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If someone can be cancelled, someone can be uncancelled. Let’s start with Arthur Griffith

Unthinkable: Are we losing the ability to judge historical figures fairly?

Congratulations! You’ve made it through a whole year without getting cancelled.

Or at least I hope you have. If you’re one of those unlucky ones who has lost your job or livelihood because of a mistake amplified on social media I send you good cheer – because what else is Christmas spirit for? The tradition that we celebrate on December 25th is essentially about forgiveness: forgiving others, and forgiving yourself.

The use of the word “cancelling” is, of course, contentious. What one side characterises as mob rule or self-righteousness, another will regard as social justice. Either way, it’s difficult to see it as Christian.

There are probably three main forms of cancelling today: the first over personal wrongdoing or slip-ups; the second over speech that some people find offensive; and the third over actions which are cast in a dim light with the passage of time.


Each has its own dynamic but the third of these is probably the most complicated, given you and I – the public jury in these cases – must try to assess a person’s actions against the values that were considered normal by the societies in which they lived.

In a new book, Tim Stanley – a history buff and leader writer with the Telegraph newspaper in the UK – argues that the scales have been tipped unfairly against the great figures of western civilisation. "Modern culture encourages us to examine our ancestors with scepticism, even contempt," he writes in Whatever Happened to Tradition? (Bloomsbury).

The book mixes political analysis with personal reflection (he is a Catholic, ex-Labour politician now working at a conservative institution – “some would call me a High Tory, others a Christian socialist”).

While he acknowledges “nostalgia is a doubled-edged sword. It can endorse mindless patriotism”, he is wary of what he sees as a rise in revisionism. And he holds particular scorn for modern-day “wreckers” of tradition. “Tradition rests upon the submission of ego; the wrecker takes over with the intention of remaking the tradition in their own image.”

Historical judgment

But is he right? Are we losing the ability to judge historical figures fairly?

"Let me start by saying that we are all cancellers and censors to some degree, and the sooner the anti-woke admit that the better," says David Rieff, author of In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies.

“After all, no one thinks it was wrong in 1945 to remove Hitler’s name from streets in virtually every German and Austrian town and city. Nor are there many likely to be outraged by renaming Stalingrad Volgograd . . . But once you get past these – again, to me – no-brainers, things get complicated very fast.”

Taking the example of Winston Churchill, he says, the wartime prime minister "was wrong about everything: India, Ireland, the British Empire generally. And had he died in 1937, or had Lord Halifax succeeded Chamberlain, no one in the Britain would have wanted to erect a statue to him.

“But in mobilising his country to keep fighting the Germans, he saved Britain, he probably saved Europe, and he may have saved the world. So my view remains that if any war leader from the past deserved the statues erected to him, it was Churchill . . .

“Would I say the same about some of his generals – Bomber Harris, for example? No, I don’t think I would, or, at the very least I would think twice before getting all hot and bothered were a decision taken to remove his statues from their plinths.”

Bringing the matter closer to home, he says statues to Éamon de Valera “are hardly morally uncomplicated things . . . yet I think most Irish people would be unsympathetic to their removal. On the other hand, do many Dubliners miss Nelson’s column on moral grounds?

“Surely not, which leads me to believe that monuments can be offensive or inoffensive not only because of the character and deeds of the person commemorated, but the history and context of the monument itself.”

Margin for offence

On the matter of commemoration, the margin for causing offence can be extremely narrow. The Armagh church service that President Michael D Higgins declined to attend this year was to "mark" the partition of Ireland and not celebrate it – but a large majority of voters in the Republic still felt he was right to decline the invite.

Why do emotions run so high around such events? Military historian Dr Jennifer Wellington believes the "proprietary" role of memory is a factor.

Memory is the sensation of an “emotional connection to the past and the community of the dead”, the UCD academic says. Due to this sense of proprietorship, “people react to critiques that unsettle received stories along the lines of ‘It’s our version of events/historical figure; how dare you question this? It doesn’t belong to you!’”

Stanley makes the familiar charge that “academia has been colonised by a liberal-left cohort” and further accuses historians today of being influenced by economic forces. “The average historian is now overworked, underpaid and under excruciating pressure to be a teacher, a writer and a public intellectual, all of which encourages them to direct their research towards the political concerns of the day, to demonstrate why the Peace of Westphalia or the art of Klimt have relevance to Black Lives Matter,” he writes.

“It also fosters a bias towards deconstruction – because so long as one is chipping away at the received narrative, one will always have something to say.”

However, Wellington reminds those uncomfortable with reinterpreting history that “a popular version or ‘memory’ of a past event generally serves a purpose in the present, and can change over time”.

She adds: “We often assume people at the time believed the ‘received’ version – the popular narrative most broadly accepted in the present – when in fact there was plenty of disagreement and contestation at the time. Digging up these disagreements and trying to piece together that more complicated picture of the past is part of what historians try to do by digging through materials from the time, of course.”

Personal morality

Re-evaluating historical events is tricky. Re-evaluating individuals even more so as personal morality comes into play. Asked whether we should commemorate someone like Martin Heidegger, a brilliant philosopher but also a Nazi, or Erwin Schrödinger – a scientific genius and sexual predator – Rieff replies: "Here, I think, the utopianism of the contemporary identitarian/woke left comes into play. And the reason for this is simple, I think: for them, personal conduct and scholarly, scientific, artistic, etc achievement are inseparable.

“The problem is that while there are cases as egregious as those of Schrödinger and of Heidegger, bad behaviour is commonplace. Most writers, for example, are selfish sods, apt to treat their partners like servants or worse.

“On the other hand, few philosophers have been Nazis or paedophiles – at least as far as I know – and in those two cases, at least, I have a hard time seeing how one can avoid talking about their dark side. After all, we are living in what, to me, seems more and more like a new Victorian era, where everything is moralised.”

To this we can add that those decrying “the end of tradition” are ignoring a plus side to historical revisionism: if someone can be cancelled, someone can be uncancelled. We can belatedly give recognition to an individual who has been unfairly overlooked in the history books.

Next year provides a perfect opportunity for doing just this in the case of a republican leader whose pragmatism and willingness to put peace-building ahead of ideology meant he was airbrushed from the history of political parties, and – in the words of historian Diarmaid Ferriter – "squeezed out" of contemporary commemorations.

He was responsible for ensuring Ireland adopted a system of proportional representation to help assuage unionist fears about majoritarianism in the Irish Free State. And, uncomfortably for the party which today claims to hail from the original Sinn Féin, he founded the Sinn Féin organisation in 1904 and was also – in 1921 – the most ardent supporter of the compromise that kept the Border on the island of Ireland.

That man was Arthur Griffith and the centenary of his death falls on August 12th next.