15 June


You can’t judge the past by the standards of the present.

Yes, you can. You absolutely can. There are no other standards by which you can possibly judge it.

We say that Edward Colston did a bad thing when he invested money in the slave trade. We say this because we think that slavery is bad.

You respond that Edward Colston did a good thing when he gave some of that money away. You say this because you think charitable giving is good.

If you can’t judge the past by the standards of the present, you can’t say that Colston was bad because he was a slaver; but equally you can’t say that he was good because he was a philanthropist. You can’t say anything at all. (Which might be a good idea.)

In the seventeenth century, criminals were eviscerated and dismembered, while still alive and conscious, in front of large crowds. This was wrong.

In the eighteenth century, black people were treated as livestock. This was wrong.

In the nineteenth century, very young children were forced to work as chimney sweeps. This was wrong.

In the twentieth century Alan Turing was forced to take drugs as a punishment for being gay. This was wrong.

See? That wasn't too hard, was it?

Manners and mores and customs can vary from place to place. Of course they can. Nude sunbathing is okay in Ibiza but a bit out of order in Weston Super Mare. Young people use the word “shit” more freely than I would have done. But it doesn't follow that all standards are reducible to manners and customs. “You can’t say fuck on the BBC” and “You can’t set fire to old ladies” are two quite different things.

People can discover new information. C.S. Lewis famously said that if there really had been witches, a lot of people might have quite reasonably thought they deserved to be executed: we stopped executing witches because we stopped believing in their existence. We can say that Matthew Hopkins was sincerely deluded, or indeed that he was stupid, but not that he operated according to an unintelligible moral code.

It might be that the day after tomorrow we will discover that tulips are fully sentient, with a sophisticated language and culture, and a sense of morality and free will. That they are, in the jargon, hnau. Doubtless a hundred years hence children would be unable to believe that in the twenty first century people went around butchering tulips with shears and exhibiting their corpses in their houses. But we would be able to reply, quite honestly, “We didn’t know.”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I do eat meat. But I am not going to use that as an example, because there is a wide continuum of opinion on the rights of animals. You very rarely meet someone who thinks that animals are soulless automata which can be hunted and tortured and experimented on at a human’s whim; and you very rarely meet someone who thinks cows and goldfish and snails are fully autonomous individuals who should be given citizenship and the vote. Most of us are somewhere in between: we think that it is okay to keep animals as pets, but we are uneasy about zoos; we think that it is okay to farm animals, but think that there should be rules about their welfare; we abstain from meat, but acknowledge that a certain amount of scientific vivisection is a necessary evil; in the event of a fire, we save the baby before the dog but the dog before the goldfish. "Eating sausages is wrong" and "buying and selling black people is wrong" are not equivalent statements.

I look at the statue of Edward Colston: it says that he was “the wisest and most virtuous son of Bristol”. That is what it says: not that he made a lot of money and that he founded a school, but that he was superlatively wise and superlatively virtuous. The statue of Edmund Burke says that he was an MP. The statue of Brunel says he was an engineer. The statue of Samuel Plimsoll says that he invented running shoes. (Check this. Ed.) But the statue of Colston says that he was wise and virtuous. 

We say “He was neither wise nor virtuous; his day-job was buying and selling black people ”. 

And you say “But it was the olden days. Buying and selling black people wasn’t wrong in the olden days.”

Maybe black people are like tulips. We have only recently discovered that they have minds and souls. “Oh my god” we said “You mean all those years we were…. ? When in fact….? Oh my god.” If that were so would be very hard to condemn people in the olden days unreservedly; although it must be pointed out that if someone did to a sheep or a cow today what Colston’s employees did to black people back then they would certainly go to prison. 

“Colston traded in human beings.” 

“Yes, but he honestly didn’t know they were human beings.” 

It's a funny reason for celebrating a historical person: like saying that someone is one of the best doctors who ever lived because, although he killed all his patients, he honestly thought that leeches were a good idea.

Maybe morals change, like the weather; or maybe they are progressively discovered, like scientific facts. 

The fundamental physical laws might differ from universe to universe; so that although 2 plus 2 definitely equals 4 in our world, there might be a parallel world where it equals 5 or 16 or Green. In the same way, just because “You should always be kind” is a moral law in the twentieth century, it doesn’t follow that it was a moral law in the seventeenth. Back then the golden rule might have been “You should always be cruel” or indeed “You should always wear purple underwear.” 

Richard quotes a remark from Neil Gaiman in one of his children’s books: that in the nineteenth century it hadn’t been discovered that beating children was wrong. I take it that Gaiman is being facetious here, and making the point that we tend to treat very local, contingent goods and bads as absolute eternal truths. We act as if “you mustn’t smack naughty children, ever, ever, ever” was a thing waiting to be discovered, like “illnesses are caused by microbes” or “Australia”. In fact it is a prevailing opinion that used to prevail differently. 

There is a very popular series of children’s books called Horrible History which tends to assume that people experienced the past in the same way that a modern time traveller would: that the Greeks found it funny and awkward that Olympic athletes didn’t wear any clothes because that’s how we would feel about it. Gaiman's "people in the olden days didn't know it was wrong" is a joke about that kind of fallacy.

I don't think that there is a vast blob of “morals” which we gradually discover more and more of. But if I did then it would if anything be a point against the slavers and child beaters of the olden days. We judge their morals by the standards of today in the same way we judge their science by the standards of today: because we happen to know that the morals and science of yesterday were wrong.

I don't know how the theory that people didn't know that bad things were bad until really quite modern times fits in with the theory that it was OK for us, the English, to impose our way of life on people on other continents because we knew about Jesus and they didn't.

