Over the last few years, we have seen a concerted effort to cancel or greatly reduce the visibility or diminish the reputation of some historical figures whose “bad” acts and beliefs, particularly with regard to race, some assert, warrant such action. These figures include, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders, past presidents and alumni of Ivy League schools, and Winston Churchill. The scope of these actual or proposed cancellations include the removal or defacement of their statues, changing the name of buildings, schools, streets etc. which have borne their names for decades if not longer, and a general diminution of the esteem in which they were once held.
Historical figures are complex. So too is the process of properly assessing them, But most people have neither the time nor inclination to unravel their complexity to see who they really were. They prefer to simply decide if the person was good or bad, and frequently do so based on a single factor, incomplete information, supposition rather than historical fact, their personal revulsion at the act/belief the figure is accused of and/or being influenced (either directly or indirectly) by the small slice of society of which they are a part.
No accurate assessment of historical figures can be made without knowledge of the actual facts that relate to them. It cannot properly be made on the basis of sensational but unsupported allegations that an individual did iniquitous things during his or her life. Indeed, in the absence an ability to distinguish fact from mere conjecture, any assessment is at best frail. It is thus very important that an assessment be accomplished in as objective and dispassionate a way as possible.
That said, the question also needs to be raised as to whether it is fair, as is often the case where racial prejudice is involved, to judge historical figures based solely on particular actions or views of theirs relating to race. Doesn’t doing so indicate a belief that a person’s entire life can be judged by a single factor? But is that ever true?