Values are not like statues

Public opinion – the ambient values held by any given society – constantly evolves and  changes. While such things are hard to quantify in a multicultural, diverse nation, the attitudes of a given group of people will constantly alter over  time. Thus, what is acceptable in one era might not be acceptable in another. The people revered  in one era might be condemned in another.

There is a current trend in toppling the statues of people associated with  racism and  the slave trade. Of course, I find the notion that someone could be condemned to a life of servitude simply due to the colour of  their skin as abhorrent as anyone  else. Yet the problem with toppling such statues is that it clears the way for other statues to be toppled; statues of people ‘we’  may currently like. If defacing the statue of Churchill can be justified, what is to stop someone with the opposite worldview to ours justify defacing the statues  of Gandhi or Mandela, on the other side of parliament Square? And who’s to say that, sometime in the future, evidence won’t emerge that won’t redeem Churchill or Rhodes or Colston?

The contemporary cultural space is a highly complex one: we live in a society with lots of competing, often contradictory viewpoints. By destroying monuments to people who  were once revered, we promote one set of views  over another, and  assert modern values are more important than those of the past; one viewpoint tries to dominate the entire cultural landscape. Surely the irony of that is, in doing so, we become just as bigoted, authoritarian and intolerant as the people whose statues we topple.

One thought on “Values are not like statues

  1. “Last autumn I published a book that argued that other nations have much to learn from the ways in which Germany has faced the evils of its past. Since Trump’s followers wave swastikas as well as Confederate flags, Americans now know that Nazis are not just a German problem. Most Britons, however, were perplexed by my claims. Two talkshow hosts indignantly insisted that Britons had nothing to learn from the Germans since “Hitler was about world domination”. I managed to reply that I’d learned that the sun never set on the British empire. As Neil MacGregor remarked, Germans use their history to think about an uncertain future, while Britons use their history to console themselves for a less glorious present.

    Yet Britons and others are making up for lost time: just after a statue of Edward Colston was dragged into Bristol’s harbour, a statue of King Leopold II was removed in Belgium. Monuments are not just a matter of heritage; that’s why we don’t memorialise everything. Monuments are values made visible, embodying ideals we choose to honour. Unless we choose to celebrate their values, statues of slave owners belong in museums, not public streets. We cannot have a just and decent present as long as we refuse to face our pasts. ”


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