The unseating of the statue of slaver and industrialist Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol has unearthed a polarising debate on how statues impact greater society. On one hand, by removing a statue, some argue we are at risk of erasing history, failing to recognise the values of the time and the societal change undergone since then. Yet, on the other hand, we immortalise particular individuals through statues because we believe they reflect values and actions that are inspirational. Because our values change over time, some argue that our statues should change with them.
It is fair to say that many of the statues we have today iconize the morally corrupt, from racists and sexists, bullies and alcoholics, to the greedy and violent. The debate can even be taken to Durham’s Market Square, home to the statue of the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry (1778-1854), army general turned politician turn industrialist. He was a vehement supporter of child labour, prioritising the profitability of County Durham mines over the safety, health and education of children. Despite being one of the richest men in Britain, during the Irish Potato Famine, he gave a mere £30 to alleviating the mass starvation, meanwhile spending £150,000 (£13.3 million today) on renovating his Irish estate. Should we be immortalising a man that inspires an uncompassionate self-serving capitalist attitude even if he did improve the transportation and local economy? It’s a common theme in the statue debate: how to weigh the utterly reprehensible actions and beliefs a person has against all the positive actions they have committed.
The first point of contention is whether most people are even influenced by statues. Many people in Durham do not know whom the Marquis of Londonderry is, let alone find him inspirational, so why are statues like his so controversial? To which the obvious reply comes: if people are not influenced by statues, why is it that we feel so emotionally attached to them, and why is their removal so controversial?
Regardless of the specific figure any given statue represents, all idolise an individual; this inspires the pursuit of fame rather than virtuous qualities and acts performed out of altruistic motivations. But removal of all statues, at the same time, seems also to remove from our streets any symbolic figures to emulate. One promising suggestion, taking note of this, is to have more nameless sculptures rather than statues of individuals. For example, our only icons could be a self-sacrificing soldier and a hardworking Country Durham coal-miner. They could promote virtuous qualities but also give an honest representation of British history. The Statue of Liberty is nameless yet universally beloved. Gifted to the USA by France, situated by the port where millions of European immigrants entered their new country, it represents friendship, opportunity and hope.
An important final consideration remains: that tearing down statues is often perceived to be backed by a minority, and lacking a clear democratic mandate. Maybe, after all, it is not the removal of statues but the method through which it is done that is deemed particularly objectionable. The response to this is a oft-overlooked objection which brings into question the very foundation of democracy: that of socially conditioned unconscious bias. If our statues are decided by democratic means, such prejudice towards race and gender will likely reproduce the problem we have now: statues of white men representing the views of success and inspiration of their era.
Are any statues safe? Should any statues be safe? Just like the statues themselves, the debate is problematic and likely to be around for centuries. But it raises an important question: if democracy is not a valid way to solve this question, or at least to form a legitimate consensus, then what is?
Image: Kurtis Garbutt via Flickr