Do you remember that time long ago when there was a big argument about whether statues of slavers should be pulled down or left up? It was an era in which we all became experts on people like Edward Colston and Robert Milligan: names we definitely haven’t forgotten in the (*checks calendar*) three months since.
The arguments raged on both sides. Many who were pro-toppling (other methods of removal are available) said that these statues were tributes and people who bought, sold and killed human beings probably weren’t top of the tribute-worthy pile.
Many against their removal claimed that if we left up statues of people who had done terrible things, then we’d all start having conversations about those things and be much better informed people. Removing them would be “erasing history” because, you know, all our history is stored in statues.
Well, it seems as if this latter argument might not hold water. Aside from a distinct lack of uptake in statue-led conversations this summer, it looks like people don’t actually want to have those conversations. Yeah, I’m pretty shocked, too. And they’ve been quite vocal about it.
The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty (better known simply as the National Trust) is a British charity that looks after, well, the name gives it away. It’s a fantastic organisation that preserves wonderful buildings, gardens and parks for people who want to learn about history while having a nice stroll and stopping for a cup of tea and slice of cake. You can ‘pay as you go’ to get into these places or you can become a member.
However, some of its members don’t want to learn about history. Or rather they don’t want to learn about the history that makes them feel uncomfortable and doesn’t fit with their shiny view of the past. They don’t want their nice stroll, their slice of cake, and that particular feeling of arousal that can only be induced by extravagant relics of Britain’s imperial grandeur, ruined by knowing about things that actually happened.
Which is why, when the National Trust commemorated the UNESCO Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on Sunday by tweeting some relevant info on a few of its artefacts, those people who were all for dodgy statues staying up to spark conversation and prevent history being “erased” lost their historical rag.
Many threatened to cancel their membership. Other responses included calls for government intervention, accusations of “virtue signalling” and claims that they already know everything about the British slave trade and don't need to be taught anything, thank you very much.
One keyboard warrior demanded that the trust not "educate” people or “force” its “view of history” on them. Because they were forced at gunpoint to read the thread, you see, and definitely didn’t voluntarily devour every word because getting angry at this kind of stuff is the only way they can really feel anything these days.
Now, for clarity, the trust hadn’t gone all BLM extremist. It wasn’t dragging down its own statues or torching some duke’s rose garden. It pointed out that, for example, a mahogany desk had been made from wood harvested by slaves. It explained that most British people, companies and organisations have benefitted from centuries of slavery. Which we have.
Just facts. No Marxist agenda. In fact, it emphasised that it was trying to preserve these products of empire by treating them with sensitivity.
“Destruction can remove the opportunity to understand what’s gone before, now and for future generations,” it said, which you’d think would appeal to statue-defenders. It was a message of enjoying these beautiful things but also being aware of the reality of their past, which is what they wanted, right?
This notion is unreasonable according to a lot of British people. They prefer the brainwashed version of history that makes the past sound utterly glorious. The one where we saved Europe from Napoleon and Hitler, gave India its railways and owned America for a bit.
It’s inconvenient to bring in facts about slavery and massacres and other crimes against humanity – like someone mentioning cruel slaughterhouse practices when all you want to do is enjoy your lamb casserole.
They can live with the glorious version. It doesn’t involve nuance, balance or, crucially, altering their perceptions.
They’ll say things like “the Empire wasn’t perfect” in an effort to show that they’re not ignorant, but it’s lip service; deep down they think that it was pretty damned close to perfect. They also take any criticism of the nation’s past weirdly personally, in the same way that they take a disproportionate sense of pride in long-gone achievements.
They hate it when it’s pointed out that they, we, I have all benefited from the bad as well as the good bits of our past. They want it all swept under the carpet, the smooth without the rough. They want to have their cake and eat it – and not worry about how it was made.
“It’s in the past and should stay in the past,” they say, as they walk around an 18th-century stately home looking at old things.
And it doesn’t help that our prime minister is the chief culprit when it comes to putting fingers in ears and humming Land of Hope and Glory very loudly to block out awkward truths. He’s a cheerleader for “not putting ourselves down” – which translates as “not talking about the nasty stuff.” It can make us a stagnant, even backward nation at times. As any therapist will tell you, honesty is the first step to personal growth. The same goes for countries.
Ignorance is bliss. I understand that. I don’t like to think about inconvenient truths. No one does. It must be nice to wander around a big old house and stare at fancy furniture and not consider anything other than the quality of the upholstery. But ignorance is also another word for stupidity – and surely nobody wants to be stupid?