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Name Changes and Statue Removals: History in the Culture Wars

The debate as to whether the City of Stirling should be renamed is not new, although it has re-entered public debate after the council was recently petitioned to change its name, to better recognise its traditional owners.

Historical records show that Governor James Stirling alongside John Septimus Roe were involved in the 1834 Pinjarra Massacre where approximately 60-70 Bindjareb Noongar people were killed by settlers. It was decided by the council that no official name change would occur, but nonetheless it has generated controversy.

This comes in the wake of growing discussions as to whether statues commemorating prominent colonists should be removed following the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Name changes and statue removals have become a lightning rod for debates over how we teach and remember history as a settler colony, given that transplanted colonial names are everywhere in Australia. As a result, it challenges many foundational narratives we tell ourselves about our history and about race relations.

(Source: Twitter/6PR LIVE Perth)

The Backlash

Name changes and statue removals have received considerable backlash, usually from conservatives but even some centrists and liberals. Their arguments usually take one of three forms.

Unsurprisingly, some rely on a bad faith “slippery slope” argument. Does this not set a dangerous precedent? Do we have to rename every city and even the country itself? Do we ban speaking English given it was part of colonisation? The colosseum is a monument to brutal violence and slavery, should that be demolished too?

A second argument is that whilst there could be a mature discussion on name changes and statue removals, now is not the right time to have those conversations as such decisions would only amount to appeasing the “woke” and hysteric “cultural Marxist” mob.

However, the main argument used by conservatives to legitimate their argument is the claim that the Left is trying to erase history. Usually the platitude that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” is mentioned, alongside the argument that keeping monuments and colonial names actually increases our nuanced understanding of the past and who we are as nation.

Similar arguments were made by the City of Stirling council when announcing their decision to retain the name, where concerns about “erasing and rewriting history” were voiced. This final argument is the most complicated to debunk, but it is one which fundamentally misunderstands the role of history in public life.

Not the first “History Wars”

This is not the first controversy over how history should be publicly displayed and remembered, not even in Australia. The “history wars” of the 1990s-early 2000s, partly triggered by the Mabo decision, saw bitter debate between historians and conservative commentators.

The “history wars” encompassed many strands, but broadly it was (and still is) a debate about the extent to which British colonisation was violent, and whether this amounts to an invasion, war, or even genocide.

Conservative commentators were quick to criticise humanities academics as ideologically motivated, giving undue emphasis to Indigenous grievances rather than the “benefits” of colonisation. These were pejoratively referred to as “black armband” historians. Of course, the history wars demonstrated the prominent racism of significant portions of the Australian community.

However, it also demonstrated that academic historians are used to ambivalence, uncertainty, and competing interpretations of history. Conversely, public audiences can find the idea of historical disagreement difficult and unsettling.

Is history really being erased?

This presents somewhat of an issue, as historical understandings necessarily change over time. Famed historian Benedetto Croce wrote that “all history is contemporary history”. What he meant is that we become interested in aspects of the past because of our interests and questions in the present.

Therefore, historical interpretations must keep changing because our values change in the present- a present which itself keeps evolving. This is where the claim that we should not judge figures from the past by the standards of today falls apart. All history is analysing the past by the standards of today, it is unavoidable (nor desirable) to remove oneself completely from present context in making judgements about history.

New studies of history are also made possible by continuous innovations in historiography-the methods by which historians conduct their research. In recent years, the growth of oral histories and family histories have provided historians with more information on groups previously deemed not important enough to be recorded in the “official” historical records.This includes women, wage workers, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who may have different opinions on the legacy of prominent historical figures. This only serves to benefit history, which grows and expands with every fresh study of it. Histories which have gone before are not undone by those that follow, but are added to in a very real way.

This is why listening to the perspectives of previously ignored groups who may want to rename places, remove statues, or challenge the dominant historical record, is not the erasure of history at all. It is precisely the opposite, its expansion and growth. It may be uncomfortable at times when old narratives are challenged, but it does not mean we can put blindfolds on and cling to outdated (and often disproven) historical understandings because they make us feel better about our nation and by extension, ourselves.

We should also be careful not to let conservatives blur the line between commemoration and history. Neither Governor Stirling, John Septimus Roe, or even Captain Cook are being removed from history books, history lessons, or scholarly analysis where there actually can be a nuanced discussion on their achievements and failures- although at this point discussing any “achievements” of colonisation should be an untenable position.

The question is whether they need to be publicly commemorated and upheld as representations of our values. Statues are never neutral, they are deliberately placed in public spaces to celebrate and immortalise well regarded figures, not to provide a nuanced analysis that helps us understand past mistakes. Thus, commemoration and history are actually two very different things.

The real crisis in history

The conservatives are right about one thing, there is a crisis of history in our country. However, it is not the crisis they are talking about.

Those on the Right who currently bemoan the Left’s erasure of history were notably silent when the Federal Government doubled the cost of studying a history degree in this country. In fact, they are usually the same people who criticise Arts degrees for being a waste of time. The other crisis in history is much broader, and involves the casualisation of academia. It is believed that casual academics represent over 60 percent of teaching staff in our higher education institutions.

In some universities, they carry out 80 percent of undergraduate teaching. Being less qualified than full-time faculty, they are also paid less. The substitution of full time academics for casual teaching staff is now universities’ major cost saving strategy.

This raises urgent questions about pedagogical standards. Casual staff have inadequate access to resources, a lack of professional development opportunities, and often need to balance two or three casual jobs. If conservatives are really serious about “preserving history”, they would be calling for the federal government to fund the tertiary education sector properly, reverse rates of casualisation, and radically lower university fees for all degrees including the humanities. This is assuming they were ever making their arguments in good faith, which of course they are not. Cries about “erasing history” are just a smokescreen and a dog whistle for reactionary racism.