Anachronism. The historian’s favourite word. It refers to something belonging to a period other than that in which it exists. And historians try to avoid anachronism at all costs. They won’t ever confer modern gender theory on medieval studies, nor bemoan the atrocious lack of vegetarianism in Tudor times.
Yet recently, mass media has seen an enormous increase in moral anachronisms. The debate over the statues of slave-owners and slave-traders has rocked the press to its core. But is it really fair to “cancel'' 19th century figures for being racist, when racism was an integral part of their society? Can we really villanise 20th century politicians for refusing women the vote, especially when contemporary science pointed to gender differences? And should we denigrate anti-gay protests in the 1960s, when homosexuality had been condemned for generations by all major institutions.
The question is not whether we now know these prejudices to be wrong, the question is whether we can judge historical figures by modern standards. We cannot expect these individuals to be anything other than a product of their time, especially if there was little to combat their morals or challenge their views. I believe it is right to condemn figures who have chosen the path of what is now considered immorality. But unless you can judge their morals to be chosen instead of imposed, I do not understand how you can disparage such figures to the extent of cancellation. On the other hand, that still doesn’t mean we should celebrate them – racism is an entirely valid reason to remove any statue.
Over the last week, I have seen many people criticise HRH Prince Philip upon the news of his death. They argue that we should not mourn the death of a racist.
I don’t believe this is fair.
And that’s not because I believe in unerring respect for royalty. Nor is it because I believe Prince Philip to be anti-racist, or free from blame. That he is not. However, it appears to me that the modern definition of racism can include racism without malice. And that specific brand of prejudice is what I have seen from footage of HRH.
Yes, today we consider many of his statements racist. Yes, he probably harboured some prejudices, having been born in an era of colonialism and Jim Crow. But I do not believe, at least in recent years and changed times, he possessed any hatred or malice for another race.
Naturally, we cannot know his inner beliefs. But the evidence suggests comments come only his ignorance and old age, not his spite and superiority. Take his comment from a Luton and Dunstable hospital visit in 2013: "The Philippines must be half-empty — you're all here running the NHS." While this is something which no PC youngster would ever utter today, such a phrase is not directly disdainful of the Philippines, nor derisive of their customs.
Or take some of Prince Philip’s more derogatory comments, such as asking East End women “So who do you sponge off?”. These seem to me, first and foremost, merely an attempt at humour, not overly dismillar from jokes popular on British TV in the 70s and 80s. HRH certainly did not know when a joke became racist, but that does not mean such jokes came from a place of hatred. And while we can’t condone these comments, we do not need to so strongly condemn them either. We can merely mark them as ignorance from a man raised almost 100 years ago.
So we have to be careful about anachronisms. We have to separate morality from history. We cannot celebrate figures who preached or promoted prejudice because that condones it in a modern context. However, neither should we forget the circumstances of such morals. Not everyone can be bold and innovative enough to preach against their society.
Yes – Prince Philip is defendable; not excusable but defendable. After all, who knows how morality will develop in the future. What you say today may be discovered despicable in the future...