How Should We Approach Our History?
Updated: Aug 10
During a recent phone conversation with a well-known international charity, I was proudly explaining my work for people with learning disabilities and soon moved on to my Churchill Fellowship. This always gets people’s attention and gives me great credibility, both nationally and internationally. However, on this occasion, the description of my research in New York was met with, “We’re not allowed to talk about Churchill anymore, are we?!”. It was an innocent and topical quip, but my heart sank.
There is a parallel to be made between the current debate about how to approach historic racism in the UK and the historic treatment of people with disabilities. If my students had lived 50 years ago, they would be discarded in mental hospitals and treated as sick patients alongside anyone else deemed a burden on society. They would not have their own clothes or possessions. They would be prevented from having life-changing or life-saving operations. They would be neglected and abused. They would be terminated even before they were born. The list goes on…
Nazi Germany killed 200,000 disabled people and forcibly sterilised twice that number. However, it was a British man, not a German, who first came up with the term eugenics in 1883. Referring to his Uncle’s theories on evolution, Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, said, “Could not the race of men be similarly improved? Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?". Galton was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1860 and was knighted shortly before he died. A century before the 2012 Paralympic Games, London was the setting for the first International Eugenics Conference. Organised by the British Eugenics Education Society and dedicated to Galton who had died the year before, 400 delegates attended, including the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
This is all uncomfortable for me - a 2019 Churchill Fellow and Fellow of the RSA who has campaigned for 20 years for the rights of people with learning disabilities.
In 2015, I premiered a new musical called “From the Asylum to the Palladium”. It was a hard-hitting and moving work, performed by my students with learning disabilities. My story focused on their journey towards equality and celebrated the heroic reformers who stood up for them. People with learning disabilities do not have a voice to protest, to change their future or to save themselves from persecution. Change only happens for them if and when the rest of society (the ‘able majority’) deems them worthy. As I described in my Fellowship report, they do not even have their picture displayed at the UN (see blog Who is the UN for).
This issue is particularly poignant for me because my Grandfather, who I never met, worked in a mental hospital for his whole life. He treated people with learning disabilities, soldiers with shellshock and a wide range of patients with mental illness. This was a time when people were locked away in padded cells and forced to wear a straitjacket. Concoctions of experimental drugs, electric shock therapy and lobotomy were all commonplace in my Grandfather’s hospital but, as far as I know, he did not question these now outmoded, horrific practices. He did not reform the industry like others did. He did not heroically lead people with learning disabilities out of the asylum and into the Palladium.
He must have felt a degree of responsibility as he forcibly held down a patient, but within this cruel environment I am told he showed kindness whenever he could. He would even bring his patients home to meet his family and keep in touch with the few who could leave his institution.
Should I rip the picture of my Grandfather off the wall in protest at his treatment of people with learning disabilities, who were not sick or mad in any way?
No. As I said in the souvenir programme of my 2015 Palladium production, “I am deeply proud of my medical Grandfather and hope he is also proud of his musical Grandson”.
We can all be viewed through a myriad of different lenses, revealing complex lives full of triumphant strengths and mostly hidden, hopeless flaws. This is what makes us human. To deny the good or the bad would be a grave error, not least because these moral polarities are not historically fixed. I may be admired for my life-long commitment to people with learning disabilities, a once-forgotten society, but who is to say what my views would have been if I was born a generation or two earlier? I could have been a delegate at the International Eugenics Society!
We are conditioned by our environment.
We must not condemn people for views that do not reach our modern standards of morality in every aspect of their lives. Even the current, fashionable heroes of history are revered for specific reforms and will no doubt have many other less attractive characteristics, by modern standards. If you dig deep enough, most people will have something they are ashamed of in their closet! We run the risk of whitewashing everything. To focus only on the bad is as damaging as only focusing on the good.
Our approach to history should provide a balanced, nuanced view. We should celebrate the great and learn from the bad so we can shape a better future. What matters is now.