It is absolutely true that we tolerate some evils at some times and not others. It wouldn’t be true to say that those of us who grew up in the 1970s “didn’t know” or “hadn’t discovered” that black-face comedy was incredibly offensive. Very many people were very uncomfortable with it. But most of us watched the Black and White Minstrel Show anyway. The singing and the dancing were pretty good, if show tunes were your thing. We just sort of accepted that racism was part of comedy; it would have been better if it wasn't, but it was just one of those things. My parents would have been outraged if one of my teachers had ever threatened to beat me; but at the same time, they pretty much took it for granted that canes and schools just went together because that’s how life was. 

And when the evil is built in and systemic it is almost impossible not to tolerate it to some extent. If you were living in Bristol in the 1750s and ate jam, or drank tea, or smoked then you were implicated in slavery. 

It is harder to blame one person for doing a very bad thing if everyone else is doing the very bad thing as well. Grown ups used to say “But if everyone else was jumping off a bridge, would you jump off the bridge too?” to which the answer is “Almost certainly.” And this may, to some extent, excuse the historical Colston as an individual. It is certainly unhelpful to point and say “Look: a sexist individual!” when what you mean is “Look: someone who lived in a sexist age!” Jane Austen didn’t support votes for women. Neither did anyone else. It would be a non sequitur to scrawl “anti-suffragist” on her grave.

So: “you can’t judge the past by the standards of the present” means, at best “Colston was doing a terrible thing; it was a terrible thing then; it would be a terrible thing now; he knew it was a terrible thing; but in fairness to him it was a terrible thing which other people were doing as well, and which most people ignored or put up with”. 

But the question is not; and never has been “Why blame Colston in particular; why single him out for special condemnation.” The question is “Why make him a hero; why single him out for special praise.” 

There were other slavers in Bristol; and there were very many other people who were tacitly complicit in the system. But there aren't big statues of them in the centre of Bristol, calling them the wisest and most virtuous people who were ever born in the city.


Richard Worth said...

I accept that the Kolston Kulture War is like the American Civil War. Setting aide Copperheads and North-Western Secessionists, you either haul up the Stars & Stripes and your eyes hath seen the glory, or you haul up the Stars & Bars and start whistling Dixie. If you support states' rights', by default you support slavery. I don't think there is a form of quantum bronze which is both on the plinth and in the harbour. However, the Kolston Kult seems to consist of a few merchants, old girls and semi-pro grumblers: no-one manned the barricades around the statue, or (tca) is going campaign to put the statue back on the plinth, or wants to keep Kolston in the Curriculum. However, I don't think we can extend this across the entirety of history (or statuary) without coming unstuck. For example, we probably wouldn't accept neo-nazis blowing up electricity pylons because it was OK for Nelson Mandela. For the record, I don't believe in capital punishment, but I don't think that everyone involved in the criminal justice system before 1965 was wicked. Going back further, barbaric punishments may have been the only (tca) way to uphold law & order: the people who debated whether to abolish slavery also debated whether a 'police force' would mean the end of democracy and civil liberties in the UK. The same sort of arguments apply to anyone involved in war, or politics, or public life, whether they have a statue, or just a mention in the history books. The danger I can see in applying modern moral standards to the past is two-fold. Firstly, we lose any sort of empathy with people who don't share our opinions, whether with Richard the Lion Heart going on crusade, a born-and-bred Texan in the civil war who fights for his native state, or a doctor believing that he was allowing Alan Turing to avoid prison and lead a (tca) 'normal, healthy virtuous' life. We are then literally baffled when Boris and Trump are voted into power by people who see the world differently to us. The second danger is that we assume that our own moral standards are the right ones, that we do not 'perceive through a glass, darkly', and that as honest men we can agree to disagree rather than changing the status quo. We are not doing to discover that tulips are sentient, but we have kind of discovered that flatulent cows eat rain-forests and increase global warming, yet both of us still eat meat. I suspect that our man defence would be a variant of 'yes, but lots of other people are doing it'. The danger is that in the Next War, whether practical or cultural, we assume that people like us always end up on the right side, without having to think about what he sides really mean.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes, but.

Black People: "We don't like the fact that you've given such prominence and such status to a person whose only claim to fame is that he made a lot of money buy and selling our ancestors."

White People, until the week before last: "It is fine for us to celebrate him, because buying and selling your ancestors wasn't wrong when he did it."

Everyone else: "When you say it wasn't wrong and he should be celebrated, what do you mean?"

Richard Worth said...

I think that 'they' mean 'He acted in line with the prevalent moral codes of his culture and civilisation. This meant investing money in a range of different business ventures, including slave-trading, possibly while seeing very few actual slaves for himself. With the money he made, he established several charitable foundations that helped make Bristol the large, prosperous city it become in the 19th century. Therefore, the Victorians put up a statue to him. Bronze is not like a wiki-page that can be regularly updated or nuanced: either we keep the statue or get rid of it. If we get rid of Colston for being a slave-trader, even though slave-trading was lawful and socially acceptable 300 years ago, we open up questions about every dead historical dude whose deeds don't happen to fit today's prevailing attitudes. If we start with Colston today, we move onto Churchill and Gandhi tomorrow.' The obvious answer to this is 'we judge Colston's statue by 21st century standards, and have removed it as a public memorial. Judgement of Colston himself is either a matter of historical debate where we need to be careful about judging other people by our own moral compass, or it is no longer a matter for earthly courts to judge'. I am less comfortable with 'Slavery was always wrong, so everyone from Jane Austin to most characters in the Bible are baddies'

Andrew Rilstone said...

That's what I said.