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Our heroes are meant to be the best of us

You can tell a lot about a society by asking: who are your heroes? They’re supposed to be the very very best of us. Those we look to as examples of our values. They don’t just appear, like a loot box in a video game after battle: they are chosen. They are not just chosen once, either: the act of building a monument to a hero means we remake that choice every single day the monument still stands.

You know this and I know this because our own heroes have changed through the years. You rarely meet a grown adult who tells you their greatest hero is one of the members of Paw Patrol. As a child my hero was The Little Mermaid. As a teenager, Green Day and Rik Mayall. I’ve made heroes of comedians and singers and writers and dead philosophers, my Mum and my sister and this or that powerful friend. These days my heroes change daily: they’re the individuals who made good moral decisions in the face of overwhelming hostility, or the ones who admitted they were wrong and gave the kind of heartfelt apology that I aspire to be able to match. The people who go viral because they said something so fucking true that everyone who hears it feels compelled to pass it on.

Our heroes are meant to be the best of us. The ones we build statues for, and name buildings after, and commemorate with respect and care and love: they are meant to be the best of us. We do not build statues purely to remember our history, that’s what museums are for. We don’t name buildings to help kids with their GCSEs: we have books and teachers for that. A statue is there to celebrate a person. We look up to them, we literally put them on a pedestal. A statue is not a history book, but a totem of our pride. A statue marks a hero, and our heroes are supposed to be the best of us.

If we display statues to dead guys who oversaw enslavement and torture and murder, we are saying ‘these are the best of us.’ There is no getting around it. No ‘but history!’ or ‘let’s remember!’ or ‘he also did great work for charity!’ – a statue says ‘this is our hero.’

We as a society choose our heroes, and they are meant to be the very very best of us.

Edward Colston

From this fantastic article on the Edward Colston ‘corrective’ plaque by the Bristol Radical History Group:

From 1680-1692, Bristol-born merchant, Edward Colston was a high official of the Royal African Company which had the monopoly on the British slave trade until 1698.[4] Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America. He also invested in the Spanish slave trade[6] and in slave-produced sugar.[7] Much of his fortune was made from slavery and as Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ’right’ to trade in enslaved Africans.

Local people who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.

We need to remember what Edward Colston did. We should not forget him, or the thousands of people he murdered and enslaved. No one is arguing that history be expunged: the opposite. By tearing down his statue the message isn’t ‘forget history’ but ‘learn from it.’ These people are not heroes, and we should stop pretending that they ever really were.

I used to live in Bristol, and sometimes I miss it like it was my home. I spent three happy years there drinking, dancing, and lusting dreadfully after a beautiful, sexy boy. I thought I knew that city inside out. I learned which doors in the arts department might open even if the ones that we usually used were locked. I learned a shortcut behind the Academy that got me to lectures five minutes more swiftly, even when hungover after a night taking advantage of the pound-a-Reef drink deal at Spoons. Which halls you could sneak into, which clubs had the stickiest floors, the best venues for secret comedy gigs and lots more.

But it wasn’t until my second year that I learned it was built upon death. I remember someone telling me that the Wills Memorial Building was founded by a man who made his money from slavery. That it’s impossible to wander through the city without walking past a statue or a building or some other physical landmark that only exists at the expense of thousands of lives.

Those who argue that these statues are ‘historical’ and that we should keep them to help us remember are ironically the most keen to forget: to encourage us to walk past these statues without thinking too much about why they are there, or contemplate the weight of what this person did.

As David Olusoga points out in the Guardian, the toppling statues can be a powerful educational tool.

“Here and in the US, the back stories of the statues, and the shadowy organisations and individuals who paid for them, are being revealed. As are details of the murderous careers of the men memorialised in marble and bronze. The very aspects of history that these monuments were intended to conceal are now freely circulating.”

I only know who Edward Colston is, and what he did, because his statue was torn down.

We choose our heroes. And we remake those choices every day, when we walk past statues of racists or study in buildings named after them. We can choose to ignore the impact of that, or we can choose to genuinely remember. Understand what our ‘heroes’ did, confront it, then tear them down.

You can tell a lot about a society by asking: who are your heroes? Edward fucking Colston isn’t one of them.


  • Orangecannon says:

    I think this is a well crafted, nicely argued article that made me think again about this subject.

    Thank you.

  • Aaron Fuller says:

    I’m really sorry for not commenting on this before, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t attracted more commentary. But this is an excellent post, and has given me a lot to think about. It’s expressed very clearly the conclusion I like to think I would have come to anyway… eventually! Your post accelerated my thinking on it, which is a Good Thing. Thank you!

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