You probably saw that the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol yesterday escalated to people dragging down the statue of a seventeenth-century slave trader, Edward Colston, and dumping it in the harbour. Among the many hills that people would be wise not to die on, this is surely one of the tallest.
That’s not, however, to say it was admirable what protestors did yesterday. The statue was certainly an “afront”, as Bristol’s mayor has described it today, but, in that case, it should have been removed a long time ago since (insert Indiana Jones impression here) it belongs in a museum where it could have been given the proper context. I certainly think that better than dumping it into the sea during a weekend of popular revolt.
History is important but especially the history that shames us. Does pulling the statue down and ensuring it’s never seen again help or hinder our sense of history? I suspect the latter, though I also concede that statues aren’t usually raised to vilify somebody. It was crass of the council to have left it there and that, I suppose, it indicative of systemic racism; when the people in charge can’t even recognise how offensive something might be. Hence this not being a hill worth dying on.
The other problem with this approach to history is the one where decisions aren’t made as a community. Again, nobody is going to put up much of a fight for the reputation of Colston who might have done good things with his money but much of that money was gained in horrific ways that are impossible to excuse even through the diminishing lens of history. What if another equally angry gang decides that they’ve have enough of the Winston Churchill statue in Westminster and hauled it in the dead of night into the Thames? What if people thought the same about Gandhi or Nelson Mandela? What about those people that get excited at the sight of the Confederate flag and consider every statue of Lincoln an insult?
There are very few people in history who don’t have some backstory that isn’t perceived differently over time. Since their stories remain constant, it must be us who change. Part of recognising why things were wrong in the past is retaining evidence of those wrongs. We don’t make ourselves better by cleansing that history but by contextualising it, marking it, and remembering it. What made Edward Colston do what he did is still within us as a species. We should remember that otherwise, we are more likely to repeat it.
There’s no way a crowd could comprehend this nuanced approach, which is why the wisdom of crowds is such an oxymoron. Yet the tendency is to treat a crowd as though it’s a homogenous whole, expressing a single point of view.
Part of the problem of the past few days is separating the issue of systemic racism and those affected by it from the rest of what’s going on. Some protestors care deeply about the cause of Black Lives Matter. Then there are those few “professional protestors”, the people who live for the excitement of some crowd-on-police action and don’t care what cause they’re fighting for. Then there are many – possibly even a majority – who are in it because they’ve been momentarily enthused by a powerful message, the media coverage, the chance to stick it to the establishment, the chance to be part of something. There is no single clear motivation for being part of any protest. Most people take pictures and shout slogans. A minority scrawl on walls and monuments, throw rocks and get into a fight with the police. Yet the media do what the media always does: they go after the action. Then the misbehaviour of a tiny majority become the main headline. The minority becomes the majority coverage.
The sad consequence of this is that the rioting becomes the dominant story, spun by those pundits who want to delegitimise the protests in some way. In the grand Left-Right sweep of current political biases, the protestors probably belong on the Left but not irrationally so. That is simply a consequence of their wanting to change the system and produce, in their way, a form of revolution. There is nothing in this that speaks to conservatives so, naturally, conservatives are wary of them. They talk instead about law and order and take the examples of misbehaviour as a chance to complain about the “radical left” who are out of control. This then feeds those more toxic prejudices whereby people on the Right hate (and that’s not too strong a word) those on the Left; those on the Left hate (again not too strong) those on the Right.
Instead of being a debate about Black Lives Matter, it becomes an existential fight for political dominance. Many on the Right would abandon their every freedom if it meant defeating the Left (they’re the pro-riot police types who otherwise celebrate freedom) and it’s the same on the Left (the true revolutionaries who believe in the kind of freedom that has historically given us tyrannies). Needless to say: none of this is healthy. This is more about the psychology of human beings than it is about pragmatically making the world a better place; about men in their sixties who can’t bear the howls of youth and youth who can’t contemplate the moderation of middle age.
Somehow from this, we can only hope that sanity prevails rather than this madness continues…