Culture Wars, Isms & Schisms, Liberté

Have We More to Fear from the Intolerance of the Illiberal Left than from any Statue?

Pre-Social Media, a transgressor is judged during a Maoist Struggle Session. A sort of conversion therapy, such forced confessions-cum-show-trials were used to cure counter-revolutionary thinking. Photo by Li Zhensheng, an official photographer of the Chinese Cultural Revolution who died in New York earlier this month. No copyright infringement intended.

Nothing symbolises the febrile social atmosphere that surrounds us at present more than the epidemic of ‘statue toppling’ that has attended recent protests, in particular those organised around the Black Lives Matter movement.

Is this outbreak of de-memorialisation a necessary act of collective catharsis typical of any era, or does it belie a wanton historical vandalism and a rising censoriousness that threatens to define the future?

In this debate, ‘Yes’ argues that citizens should be far more concerned with the the rise of present-day illiberal intolerance, than with the historical intolerance manifested by symbols like statues. 

‘No’ counters that, since monuments matter for their powerful symbolism, their removal is a legitimate way to reflect the changing value systems of an evolving society.  In that sense, condemning the memory of a previously valorised historical figure is a symbol of social progress, one that dramatises a determination to leave behind a flawed past from which we have all happily emigrated.

Yes: Forget the Statues. Attacks on Free Speech & Language are Attacks on Cognitive Liberty & Our Ability to Create Meaning—The Very Essence of What it Means to be Human and Alive

Were the rising iconoclasm of 2020 limited to a long overdue redecoration of the Western public sphere, there would be little worth debating.  If statues are a culture’s values solidified, the culture that insists upon its citizens walking daily in the shadows of slavers, robber barons and recreational rapists is not worth defending.  

But lest we succumb to the vapours from smoking the patriarchy and wind up bulldozing Auschwitz and resurrecting all those statues of Lenin, perhaps we ought to consider the uneasy relationship between freedom and equality, what lessons from history aren’t worth repeating, and what values are worth defending.  Namely, the very basis of our civil liberties: open enquiry, freedom of expression and democracy.  All of which are under attack by a cadre of the illiberal left wot have drawn false equivalencies between free speech and hate speech, critical speech and violence, and seemingly interpret any challenge to their worldview or methods as an existential threat that must be extinguished—preferably in the public square of social media, where maximum damage can be wrought on the offending character and their future prospects. 

To the post-modern iconoclast, the ‘cancellation’ of virtual strangers, like the toppling of statues, is a symbolic sacrifice.  But both are dangerous traps.  Both proffer aesthetic solutions to systemic problems.  Both use proxies that will ultimately serve to prop up the status quo.

Attacking people rather than ideas only ensures the preservation of bad ideas. 

The internet pastime of destroying people makes for good business in the Attention Economy.  But ushering adversaries to their Palmyra is a shitty tactic for affecting positive change.  Along with the bad vibes it generates, it makes people wary of speaking up or asking questions.  It alienates people.  Makes us afraid of each other.  Discourages empathy.  And it guarantees better ideas are never heard, endangering progress of any kind. (And of course drives curiosity in that which or whom hath been banished.)

In addition to casual dehumanisation, the practitioners of such ‘takedowns’ employ the tired, zero sum ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’ rhetoric.  In the Leftist H’internetland, such unilateral declarations typically employ a ‘If you don’t support X, then you’re an -IST / -PHOBE’ formulation. 

Two things are patently bizarre about this trend.

1.  This approach strips individuals of their agency, reducing them to some observable identity group, effectively reinforcing the very social constructs progressives allegedly seek to abolish. 

2.  Those using these tactics appear oblivious to the irony of upping the tools of their enemies.

Number two is worth further consideration.

Aside from summoning the smooth rhetoric of soft totalitarianism, using identity politics to establish scapegoats and victims are games Hitler played.

