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How do we think about taking down controversial statues in the UK? Show more Show less
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In June 2020 protestors circulated a hit list of controversial UK statues to be taken down. These included Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Robert Baden-Powell. Campaigners say these statues must be ripped down because they contribute to racialised systemic violence. In turn, this trickles down into every facet of public life and subordinates ethnic minorities. On the other side, groups made up of mostly far right activists say this is deeply offensive. They see this lobby as a violent mob that have been undeservedly handed a mandate to whitewash UK history. So, who are these groups, what do they think, and why?

We have every right to take the statues down Show more Show less

This group believes that tearing down statues is an important method at redressing systemic racial inequality. Proponents include Black Lives Matter, and left wing, British commentators such as Namitha Aravind.
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This is the revolutionary resistance we have been waiting for

Recent acts of statue toppling represent an eruption of dissent against institutional racism. But this paradigm shift is hardly unprecedented- it’s been years in the making. When decades of peaceful protests fail to stir action within the government, revolutionary acts must take their place.
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The Argument

A nation’s values are reflected in its contextualization of history. So, prominent Western countries- such as England and the USA- with their irremediable pasts in Imperialism and slavery, must take extra care in the messaging produced by public monuments. The UK has been contemplating the legacy of its empire for over a century now. At the same time, America still wrestles with its involvement in the slave trade, decades after the Civil Rights Movement.[1] But reparations are meaningless when they refuse to confront and acknowledge history. The recent acts of statue toppling are a necessary act of revolution, enacting a reclamation of national identity. It is a justified reaction to a long history of inaction from local and national politicians, whose responses still range from willful ignorance to colonial pride. Corruption and cowardice have prevented us from progressing with stagnant politicians eager to appease wealthy donors and avoid backlash. The impression of redistributing power in western countries is volatile due to polarised opinions on socialism, communism, and other radical products of left-wing ideology. But, dismantling symbols of oppression is not exclusive to the left. Iconoclasm has occurred since ancient times and is a common means of reassimilating identity after a period of social fragmentation.[2] Ignoring the portrayal of events by the media, we can see this as a non-partisan issue. Toppling statues does not represent dangerous civil unrest or have economic repercussions. Instead, it is the expected result of years of uncontested oppression from powers of authority, grasping onto an outdated view of how we represent our history. The public deserves to voice their opinion, and taking down statues that do not represent current values is a vital form of resistance and democracy.

Counter arguments

When desecrating objects of historical importance, a haphazard approach reflects badly on those supposedly calling for social change. It’s easy to antagonize well-documented figures, such as Winston Churchill, whose values may not entirely align with our own.[3] But Churchill's statue is a mismatched target of Black Lives Matter protesters when considering his political relevance. Defacing his memorial is not engaging in a meaningful conversation- but vandalism, spurred by an unnuanced and deliberately incomplete view of history. The effect has done little to reflect BLM’s intent and doesn’t ‘redistribute power.’ Instead, it has alienated non-supporters further while inviting unsavory opinions about the movement. Even the initial toppling of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue- a far more unanimous gesture that received limited local backlash even from the council- will fail to spark social upheaval in the long run.[4]The problem here wasn’t the intent- it was an eruption following decades of protests by Bristolians to remove the figure's legacy from public view- but its method.[5] The city centre was flooded with unruly protesters at a time when COVID-19 restrictions were essential for public safety, ripped the statue from its plinth and dumped it into the harbour. Future visitors will see the damaged statue in a glass case, rather than polluting the city’s maritime landscape, after the council inevitably fished it out for historical preservation.[6] The legacy of Colston cannot be removed, only solidified by such impulsive fits. Protesters have failed to achieve an essential element of revolution- coherency of vision. If they are to take down statues as a symbol of resistance, then they must know why they are doing it. They must discriminate between figures with controversial views and those who represent oppression. They must organize and distance themselves from senseless vandalism. Altogether, they must have a purpose. History won’t see them favourably otherwise.

Proponents

Premises

[P1] Statues of imperialist figures represent uncontested oppression. [P2] Nonviolent revolution can be a force for positive social change. [P3] Taking down statues is a potent gesture and act of necessary revolution.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] Statues of imperialist figures are not meant to reflect current values. They are simply a historical artifact. [Rejecting P2] Taking down controversial statues indiscriminately is the product of mob-rule rather than revolution. It will not enact positive social change. [Rejecting P3] This attempt at social upheaval is a futile gesture and will not help us redistribute power from the elite.

References

  1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2142382.pdf
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/world/controversial-statues-monuments-destroyed.html
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/not-his-finest-hour-the-dark-side-of-winston-churchill-2118317.html
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jun/13/bristol-mayor-colston-statue-removal-was-act-of-historical-poetry
  5. https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/how-city-failed-remove-edward-4211771
  6. https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/bristol-edward-colston-statue-museum-a4465246.html

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This page was last edited on Friday, 2 Oct 2020 at 03:56 UTC

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