So calls by the Black Lives Matter movement for statues to those involved in the slave trade to be removed cannot be dismissed simply because some do not like change.
We must not allow ourselves to be so in thrall to the past that we fail to address its potential to have harmful effects on the present and future. There should be no place in the 21st century for a monument to a slaver like Edward Colston, recently dumped in Bristol harbour by a mob.
The record of 18th and early 19th century politician Henry Dundas,1st Viscount Melville, who stands in stone on a towering plinth in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square, is less clear.
For some, he was responsible for delaying the end of the British slave trade, resulting in many more people being thrown in chains.
But others say his intervention to amend a bill abolishing the slave trade so this would happen “gradually”, enabled it to pass. Rather than a stooge to wealthy merchants in human misery, for them he was a pragmatic abolitionist.
Dundas also acted as a lawyer for a man held as a slave, Joseph Knight, in a landmark 1778 legal case. It resulted in the first ruling that Scots law did not recognise slavery and runaway slaves were free to leave their supposed ‘owners’.
So Dundas was not a Colston, but he was hardly William Wilberforce. He was also not a “mass murderer” as one of his descendants, in a new BBC documentary, claims he has been portrayed by those who believe his statue should be removed in the latest sign of how much heat there is in this debate.
Worryingly, there are indications that such social strife is being deliberately fuelled by sinister forces. Marianna Spring, a BBC News social media specialist who investigates disinformation, found some accounts supporting Dundas were “inauthentic”. They were new and did not have any “any obvious background information to suggest who they are or who is running them”, she said, adding this would “indicate that they are involved in some kind of platform misinformation”.
The chief suspects are almost certainly despotic regimes like Russia, China and North Korea, which have an interest and form in using social media to disrupt democratic societies.
So when talking about serious issues of racism we need to make sure we are not being played, reacting to extremists on Twitter who do not actually hold the beliefs to which they profess and simply wish to cause tensions to rise. We should also realise that extreme views on social media, even if genuinely held, almost never represent mainstream thinking and that it is a mistake to characterise political opponents as if they did.
Instead of seeking out the worst in the other side, it is important to retain a basic level of democratic respect for each other and seek ways to compromise.
For example, if Dundas is to remain on his plinth, might it be an idea to erect a statue of similar prominence to a person of huge significance in Scottish history, the extraordinary individual responsible for the abolition of slavery in Scotland, the slave who took on his ‘owner’ and won, Joseph Knight?