Paine to Protest

Jude Wilkinson discusses the Bristol protests that led to the statue of Edward Colton being torn down and thrown into a river. 

Some argue that pulling down statues alters the historical record, erases history. They are wrong. Tearing down statues does not erase history; it does not alter the historical record. Such an assertion assumes that the metallic representation of one individual is a necessary component of learning about their impact and the movements they inhabited. On the contrary, we do not need a statue of Joan of Arc to learn about her role in the Hundred Years War, nor a statue of Clement Attlee to investigate his role in shaping the post-war consensus.

That being said, the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue is rather more problematic. Everyone agrees that slavery is wrong, but where a statue is removed a level of agreement surely ought to be established based on a degree of collective consent, insofar as such a thing is possible. John Stuart Mill was concerned with the tyranny of the majority, but the logic is reversed in this case: is it right that a minority destroy that which may be valued by the majority?

At the same time, whether or not the ‘Bristolian coup’ was justified will be retrospectively determined, as indeed it invariably is in every other case. If statues are destroyed in a release of energy, a rush of feeling as a protest reaches its climax, then a retrospective interpretation has to be taken as to whether such an act was justified. Whether public opinion comes to praise or condemn such an act, a minority has acted without immediate concern for the sympathy of others.

In the case of Edward Colston, the statue was constructed in response to his philanthropic donations towards various causes in Bristol. The fact that slavery was then considered acceptable is largely irrelevant, though not wholly. I personally believe that the destruction of this statue was justified. Mr Colston is not culturally significant except for various acts of philanthropy, and that alone should not constitute grounds for a statue. When his status as a slave owner is brought into the mix, such a monument clearly ought not to stand, irrespective of his ‘charity’. Exploitation tempered by philanthropy is morally wrong, and charity substituting for a social conscience is condescension. I agree with Thomas Paine: ‘it is the living, not the dead, that are to be accommodated’.

And forgive us the absurd notion that ‘statues don’t necessarily idealise, in fact they could stand as a testament to how we ought not to behave’. When we cast someone in bronze and place them twenty feet up in the middle of a square, the idea that we are not in some way idealising their image is absurd. Let us fill our public spaces with those who represent our aspirations, not those that inspire shame and contempt. And neither are we ‘doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past’ if we destroy monuments to slavery; at the risk of repetition, statues are not a statement of historical objectivity but of cultural relativism.

Nor should we accept the equally derisible assertion that the destruction of some statues associated with slave owners necessitates the destruction of all historical figures whose beliefs no longer align with ours. As it happens, I believe that Admiral Nelson atop his column represents far more than the shares he held in slave companies - though I do not expect others to agree in this respect. I would assert that the famous column in London is an expression of something more fundamental. To say that bravery and courage are values towards which we ought to aspire does not necessitate that we resort to tub-thumping nationalism. But we should never condemn (though we can disagree with) those who advocate the removal of such icons, because statues are culturally relative and not an expression of historical truth.

Ironically, we are often least educated on those figures whose memory we preserve in stone. Colonialism is barely mentioned in the school curriculum. A functioning discourse is impossible with half-truths and generalisations. Great Britain is a country coming to terms with its own unimportance - are we ‘Belgium with nukes’ as the Economist would have us believe, isolated and irrelevant, or a Crusoe-esque bastion of freedom, independence and strength?

This cultural dissonance is partly reflective of a rapidly changing world order. As our place in the world shifts, values change, and as we change, so do those who we idealise. There is, therefore, a certain conceit in the belief that statues should never fall. Imagine if a statue of any one of us were constructed in Parliament Square. Would it not constitute an act of narcissism to believe that such a statue should never be removed, should stand for eternity? I hope that we would not presume to inflict our largely irrelevant presence on humans three hundred years from now!

Finally, though, I do worry that the destruction of his statue will allow commentators to ignore the wider significance of these protests, to smear an entire movement as nothing more than an excuse for ‘vandalism’, or to deny the reality that inequality has created an entire underclass who are hopeless, economically excluded, subject to prejudicial treatment by the legal system. It is perfectly true that economic disadvantage is a form of systemic violence, and I agree with Slavoj Zizek that violence is political change; an objective condition of ideology.

But whilst change must be systemic if it is to be effective, we ought to be concerned with how this change can materialise. There is more power in a vigil than an act of petty vandalism, more potential in powerful rhetoric than punching a policeman. And in the main these protests have been peaceful - though you wouldn’t believe it from some of the coverage. Nevertheless, where it has occurred, smashing shops is clearly counterproductive. We ought to continue to protest in a spirit of solidarity, compassion and courage.

Jude is a volunteer with Raleigh International currently producing a podcast series on homelessness and mental health. 

He tweets at @judefkwilkinson

Do you like this post?