This week I came across an online debate which asked whether racist language in historical novels, notably Huckleberry Finn, should be removed. Most people are appalled by such language, but should we erase the past because it does not conform with our values? The councillors who voted to remove the statue of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville believe that we should. Yet when Isis militants destroyed statues that they did not agree with, the media portrayed them as barbarians.
There is a scene in the Doctor Who episode, Thin Ice where the Doctor punches a Georgian aristocrat for a racist slur. This seems to be the natural response, until you reflect that the individual didn’t know any better. He was merely expressing the attitudes of his time. The Doctor’s reaction, from someone who usually attempts peaceful negotiation with genocidal maniacs, reflects the values of our time. Except that we should not be using violence to defeat ignorance.
Huckleberry Finn, that most ignorant of boys, defies convention and his own racist upbringing to help a runaway slave. How many people reading that in 1884, and since, reflected on their own beliefs and considered changing them? Our focus should be on a future without violence or prejudice, where we acknowledge that both used to exist and understand the journey that led to their abolition.