of the lives of people in the past. And it is particularly unfair to single out one fault – the subject of a current campaign – as determinative.  

There are many notable individuals to whom this principle is applicable, for example Martin Luther King. The currently fashionable watchword is that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and its supporters presumably approve of any statue erected in his honour. But not long ago the ‘in’ slogan was ‘Me Too,’ due to outrage at the sexual exploitation of women by powerful men (an equally worthy campaign, I’m sure we all agree). And unfortunately, there seems to be little doubt that the Reverend was an exploiter of women who were rendered vulnerable by the mana of his personality and reputation. In a ‘Me Too’ campaign his statues would be candidates for the Colston treatment, and we would lose a symbol of the truths that black lives matter, and that peaceful protest can do amazing things. The statue of Colston was erected not by racist capitalists, but by a grateful city, and the King memorials are a tribute to his achievement as a freedom-fighter, not the work of a shadowy global alliance of philanderers.

Sometimes they do this, sometimes they do that. Mohandas Gandhi, that awesome symbol of patient and single-minded opposition to the British Raj, is plausibly accused of despising black South Africans, refusing his wife her conjugal rights, supporting the Japanese invasion of India, and offering no support or sympathy to the Jews in their direst hour. In 2002 Winston Churchill, was voted the greatest Briton of all time. He would struggle to repeat that victory now. Since that time many damaging accusations have emerged, notably regarding the callousness he exhibited during the Bengal famine of 1943. In the measured judgement of an Independent article of 2010, “He may have been a thug, but he knew a greater thug when he saw one – and we may owe our freedom today to this wrinkle in history.” His statues and other memorials commemorate that fact (and only that fact), not his many faults, vices and crimes.

That none of us is perfect is as true as ‘Black Lives Matter,’ so it will always be impossible for any hero of the past to satisfy the exacting standards of some people’s current arbitrary orthodoxies. Virtually any personage from before the twentieth century, for example, would be almost certain to have held ideas on race, hierarchy, the position of women, and sexual orientation that we would not accept today. For that matter, everyone we know and like has probably done something reprehensible, and probably disagrees with us on some issue or other. Yet we live with them. Indeed, we live with ourselves, though we have done bad things, and believed different things in the past.

The urge to find that heroes of the past had feet of clay is not an attractive one, smacking as it does of envy and dog-in-manger. A few moments of prurient googling produce will produce a satisfactory crop of condemnations. Florence Nightingale (“power-crazed meddler”), Emmeline Pankhurst (imperialist), Ernest Bevin (“opposed equal pay for women workers.”), Abraham Lincoln (racist), Nelson Mandela (mean, neglectful of his family, and too close to big business, but I’m not even going to give you the references). One wonders what vile thoughtcrimes David Attenborough, the revered British naturalist and conservationist, will be found guilty of when he dies. Someone will definitely find something, because humanity apparently consists of a mixture of wicked people and flawed ones, especially when the moral purists take charge, and a purity spiral looms.

It would be a pity if this relentless exposure of the flaws of imperfect humans caused any diminution in the power of their images to do good. It may be that Albert Schweitzer was paternalistic, and Mother Teresa – well, possibly worse than paternalistic – but that should not diminish our motivation to have compassion for the suffering of sick people in countries with inadequate health care. Lincoln‘s unfortunate – indeed, appalling – remarks regarding ‘negroes,’ (q.v.) do not negate the truths that all men are created equal, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people should not perish from the earth. 

How impoverishing this current outbreak of self-righteous iconoclasm is! It arrogantly assumes that the values of the immediate present (and then only of a small fraction of the population) are unquestionably superior to any other values that ever existed. Left to its logical conclusion it threatens to sweep away almost all the images of historical figures that the world possesses, together with our sense of history, and many fine works of art, on the grounds that the artist, or the society, or the personage represented, might have done something that someone might disapprove of.

As if we were not morally obliged to see the good in people, rather than the bad, and to begin to contemplate forgiveness, compassion and understanding (which we all need), even for the hapless Colston. “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?” (Hamlet, 2.ii.491).