Having read Melanie Phillips “How studying the classics became racists” is one of many works of her I read that are filled with arguments, that are simply unacceptable. This is a response to the comment she wrote in The Times on 9th of February 2021.
“Classics” have indeed been quoted within the West as the main source of relevance. There is too much obfuscation of equal Chinese, Arab and wider Indian sources, and civilisations beyond that. That defines “civilisation” as a project supposedly owned by Europeans (though even that would be misreading Antiquity, as it was far more interwoven with the wider East and South than what is given credit).
Phillips parallelization of “white racists” vs “Black racists” and her mentioning that there were Black colonialists and Black slave states are arguments that are borderline to Nazi ideology. If you enter Nazi discourse, as I once have, you quickly hear how “Africans are just as bad”, “look they sold their own people,” and” look how they kill each other in war.” Is that how Phillips likes to argue? Firstly, one does not excuse the other.
Secondly, many studies have shown that slavery in African societies, whilst no state of pride in any society, for sure, was mostly very different to the transatlantic system of slave trade, less brutal and less big in scale, and not so racially defined. For most, except in the trans-Sahel trade towards Arabia, slaves were not displaced on a scale as they were by the Europeans, nor were their lives as discardable as in the Transatlantic version. That, what some call the African Holocaust, was unique in its scale and its brutality.
Crucially, as in most slaveholding systems in human civilisation worldwide, slaves, usually captured in war, could become part of a group by integration into the family of the “winners” of that local war or conflict.
To take the other point Phillips made, whilst racism by some black people or black groups exists, there is an important difference between being in power for centuries and not being in power. The development per se of modern black anti-white racism can be ugly (just read former Black Panther Leroy Eldridge Cleaver as one example) but is usually directly responsive to systemic discrimination against Black people for many generations. It does not excuse it, but it clearly contextualises it. There can in many ways be hardly a comparison. Looking at the mass-incarcerations, the lynchings, the Jim Crow system, slavery, it is evident where we need to look for systemic perpetrators.
Further, to make a general point, British colonialism is not equal to other colonial states elsewhere (in history). That is because we live in an era where we can still see the effects of that last European colonial enterprise, and where many intentionally refuse to take account of it, (European) colonial history and slavery are brushed out of the public discourse and conscience and marginalised.
It is perverse to accuse those who want to talk about the legacies of the (European/British) Empire(s), colonialism and slavery by those who are supposedly offended as somehow being obsessed or wishing to rewrite or edit history. It is likewise perverse to answer the call for recognition and adequate mentioning of the crimes of European modern society with a brisk “but look at them.”
The “editing of history,” in fact, was performed for the last 200 years at least by those who hold power in the UK and other European nations, and who still control often the history books and lessons of or children in school, or the decisions over what statues people must honour day by day, despite strong evidence that some particular persons do not deserve such special honour, because their character was, simply put, nothing but criminal and evil. A person who willingly sold and profited from the sale of other human beings who involuntarily entered into the transaction, that is, they were forced to, does not deserve honouring by putting that person in the form of a statue in a prominent location (it does, however, deserve mentioning and not forgetting (of the crimes).
The debate is one, where justice can be done, simply through acknowledging that human civilisations, knowledge and achievements go beyond just the shores of Europe and however remarkable, the philosophies of a Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero et cetera. In a global world that recognises this, we must count on equal terms the civilisations of Chinese speaking people, of the Arabic speaking Islamic world, of the Indian sub-continent, of the Incas and Aztecs, Ethiopians, of Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, the Horn of Africa, or the Turks, Mongols, Native Americans, and Hebrew Commentary, and so many other. To focus only on Greek and Roman classics, whilst a totally valid subject in its own right, and not to be discarded, is to narrow and shut down minds. We need to expand the sources of our knowledge beyond that. Again, I like to stress, this is not a call to abolish (the study of Classics), as so many falsely claim this would be. I think I made the point that Greeks and Romans are valuable to study, but not as the only or main source of civilisation and only or main valid philosophical debate within general education.
And I give Phillips a point in one area. When we engage in the exercise of looking at all of humanity, we will discover that both civilisation and human genius, as well as the potential for human evil, have been omnipresent and are universal human attributes (though there are questions regarding scale and degrees).
We can then perhaps somewhat relativise the undertakings of European colonialism and slavery as coming out of the capacity of humans to engage in evil acts, though to start with, those crimes relating to the body of European inheritance must be acknowledged, if not atoned for first.
Of course, perpetrators and their descendants often have no interest to do so, especially not, if they never were humiliated for it (as the Germans were, who look inwardly over the Third Reich).
And that is the core of this debate in which the “glory of the nation” remains a largely untouched and unquestioned subject. The status quo is being defended in parliament, as if politicians were the guardians of history. They are only the guardians of simplified notions of nationhood, essentially footnoting the worst crimes. I tend to say these days, it was World War II that safeguarded British identity. The fact that they won the war against a vicious Nazi State is why it is so insisting on its memorialisation, because it also cleanses British conscience from that, which was before, or so they may think.
But true “glory” of humanness comes only from introspection and understanding clearly where previous generations have totally, offensively and murderously been wrong. It comes from the understanding that there has been an attempt to brush over this huge sore of history as if it never was as horrible, terrible and ferocious as it was. To refuse to acknowledge this means Black lost and infringed upon lives, other human beings’ lives, did not matter and continue to not matter, not even for the sake of chronicling these lives, the places from which these people came from as worthy for consideration as a source of study in human civilisation, as worthy as the study of the classics.
The upkeep of the focus of only a narrow vision and sources that keep a non-questioning identity that often carries non-entitled degrees of egocentric arrogance in place, is continuing with the structures of that era, which disable, not enable people to move on, grow and become more globally aware. It is a betrayal of who we really are as humans, which includes the obligation to understand human civilisation on Earth as a whole – all its people, contributions, achievements and failures. It is a pillar for a world beyond the narrow towards a world that serves all, perhaps with less conflict and less inequality in a wider sense.