Maybe then it should be no surprise that central to this culture war is language.  Which is being used as a para-political tool to reinforce a binary of Good and Bad, to shame people for wrong-speak, absolve or condemn based on accidents of birth, and to reframe opposition as ‘hateful’.

Attacking the language doesn’t change people’s minds. It just confuses them.

Take for example the on-growing fracas around leftist tenets such as ‘Silence is Violence’, ‘Sex is a Spectrum’ and ‘Abolish the White Race’.  Whether you hold these as fact or fiction, necessary or absurd, racist or anti-racist isn’t relevant to this argument.  What is, is that words that used to mean one thing, are being used to describe something else. 

If language is a technology of understanding, and dialogue our only chance for non-violent conflict resolution, then what does it mean when we can no longer agree on what words—the fundamental building blocks of reality—mean?  What happens when academic obscurantism infects everyday communication? 

Far from being the natural casualties of semantic evolution, such linguistic twisting is actually—so sorry, Comrade—a Bolshevik trick.

“We must be ready to employ trickery, deceit, law-breaking, withholding and concealing truth … We can and must write in a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, and scorn toward those who disagree with us.”               

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (AKA Lenin)

Perhaps it’s inevitable that one generation’s Progressive becomes another’s Counter-Revolutionary, but given the scale of the changes required to sustain life on Earth, it would be wise to avoid chucking rocks at potential allies, or demand they expend their energy in perpetual apology

Attacking symbols (and each other) makes for good ’gram but will lead to terrible policy.

For those who don’t spend far too much time on the internet, it would be easy to assess the recent rash of iconoclasm as a justifiable response to a horrific extra-judicial killing of yet another unarmed Black American; and easier to dismiss cues of agitprop. 

But the occurrence during a global pandemic, along with its calls to ‘Defund the Police’ could not be more convenient for those seeking to engineer cost savings in the face of a global recession, or those seeking to make America relevant again. 

If the Technocrats needed a pretext to out-China China, widespread protests with the odd, but much publicised, incidence of looting just might do the trick. 

Like a clash of hurt herd animals in the grip of a collective insanity, our emotional reactions to symbolic depictions of systemic grotesqueries put us in a vulnerable position of limited bargaining power.  The fact that so many corporations have so easily co-opted the movement should give us pause for thought.  That so many Blue Checkmarks sing from the very same hymn sheet, peddling the same Woke-lore oughta raise a brow. 

Those of us who have forgotten the quintessential mission of this Earthly incarnation would do well to stop, drop and roll into the sweet embrace of dialogue, and rediscover the one true diversity: of thought—the interpretation of experience.  Online if you must, but preferably in-person.  And if statues must be felled, so be it.  But consider that if you can keep your head while those around you are losing theirs, you’re probably partially responsible for the crisis in the first place. 

Otherwise don’t fall for it.


No: Statues are Powerful Social Symbols.
We Should be Very Careful Whom We Choose to Honour—And for How Long. 

‘Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?’

Gary Neville, Sky Sports

On Monday 6 May 2019, Manchester City played Leicester City in a must-win English Premier League football encounter at the Etihad Stadium. With 20 minutes to go, the game remained scoreless, and Manchester City were patently struggling to break down stubborn Leicester resistance.

Then, unexpectedly, Vincent Kompany, the long-serving Manchester City centre-back and team captain, strode forward and unleashed a venomous shot into the top corner of the Leicester net. It was an act of unparalleled bravery and heroism, both because centre-backs are never supposed to shoot from 35 yards, and more importantly, because it materially affected the destination of the 2019 Premier League title in City’s favour.

A year later, City announced plans to erect a statue to Kompany in the concourse outside their stadium in Manchester.

Heroes make history and statues matter because they mark both admiration for the actions of  heroes and gratitude for the impact of their actions.

So, the erection of a statue is much more than an act of simple commemoration. It is physical recognition of an act or a life of extra-ordinary consequence that will stand the test of time. That’s why statues are generally commissioned in a material that will prove to be eminently durable, like stone, copper, brass or bronze. 

