“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
(British novelist LP Hartley, 1953)
In the months following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, a whole new debate has opened up on how we should perceive the events and actors of the past.
History is undoubtedly awash with shameful events. In scenes reminiscent of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s statues of controversial historical figures have been toppled or vandalised. Others, such as Rhodes in Oxford, Cromwell in Westminster, Baden-Powell in Poole, Russell in Dublin and Mitchel in Newry still stand but have suddenly reignited a frenzied debate.
Those in favour of keeping such memorials will routinely justify their position – rightly or wrongly – with the “things were different back then” soundbite. To take the example of the statue of seventeenth-century slave trader George Colston in Bristol which was removed by an organised mob – obviously no-one alive today can genuinely know what social attitudes were really like during this period. We can merely speculate, relying on the historical sources of the time.
However, we do have more recent memories of what was not so long ago deemed to be acceptable but now no longer so. The entertainment business – which has its fair share of moments not to be proud of – is a prime example.
My formative coming-of-age years were the 1980s and 90s. Not a massively long time ago, but attitudes have changed almost beyond recognition since then. I can remember when Irish jokes and other casual forms of racism and sexism featured quite frequently on TV comedy shows. A popular brand of marmalade had a gollywog on its label. The Miss World beauty contest/cattle market was broadcast on prime time TV – and was (in the pre-internet era) compulsive viewing for adolescent schoolboys of my generation. Pictures of topless women appeared regularly in tabloid newspapers – a practice which astonishingly was only brought to an end in 2015. And I was halfway through secondary school by the time corporal punishment was banned.
How times have changed – and in this respect for the better – within a relatively short space of time.
A few years ago there was a Channel 4 series called “It was Alright in the 70s”, a nostalgic look at the cringe-inducing material that was once on our screens, much of it now unbroadcastable to a modern audience. Typical features of the programme included popular comedians of the day blacking up (some senior readers may remember the notorious Black and White Minstrel Show) or telling very un-PC jokes, sitcom characters expressing lustful desires towards schoolgirls, and daredevil stunts which modern health and safety laws would never allow.
I’m not quite old enough to remember the 1970s, but the show really helped open my eyes to how different the world was back then. It made me ask myself the question “how the hell did they get away with all that?”
The powers that be who ran the TV networks back then found this sort of thing acceptable. With lax attitudes like this, it’s no wonder that Jimmy Savile and other high profile sexual predators back in the day were able to hide in plain sight and get away with such despicable behaviour.
But as well as attitudes changing, technology has progressed astronomically and has had a profound effect on social trends. If anything remotely offensive appears on TV, or if some celebrity posts something controversial on Twitter, those who take offence (or in some cases choose to be offended if it fits in with their political agenda) will make this known instantaneously via social media and in a matter of seconds hundreds of thousands of people will be aware of it. Similarly, demonstrations can be organised easily through social media tools.
As well as being entertaining “It was Alright in the 70s” was quite informative and educational. It’s also interesting for psychologists, social historians, anthropologists and any other type of academic who make a living out of telling people what they already know but dress it up in meaningless jargon to make themselves sound smart.
It’s testament to the fact that we have generally become more enlightened and tolerant. So credit where credit’s due. But we must also be aware of the dangers of things going too far. Netflix removing Gone with the Wind from their catalogue because it portrays slaves as being happy with their lot merely is censoring history and promoting a sanitised version of Hollywood which ignores the reality of the fact that attitudes change over time.
If we take this to its natural conclusion, almost anything can be deemed offensive by those who deliberately go out of their way to be offended.
In the London borough of Croydon there’s a metal sculpture of the comedian Ronnie Corbett, one-half of the famous “Two Ronnies” double act of the 1970s and ’80s, who was a long time resident of the area. Some of their sketches and jokes would not be acceptable nowadays due to their politically incorrect nature. This one especially springs to mind –
although it’s worth noting that a particularly offensive reference to a character depicted on the jar of the marmalade in the original version has been edited out. Nevertheless, as far as I’m aware the statue of wee Ronnie remains intact and has not been vandalised by self-styled social justice warriors.
There is, of course, a fundamental difference between a comedian who told mildly offensive jokes a generation or two ago and a seventeenth-century slave trader or American civil war general who oppressed thousands of people. It is also significant that within Corbett’s lifetime politically incorrect comedy was effectively phased out.
Similarly there has been no campaign to remove the statue of former Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury from its plinth in Montreux. In the 1980s Queen found themselves in hot water after playing a series of gigs in South Africa during the apartheid era. If you were to employ a twisted form of logic here, you could conclude that Mercury was racist and therefore doesn’t deserve to be commemorated. Ironically he was subjected to racial abuse himself in his youth due to his Persian background. Although he didn’t live to see the end of apartheid, his surviving bandmates did – a fact which may make all the difference.
Queen was never considered cool or fashionable within the rock fraternity, so it’s unclear if their reputation suffered that much anyway – but that’s a whole other debate.
Matthew Syed in The Sunday Times (14/06/20) hits the nail on the head:
“…We should remember that morality evolves. A hundred years ago, most people thought homosexuality was sinful. Five hundred years ago, most cultures believed slavery was justifiable. This implies that many of our practices today will be regarded as primitive, even repugnant, by future generations (such as perhaps the killing of animals for meat). Does that mean that nothing we do today can be good? Does it mean we shouldn’t even try? Or does it mean that, whatever we do, however imperfect when judged by future standards, it is nevertheless possible to take society in a progressive direction?”
If we ban or censor everything, someone somewhere finds offensive we will have very little left.
After all, if we insist on erasing the past how can we learn from it?
Ciaran Ward is from Co. Tyrone and is now based in London where he works in the data protection/cybersecurity field. His latest book “On Square Routes”, a collection of memoirs, travel writing, short stories and poetry has just been published and is now available from Amazon.