I am watching the tearing down of statues with increasing concern. Where will it stop? Human beings, and therefore our history, has been brutal, but we are complex creatures. Our lives are set within a historical and social setting of specific perceptions and norms and so it is difficult to judge these from a different period, where those norms have changed.
We are good and bad and sometimes terrible. Should we excuse the terrible? No, of course not. At the same time if that person has done good, either through philanthropy, politics, or a creative enterprise, do we destroy their works – ‘cancel’ them, in today’s terms? If so, then it is likely that most buildings, books, paintings and more would need to be destroyed, globally. After all, there are many politicians who did some good but lived within a particular era and certainly many painters, writers, thinkers and musicians who were flawed individuals and treated others badly. Where will it end? As Orwell predicted, it starts with books and statues … but ends with people.
So I fear this current uprising could move us towards a fascist silencing of all those who do not fit the perfect model as described by today’s young. Probably, particularly, people of my generation, who have lived through different times and many periods of change and whose opinions they do not wish to hear, particularly around feminism, transgender, veganism. I have heard several friends mention “I can’t say that in front of my children/grandchildren.”
I was born in 1950. Homosexuality was still illegal until 1967. Married women were not allowed to work or to take out a bank account or mortgage in their own name until 1975. When I came to England from Portugal in 1954 it was a mainly white country and it was not until the 1960s and the break up of the Empire that we received large numbers of black and ethnic groups. It was not the welcoming place they had hoped for and it is not a period of which we should be proud, any more than we should be proud of the bias that still continues in this and other countries today against those who are different. But sixty years is not a long time in history: it has taken millennia even to begin to change attitudes to women and yet in many parts of the world women are still treated as second class citizens.
Difference can instil fear. We are all biased and prejudiced in one way or another and we need to recognise it. A few years ago, I was lost in Oxford on the way to a business meeting. Two young men came up the road and I asked them for directions. It was only halfway through my question that I realized I had addressed myself to the white man and not the black. Perhaps somewhere in my brain there was a thought that he might be more local? Either way I was mortified when I realized my unconscious bias and quickly thanked them both. It was a lesson for me. At the same time, one of the people who was dearest to me in my life, for 44 years, was from Jamaica. So, as I say, we are complex beings.
Bias is a basic and tribal part of the human psyche: friend or foe, threat or ally, fight or flight? It happens in all countries and cultures too – African, Indian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and beyond. I am sure we have all heard stories where a black, Muslim or Hindu family has not been happy to welcome a white person into their family. Difference of skin colour, behavioural habits, or religion can create divides. If the man killed by the US cop had been white would it even have reached the newspaper? It is important to look at situations in the round, soothe the fear where possible, as, anger and violence just reinforce fear, closing minds rather than opening them. Having lived through these periods of change, I can see the enormous progress of integration that has been made in these areas; black mayors, politicians, CEOs, medics, academics. But naturally there is more to be done.
But if you are a young person who has not read history, particularly modern social history, then you do not see this progress. You just see injustice, and of course there still is injustice, as the world is not a fair place and human beings have always, through their nature, found it tricky to provide a just environment for all. Where equality has been attempted, it has taken away people’s freedoms and yet those who were or are in power in Communist-style regimes are generally every bit as power-hungry and greedy for large cars, mansions and servants, as those who hit the hierarchy in other regimes.
And so some of us oldies (and I certainly don’t speak for all of them as I know plenty of people who might disagree with me), who have observed the changes, may see things differently to the twenty-somethings. The words we use can be judged to represent an out-dated attitude that we may not actually hold, for words have changed over the years but they remain in our neuronal memory. I know many of us are nervous of becoming demented in case they all trip out of our minds and onto our tongues! If they did, it wouldn’t necessarily convey a current perspective but it might convey the memory of a childhood rhyme we sang in the playground. For homosexuals were referred to as queer where now they are gay. Blacks were referred to as negro, then coloured, then back to black and now People of Colour. The language changes as we go through life and we all have to keep up but occasionally, by mistake, we use the wrong word and the young are quick to judge us as ‘bad people’ for doing so. Yet we aren’t necessarily bad people. We are people of a particular era, making a mistake.
