Statue Wars: An Interview with Dr Peter Hughes

The historian, philospher and broadcaster talks statues, philosophy and inspiration.
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Peter Hughes, your specialisation in the madness of crowds seems to be the motivating factor in your writing this book – is that right?

While the specific issues that stir the madness of crowds, from statues and gender identity to ‘stolen’ elections, may vary, there are a number of consistent themes: essentialising identity, collectivising guilt, demonising out-groups and, above all, sacrificing the nuanced individual to a one-dimensional group identity. Academic disciplines such as history, psychology and anthropology may all give their own accounts as to how and why this happens. What is, in my view, inevitable is that such processes ultimately yield to tyranny. That prospect is what led me to write the book.

The research you’ve undertaken for each of your 21 chapters, 1 for each statue, is remarkable and clear to the reader, but I also get the impression a lot of this was bubbling away inside you. How much was research, and how much history you already knew about?

My book is not typical of a history book because my principal background is in philosophy and psychology. While I had prior knowledge of the history behind the destruction of most of the statues in the book, I needed to conduct substantial research to get the details of each story correct. Given that I chose statues that were destroyed, often by mobs, my research unearthed layer upon layer of unspeakable cruelty unleashed in the name of justice.

Are we all in a frenzy, with our beliefs driven by a groupthink, so we’re not able to think rationally about how we deal with our past?

While our capacity for rational, empirical thinking is fundamental to our success as a species, psychologists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman showed that our judgement is impaired by biases and heuristics that, although useful and necessary, often lead us into error. We are particularly prone to crave status and this is where the collision of our biology and psychology with modern technology (‘Likes’ and ‘Retweets’ on social networks being ideal examples) can lead to tyrannical behaviours in otherwise reasonable people. Manging these impulses in an environment designed to amplify them is one of the biggest challenges facing open societies.

 If there were one statue from your book that you could restore, which would it be?

I think it would be the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The remarkable scale of the statues – the taller one stood at 53m and the shorter at 35m – led the War artist William Gibson to imagine a meeting of all the colossal statues of the world where the Bamiyan Buddhas made them all seem like ‘pygmies’. A few months after the statues were blown up by the Taliban, Osama bin Laden said ‘the pieces of the bodies of infidels were flying like dust particles’. He was referring to those who died in the attack on the Twin Towers. He could also have been speaking of the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas – the shift from symbolic violence to killing is one of the central themes of the book.

Similarly, is there one statue you think should remain destroyed?

I lay out the underlying psychology and ideologies that animate acts of statue destruction as a means to unpack the complexity behind the behaviour. The question isn’t, ‘Which statues should stand or fall?’ but ‘What action can I take that will bring us together rather than tear us apart?’ I’ll leave the judgments to others but as they consider their answer they might reflect on the words of Robert E Lee (whose statue in Charlottesville has just been melted down and will, apparently, be recast into a symbol of hope and unity) who said after his defeat: ‘I think it wiser … not to keep open the sores of war but to … commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.’

Are there any psychologists or philosophers (apart from yourself!), that we should turn to for greater understanding and knowledge in this area?

In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche wrote that ‘blood and cruelty lie at the bottom of all “good things”’ and this idea is at the heart of my book. For anyone interested in the dynamics of this cruelty I’d start by reading anything by Nietzsche and also Dostoevsky’s five great novels.

Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilisation and Its Discontents are also important in understanding our violent, irrational impulses. More recently, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote an important paper on Prevalence Induced Concept Change in which he explains how, when the prevalence of a phenomenon (such as discrimination) decreases, we expand the concept of it to make it appear as if there has been no change or, indeed, that we are becoming more intolerant.

 If there’s a hero of the book, Khaled Al-Asaad is it. Surely his story should be trumpeted loudly?

Yes it should. He was a Syrian archaeologist and head of antiquities at Palmyra who was beheaded by ISIS for refusing to divulge where he had hidden the treasures he’d spent his life preserving. In the second century CE, a typical city had one official statue for every thousand inhabitants; in Palmyra it was one per hundred. It was to preserve this cultural heritage, which al-Asaad saw as belonging to humanity, that he gave his life. His favourite quote was from Cicero: ‘To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?’ I think it is psychologically true to say that when we preserve the past for a future we will not live to see, we understand humility. When al-Asaad sacrificed his life for that future, he understood love.

Peter, you clearly have a talent for writing history – what’s next?

Using my practical and academic experience, my next book will focus on how individuals and entire societies break apart and what, if anything, we can do to keep them together. I’ll do my best to find a slither of hope amid the wreckage.

Peter Hughes is an historian and philisopher and the author of A History of Love & Hate in 21 Statues.