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What is the intellectual framing of the UK statues debate? Show more Show less
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In June 2020 Bristol protestors rioting against the murder of George Floyd tore down a statue of Edward Colston. Having hauled it from its plinth, they eventually abandoned the statue in the city's harbour. Hundreds of onlookers gathered to watch, viewing this as a momentous step in the fight against racism. Colston is known as the man who built Bristol. He bequeathed his enormous fortune to the city upon his death. 300 years on, the scale of his legacy is visceral in Bristol's landmarks and architecture, and the names of its schools, concert halls, streets, restaurants, pubs and cathedral. Yet, his fortune was built on slavery, leading many to argue that the statue props up institutional racism in the UK. Since Colston's toppling, activists have circulated lists of hundreds more controversial statues they say must be removed to end racial inequality. Others call this type of campaigning problematic. They view the destruction of monuments as historical whitewashing. For them, this trend is an affront to British history that does not confront the real issues at play. So, who are these groups, what do they think, and why?

"Taking the statues down is an 'iconoclasm of the Woke!'" Show more Show less

We should not celebrate the destruction of our history. Taking this approach is reductive. Blaming statues for perceived "injustice" is unproductive.
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Toppling statues represents a juvenile understanding of history

Of course, our interpretation of events and individuals change over time, but maintaining our monuments sustains the conversation between past and present. We don't need to topple statues. We need a greater understanding of how view our past and how that will inform our future.

The Argument

History exists, and we choose to remember it not because we love every aspect of it, but because we can learn from it. Therefore, our celebration and memorialization of people like Edward Colston shouldn't have to be dependent on whether or not everything he did was perfect. It is based on whether he taught us lessons we could learn from.[1] If this is a debate about preserving the complexities and ambiguities of history, that can be done by installing more detailed plaques under the statues or teaching history more comprehensively within classrooms. There's no point trying to drown our past under the Bristol Harbor. The statue of Colston standing doesn't have to signify everyone loving and celebrate him. It can simply be an acknowledgment of a city's past and the people who contributed to it. Furthermore, this also represents a juvenile understanding of the right and wrong of history. There was a time when children were taught that slavery was acceptable and that America was the white settlers' promised land because of Manifest Destiny. Looking back, we can say with certainty that those narratives were wrong, and we can appreciate the fact that the institutions supporting them have toppled. However, it is unfair of us to continually expect everyone, at any time in history, to be progressive to hundreds of years beyond their time. We will be more progressive and understanding than those who came before us, just as those who will come after will be more progressive than us because time works in constant progression. Colston is an important historical figure in his own right. We cannot expect everyone to be perfect. If perfection is the standard for history, what remnant of our culture could ever be acceptable?

Counter arguments

A statue does not represent history. It represents the parts of history that we like. When we put up a statue, we do not do it because we hate someone, but because we think that they are worthy of our commemoration and believe that people like Edward Colston are worthy of standing forever in the center of Bristol. We can learn from history with the statue up or with the statue down. We can still teach history and add important, controversial figures to our curriculum. The difference is who we choose to memorialize. And while it is true that history is progressive and that previous people's bigotry was partly a result of a wider system of bigotry, that doesn't mean our progress cannot be reflected in our actions. If our understanding of what is right and wrong has progressed, then there is nothing wrong with pulling down statues and changing our values. If time can make our values progress, then why can't the material landscapes of our societies progress as well? Once society has reached a consensus about what is or isn't acceptable, we have to decide what to do about it.

Proponents

Premises

[P1] Removing statues tries to remove history instead of allowing us to learn from it. [P2] It is unfair to judge people who lived in different societies using the standards of today.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] Statues are not history lessons; they are direct celebrations of people. [Rejecting P2] It is okay to have our perceptions of history progress along with our values.

References

  1. https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/letters/2020/06/29/letter-we-cant-erase/
This page was last edited on Sunday, 25 Oct 2020 at 20:08 UTC

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