It is the hatred and intolerance, of which they accuse others, that I find distressing. It has led to a loss of free speech in universities, to a puritanical, self-righteous and virtue-signalling set of perspectives and behaviours that judge and blame others, while possibly not judging themselves. Are they any more perfect or any less flawed than most of us? They are of their era, as we are of ours. Some of the statues they build today may well be pulled down by future generations.
But to decide to silence people who do not agree with them is wrong and it is the slippery slope to fascism and dictatorship. They use shame to silence – one small question about whether the transgender lobby might not be too harsh on JK Rowling and on the rights of women, or whether we question the disruption caused to ordinary workers by the methods of Extinction Rebellion, whether veganism is healthy, or an observation about the lack of social distancing on the Black Lives Matter protests and one is automatically put in a box as a ‘bad person’, without discussion. We are assumed to be opposing the movement when we may, in fact, simply be asking a specific question about it.
For life is full of nuance. One can agree with a lobby but not with its methods. One can have a perfectly legitimate question about evidence, about analysis, or statistical background. I have heard statements in interviews recently on television and the media that lack historical truth but are not challenged by the journalists. Yet the facts behind a protest are important, as facts stir emotions and erroneous facts stir erroneous emotions.
Of course, racism is wrong. Of course, the slave trade was a horrific and inhumane period. Of course, the death of George Floyd was an appalling event. But one murder does not mean that all police are murderers. That is simple logic. And so all police should not be treated as if they are murderers, any more than if one black person commits a crime, all black people should be treated as criminals. This is what they accuse the police of and state that it is unfair. It is unfair, so don’t mirror the treatment. It doesn’t serve the purpose well. Be clear about the actions required for change so that people can catch up but don’t treat the police or the rest of us as if we are shameful sinners.
Stereotyping others in the way people dislike being stereotyped themselves polarises rather than integrates and unfortunately the media are reinforcing this polarisation by talking of anyone who is concerned about the removal of statues as ‘nationalists’. It isn’t nationalist to question where this all ends. It is perfectly possible that certain statues and street names have had their day, but does this mean that we pull down all statues that might have negative associations without proper discussion and debate? Do we destroy books and paintings that may have been created by men or women who are judged by today’s light to have behaved badly in some way? This could mean Tolstoy, Dickens, Darwin, Cromwell, Picasso, Peel, Rhodes, Gandhi, even Mandela, and countless more.
Many other countries have had Empires, racism, slaves and colonies so it could result in the destruction of many buildings in this country and abroad – the Coliseum, the Egyptian tombs, mosques, Roman pillars would all have to go. Libraries, museums and art galleries would be empty. But Churchill? He may have been a flawed character and made mistakes, been a man of his era, but for heaven’s sake he played a major part in protecting the UK, Europe and the world from the worst racist in modern times, Hitler. This world and our lives today would be very different were Churchill not to have played that part in history. I can’t imagine anyone would really wish to live in a dictatorship ruled by such fascism? So let’s not pander to this over-emotional desire to deface Churchill’s statues or cancel his memory. We should not tolerate it.
There are black voices today who are challenging the “continued oppression narrative” that draws on history to blame others. In my coaching sessions, I found that the stance of oppressed victim does not serve a person well. Whether this is due to colour, gender, age, childhood or marital abuse, trauma, sexual preference or any other oppression, it is more effective for that person to change and empower themselves. One can’t change the past, but one can choose one’s response to it in the present so as to influence the future. And, in historical terms, this generation alive are surely the least oppressed in the whole of human history. So, let’s build on this progress and stop talking about oppression, as it creates a sense of helpless victims rather than of people who can democratically make change happen.
I sincerely hope that I shall not be ‘cancelled’ or silenced as I grow old, for we do have some stories to tell and may gain perspective over the years. I am very happy to debate with those who disagree with me, as long as the listening goes both ways. Many of us think we know everything when we are young. As we get older, we realize we know very little and that life is far more complex than we imagined.
We are all fallible. The bad has to be balanced in the light of any good we do, as I don’t believe any of us would wish solely to be judged on our errors and mistakes. This leads us down the road to the Stasi and the Thought Police. No space here for redemption.
We can all play a part in designing the future to be a more integrated and just place. We need to recognise our own unconscious bias, whatever our colour, gender or creed, to identify the individual behaviours we each can adopt to create a society where we can live freely and harmoniously, in mutual respect. Cancelling voices does not take us there.