Brendan O’Neill

Toppling Colston’s statue was an act of intolerance

Toppling Colston's statue was an act of intolerance
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As they tore down the statue of the 17th-century merchant and slaver Edward Colston in Bristol yesterday, protesters were behaving like a woke Taliban. Just as Taliban extremists smashed huge carvings of Buddha that offended them, and just as Isis nutters took hammers to 'idolatrous' monuments in the cities of Palmyra and Nimrud, so British protesters are now waging war on historical statues that they claim are 'hurtful' to ordinary people.

It was the glee with which they tore down Colston's statue that was most unnerving. They yanked him down and started cheering and screaming as they stomped on his head. He was then taken to the nearby harbour and thrown in the Avon river. Another rousing cheer.

It was as if evil had been defeated. As if this mere monument, this bronze entity, was a malevolent, corrupting force, and as if its disposal into the river was a liberatory moment. It really did bring to mind the wide-eyed fervour with which Isis members destroyed the first-century Lion of Al-lāt in Palmyra, again on the basis that the monument was hurtful, offensive, counter to their belief system.

Today's woke Taliban might describe things as 'problematic', while the actual Taliban and other Islamist movements prefer to call things 'haram', but it amounts to the same thing: ugly history and offensive representations must be destroyed.

The Islamist mob and the PC mob both come across as Year Zero movements, devoted to cleansing public space of hateful, reviling, scurrilous material lest anyone's soul be corrupted, or mind offended, by encountering these wicked depictions. Both are given to the policing of speech, the banning of books, and the erasure of representations of the past.

The idea that the tearing down of Colston's statue was a reckoning with the historic crime of slavery is especially ridiculous. Britain has had its reckoning with the horrors of slavery. The entire West has. I bet you could not find a single person in this country who thinks slavery was anything other than an abomination.

We learn about the evils of slavery in school. There are museums devoted to the crimes of slavery. Popular culture has frequently depicted slavery in all its horror in recent years. Everyone knows how immoral slavery was. There is something deeply patronising in the idea that we all needed to witness the performative iconoclasm of the woke Taliban in Bristol yesterday in order to understand how terrible slavery is. Believe it or not, British people are not racists biting at the bit for the return of slavery.

The question is: where will it end? Colston lavished money on Bristol. He funded alms houses, schools, hospitals. Some of these institutions are still standing. Tear them down? After all, they were built with the blood money of a slave trader.

Of course, there is already a campaign to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College, Oxford. People are eyeing up the Westminster statue of Cromwell, persecutor of the Irish and of Catholics more broadly. Some students in Manchester are agitating against plans to erect a statue to Gandhi outside Manchester Cathedral on the basis that Gandhi expressed anti-black views. And of course there's the great prize: Churchill. His statue in Westminster was defaced with the word 'racist' yesterday.

This intolerant urge to morally cleanse the public sphere is potentially endless. It is ludicrous too. Cromwell may have done bad things to the Irish but he also faced down a tyrannical king and made England a republic. Gandhi may once have expressed racist views towards African people but he also helped to liberate India, giving rise to the largest democracy on earth. Churchill held some very questionable views and oversaw a decaying empire that was frequently cruel. But he also helped to defeat the greatest criminals in human history: the Nazis.

Guess what? History is complex; people are complex. The effort to purify the past, to separate historical figures into categories of Good and Evil, is an infantile disorder. Our cities are living history. Public space is a patchwork of the historical events and ruptures that made our nations. When we walk through the streets we see monuments to the soldiers, political leaders, rebels and artists who made our society what it is, some of whom will have done bad, some of whom will have done good, and some of whom will have done a bit of both.

The PC desire to sweep these representations away is immature, intolerant, undemocratic and philistine. The woke Taliban are a menace to history and reason.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSociety