The statue of slave trader Edward Colston being retrieved from Bristol Harbour (Andrew Lloyd/Getty Images)

Property is Speech

Tearing down Edward Colston’s statue conceals the past and suppresses the speech of the dead

Artillery Row

For many of us, the wake-up call about the untrustworthiness of the soft centrism espoused by the managerial elite which dominates public discourse was its response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. No sooner had leading politicians locked arms in Paris and proclaimed “Nous sommes Charlie”, than they were adding a caveat. “We unequivocally support free speech unless it undermines community cohesion.” In other words, they did not understand that the principle of free speech means supporting not just the speech with which you agree but also – in fact, especially – speech you consider erroneous or distasteful.

I was reminded by this when a mob in my home city toppled a statue of Edward Colston MP, merchant, city benefactor and slave trader. What struck me was not the righteous fury of the mob in Bristol or the shallow posturing. What struck me was the response of putative moderates. Rather than rejecting the mob violence, they proclaimed that maybe after all it was time to show society had moved on. By granting that, society also seems to have “moved on” from the principles of violent protest being wrong, destruction of art being undesirable and wrecking of public property being a net negative.

There is something childish or primitive about destroying symbols of ideologies that are now impotent

By destroying historical monuments relating to ideas we find disagreeable, we make ourselves ignorant. We also distort history by concealing part of it. How can we argue that slave-trading was once an influential and respected part of commercial and civic life if we have erased all traces of slavers? Do we just take it on trust that this was the case even though the evidence is now gone? What happens when children ask “If slavery was so prevalent why can’t I see any evidence? Was it really so important? Did it ever happen at all?” If we had the evidence there then we could discuss it and teach it. By censoring the past we leave ourselves vulnerable to lies of the future.

We demonstrate our intolerance when we find even the effigies of the dead “offensive”. There is something childish or primitive about destroying symbols of ideologies that are now impotent and failed. It is weakness and fear of a relic of the past so heinous that it radiates evil to contaminate the future. Consider the case of the Austrian state purchasing the house of Hitler’s birth in order to destroy it. Giving in to such superstitions sows the seeds of future acts of holy cleansing and ritual shunning.

Free speech and preservation of historical artefacts are congruent and interlocked. Property is speech. Historical materials allow those in the past to speak to us. We can learn their wisdom and their folly. Artefacts are evidence of a lost country, a place that is inaccessible and in some respects curious. The very people who profess to be fans of diversity and world culture are set on suppressing the speech of the dead, dismissing it irredeemably retrograde. They are dupes of activists who direct them to act rashly and make irreversible actions.

We have no way of knowing what the past could reveal to us – medical insights, surprising sociological facts, lost technologies, radically advanced thought. It is not dissimilar to the destruction of natural habitat that contains a multitude of unexamined species. If we destroy artefacts by giving in to our most base fears and pandering to impatient arrogance, we diminish ourselves and we rob our descendants of the material we so carelessly discard. We make ourselves prey to primitive emotions, open to the manipulation of radicals. Don’t take the first step; resist the desire to destroy.

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