Here is how it plays out if we are not careful. A statue of a slave owning city father is taken down in Bristol. People then begin to talk about the unsavoury aspects of other people’s lives who have had statues put up to them, their ownership of slaves, their reference to other people in the World as savages, their support for Eugenics. Soon, Gladstone, Churchill, Nelson and Baden-Powell are in the sights of the icon-clasts.
Note how the conversation has gone up until this point. People have sought to argue against the taking down of one statue by arguing that if that statue comes down, then logical consistency insists that all the other statues should come down too and not only that but a lot of buildings should be abolished, place names changed and music, literature and theatre/cinema censored. Instead of this leading to people drawing back from their calls and their actions to remove statues it has spurred them on.
You see, we have entered into a dialogue where both those in favour of keeping statues and those in favour of removing them have agreed on one thing, that we cannot distinguish between the seriousness both of the action and of the emotional affect today of different people’s actions. We have all accepted that there is no difference between a man who made his fortune on the back of the slave trade using some of that wealth to build some hospitals and alms-houses and a man leading the country and bringing in social reform whose dad happened to be a slave owner. We cannot distinguish between walking past a statue which rubs it in every-time for some people who live in a City that the wealth of the city was built on the back of their ancestors exploitation and taking a bus ride down a road with the lyrics from a pleasant Beatles ditty in your head.
So, what happens next? Well the crowd become hungry for more statues and buildings to fall, agitated on by political organisers who don’t care much about the injustices that the crowd may have suffered but can spot an opportunity when they see one. Meanwhile, other people, alarmed by talk of their own history being destroyed take to the streets as well to stand guard around these statues and monuments. That’s when the violence escalates.
My point? The only winners from the way we are talking at the moment are the far-left Marxist agitators and the far right. The current conversation suits their agenda to whip up hatred. It is important that we don’t play their game.
What if we tried a different conversation? There has been much discussion about whether or not British people should be ashamed or proud of our history (no doubt the same conversation is happening in the States too right now). Well, the first response to that is to remind people that when we talk about British people today, we are talking about white people descended from Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Normans, Black people with African heritage, Asians, Eastern Europeans and Hispanics. What does it mean for all of us to share a historical heritage that we can be proud of?
Secondly, we need to talk about how history works. What about the possibility that we can be both proud and ashamed of aspects of our heritage? We can read about great victories as an Island was defended against attack, of social reforms and innovations in science, medicine, technology, and culture. We can also read about our country’s participation in the slave trade, unjust wars and the prior exploitation of people which made the very social reforms we celebrate necessary. There is good and bad in our past, just as there is for all peoples.
Thirdly, this is because of human nature. We love to paint people as either monsters or heroes and yet the truth is that each one of us was made in God’s image but also have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. This is important because the spotlight may be on the failings of Churchill and Nelson right now but when the spotlight falls on Martin Luther King, then we may celebrate his civil rights campaign to end segregation and discrimination but we will also discover a flawed human being who womanised and plagiarised We need to be aware that when we examine our heroes up close then we discover their warts, we find that they have feet of clay.
The way out of extremism is surely an honest conversation about our history, a history that we all share for better or worse. The way out of extremism is an honest conversation about human nature. The way out of extremism is the recognition that only one man can be praised and worshipped without discovering flaws and failings in his character. Our heroes are not perfect, our saviour is.