As an Edinburgh graduate, the David Hume Tower’s an institution to me. Ugly it may be and my late father bitterly condemned George Square’s desecration by the university authorities, but it still conjours up no image beyond a rather tired building I occasionally frequented or that of the rather corpulent figure now represented in a Royal Mile statue.
The removal of the great philosopher’s name from the building therefore came as a surprise to me. I consider myself a supporter of Black Lives Matter. Racist actions rightly need condemned and symbols that are redolent of it need removed. Toppling Colston from his plinth in Bristol, which along with Liverpool was probably the principle slave port, was therefore long overdue.
For names and symbols do matter. Expunging Rhodesia and replacing it with Zimbabwe was essential. I recall being in Charleston, South Carolina many years ago and noting that a statue to Senator John Calhoun dominated the city centre. A prominent supporter of slavery, his monument’s removal is still long overdue, though I’m agnostic about the debate over our own Henry Dundas. I can see arguments for his replacement by one for our radical heroes. But I can live with an adequate explanation being given of his sins both on slavery and against democracy.
However, I hardly think that the grand old man of the Scottish Enlightenment falls into that category. For sure, some things he said are now correctly seen as entirely unacceptable. But we have to differentiate between those who were active promoters of the odious trade and others who were more creatures of their time.
There are plenty things most of us will have said or written over our lives, that we now realise are entirely inappropriate – 1970s TV shows and even newspaper comments testify to the normalisation of what’s now correctly unacceptable. And so, it seems to me it was for Hume. Were he alive today I’ve no doubt he’d reflect and recant far more deeply and thoughtfully than I ever could.
So, leave him alone, there’s a lot wrong with DHT but it’s not the name.