We should tear down statues commemorating those who profited off, perpetuated and created systems of oppression and replace them with statues of those who fought against, or suffered under, those systems.
Edward Colston is an example that has come to the fore in recent news. As a slave trader, he profited off the slave trade immensely. Yet his toppling was seen as controversial, partly because it was done by a crowd of protesters, but it had been resisted for many years before that, because he contributed large sums to projects around Bristol.
But not just for that reason was his removal questioned. A key argument that crops up with many controversial statues is their value as a tool of historical education. It is true that history is full of villains, and we should learn about things like the slave trade, and the evil people who created and perpetuated these systems. But there are better ways to make educational statues. Rather than keeping statues to slave traders, we should have statues to commemorate slaves and statues of abolitionists who fought the trade. These statues would still inform people of the role cities around the UK had in the slave trade. Furthermore, if we want people to relate to historical figures, we could do better than keeping statues of only the elite rich aristocrats and capitalists who could afford to donate enough money to get statues of them built. Most people would find more to relate with from learning of the struggles of those who organised the sugar boycotts to fight the slave trade, who organised the bus boycotts to fight against white supremacy, who suffered during the AIDs epidemic.
Statues are mostly ways of idolising people, and only secondarily are they there to inform. It is telling that the figure of speech derived from statue building, “putting on a pedestal” refers to idolising someone, not to educating others about what they do. It is also telling that Colston’s plaque simply read, “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895”. This tells you nothing of his career, it simply states that he was “most virtuous and wise”. It is a poor educational tool, because it is uninformative, and also false.
We have no good reason to erect or keep idols to these figures, and their educational value is a false dichotomy. It is not a choice between educating people about the slave trade by keeping slave trader statues, or letting people forget. There is a choice to be made about how we educate, or rather who we push to the fore of the story, who we shine the spotlight on, who we idolise, and we are currently making the wrong choices.