The toppling of the Haile Selassie statue and the breakdown of social convention

July 7, 2020

I went to see the statue of Haile Selassie (the last emperor of Abyssinia/Ethiopia) in Cannizaro Park just a couple of weeks ago to honour the Ethiopians as the first victims of fascist aggression in the world. I didn't imagine that I wouldn't be able to again due to its being destroyed by a group of around a hundred people who took it upon themselves to remove it from a public space. Regardless of the undeniably strong case of the statue to be removed, the manner in which this was accomplished is a stark warning of how willing we are as a population to forgo the rule of law if it validates our moral and political sensibilities. 

 

What was the case for taking down the statue though? According to BBC News, the group in question were primarily composed of people of Oromo descent, that is people from an eastern region of Ethiopia. As a minority within the Ethiopian Empire, their language and culture were suppressed and harsh discrimination prevented their advancement. Beyond this issue, Haile Selassie was not the most modern nor enlightened nor even benevolent ruler. He acceded to the throne in 1930 when slavery was still legal, and did not outlaw it until 1942, supposedly under pressure from the Allied powers who had just reinstated his country. When his country was invaded in 1935, he abandoned his subjects and fled the country. For his 80th birthday, he threw a lavish banquet costing $35 million, while regions of the empire were suffering a famine. 

 

There appears therefore a sound argument for saying that perhaps the self-styled ‘Lion of Judah’ should not be celebrated with a statue. So why did he have one at all, in Wimbledon of all places? To answer this we should first ask why do people get statues at all? It is not in fact to celebrate their entire lives or them as a person - it is to commemorate singular actions or events they partook in or seemed to embody. Thus Horatio Nelson received a statue for his victories over the French which prevented an invasion of Britain, and Churchill for his wartime leadership. For the Ethiopian Emperor, it was for his time living in Wimbledon as an exile following Ethiopia’s annexation by Mussolini’s burgeoning empire. The statue, in my view, is a powerful reminder of the price of appeasement during the 1930s, and a monument to the injustice suffered by the Ethiopian nation. 

 

Yet, I would be content to see the statue removed if it had been done through official channels or with the legitimate consent of the wider community. I have yet to find a petition or article or speech made on this topic. Instead, this group decided for the community that their particular viewpoint and experience warranted unlawful and undemocratic action. The recent romanticisation of statue toppling as an unspoken expression of the democratic will through force does not do justice to what can actually be seen when sympathy with a particular cause is removed - instead what is seen are large groups violently imposing their wishes on public spaces by effectively intimidating opposition and law enforcement into not intervening. The veneer of democratic ‘popularity’ stems from the simple presence of a large number of people, yet we can all agree that this does not qualify as real legitimacy - it is more akin to ‘might makes right’.

 

Supporting this campaign of illegal statue toppling is a very dangerous road for us to take. I don’t mean the fairly weak arguments about erasing history or that no historical statues will be allowed if we hold these standards. I mean that it undermines the consensus surrounding the rule of law that we all as a society agree to respect. It states that particular laws and conventions mean nothing if sufficient illegal force is applied against them. It breaks down the consensus that keeps society non-violent and law governed. And it further says that the majority can do whatever they like as long as they do it together. 

 

The argument being made here isn’t that this particular statue didn’t deserve to be toppled, nor that removing statues is inherently a bad thing. But to present this iconoclasm as somehow a legitimate mechanism by which our society can decide together what to do with certain relics of the past will not end well. The recent experiment with the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone and its degeneration into arbitrary rule by Raz Simone demonstrates how close societies are to violent imposition of authority and will at all levels. Maintaining a non-violent society requires deep respect for the conventions surrounding the rule of law and that includes the unavowed condemnation of vandalism and violence regardless of political sympathy. 


Image: Wikimedia Commons

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