While Sport matters a great deal to some of us, most statues are dedicated to major figures whose personal contribution materially affected the course of history for a city or a nation. It is this type of memorialisation that can prove more problematic sometimes. Why? Unlike most sporting heroes, the desired longevity of a statue of a political figure can readily come in conflict with changed social mores, circumstances and understandings.

Take attitudes to Human Slavery for example. In his masterful work, Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty draws painstaking attention to the fact that historical regimes of social inequality around the world were inevitably supported by the dominant ideologies of their era. Over time, these hitherto dominant ideologies can be challenged, sometimes to the extent that their principles and tenets become ‘unsayable’ when judged by present-day moral standards.

For example, Piketty makes the case that the extraordinary wealth and power of the British. and other European, Empires of the 17th-20th centuries was built to a large extent on a sophisticated, global system of systematic resource extraction from the conquered colonies, of which a primary resource was slave labour. Indeed, the abolition of human slavery in the developed world is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. Britain abolished the practice in 1807; the U.S. in 1865; Brazil as late as 1888.

Thus, the cities of London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bristol owe their historic wealth and prominence in no small part to people who played a central role in the slave trade of the 17th and 18th century. Hence, the statues of Edward Colston in Bristol, (whose crews threw the bodies of up to 20,000 slaves overboard en route to the West Indies), Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, Robert Milligan at West India Quay in London and even iconic ‘Penny Lane’ in Liverpool, named after a slave-ship owner called James Penny.

As attitudes to social practices evolve over generations, so our attitudes to the representatives of those generations must also evolve. Where a statue honours a person or event whose values and actions no longer accord with those of present-day society, it’s only right that it should reserve the right to withdraw recognition from them.

In fact the practice of de-memorialisation has a long and noble past. Writing in The Guardian Charlotte Higgins describes ‘Damnatio Memoriae’, a Latin phrase for the established Roman practice of tearing down statues in order to denigrate a person’s memory.

In that sense, tearing down such a memorial is a symbol of social progress, a cathartic act of condemnation that dramatises a determination to leave behind the values and icons of a flawed past from which we have happily emigrated.

It’s unlikely that anyone will ever want to tear down the statue of Vincent Kompany in Manchester (unless he comes out of retirement to play for United, that is!) It is entirely likely, however, that the statue of Sir Robert Peel, whose family fortune was based on the proceeds of the international slave trade (like a significant number of peers in the current House of Lords) may have a significantly shorter life-span ahead of it.

That is no bad thing. We should not be slow to rotate our collection of statues. After all, ‘Errare humanum est. Perseverare diabolicum est.’ (It’s human to make mistakes. To persist with them is evil.)


8 thoughts on “Have We More to Fear from the Intolerance of the Illiberal Left than from any Statue?”

  1. Brian says:

    History should never be rewritten because the revisionist always conveniently leaves out the facts that might bend reality towards their objective. Although it is right to attempt to correct the wrongs of the past, denial of the truth (or hiding assets reminding us of the wrongdoing) only serves to blunt the efforts for real change by clearing the consciences of those relentlessly holding on to their past prejudices.

    1. Eamon says:

      Thanks for your comment, Brian. It raises the interesting issue as to whether the purpose of a memorial to a person or event is simply to provide a historical record or, more ambitiously, to valorise the subject. Simple historical revisionism is rarely a good thing; but is continued valorisation of a person or event now judged poorly by history justified? There’s the issue, perhaps. EC

  2. Trista says:

    I have heard Brian’s point echoes many times over the past couple of days, leading me to reconsider my opening gambit. Perhaps re-memorialisation is the best option: updating these monuments to include previously omitted history—lest we forget.
    The alternative is to commit history to the Memory Hole, as ol’ Winston Smith did at The Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps we can recall how that ended.

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