Churchill Essay

Written by Dr Susan Carland
Director, Bachelor of Global Studies
School of Social Sciences
Monash University

There’s no denying Winston Churchill said some repugnant things. He vociferously opposed Gandhi and India’s self-government, had (at best) conflicting ideas of Muslims, and, as was common at the time, seems to have been something of a social Darwinist. On the other hand, he also did things that undeniably elevated and protected human rights and the human condition, most notable being the defeat of Hitler.

It is important to keep in mind that some of the accusations of racist epithets made against Churchill do not hold up under investigation. This does not mean he did not say racist things, nor that the comments he did make do not matter. But when contemplating the social values of Churchill in light of modern attitudes, one must have a firm grasp on the true topic of investigation.

But even if we accept some of the allegations made against him were a stretch, there are still uncomfortable truths to tackle. How are we to reconcile that? Perhaps the more important question is whether reconciliation is the right aspiration. Because by having conflicting attitudes and embodying good and bad, Churchill is showing himself to be, perhaps uncomfortably, like us. Reconciling these realities is not just impossible, it perhaps should not even be the goal. Accepting this difficult tension, and then deciding how best to grapple with it today in both a moral and practical sense, is the only viable way forward.

To understand where we currently stand and why, however, we must first understand where Churchill stood. We must recognize he was a product of his times. This is not, as some would suggest, a convenient parking of ugly truths in the wastelands of history.

This is a hard reality of human moral trajectory: mores change over time. That today’s deeply offensive views were held and expressed by many a century ago is an unfortunate inevitability of humanity’s social curve, and there is an important distinction between understanding why someone in history felt or acted the way they did, and accepting it. The percentage of historical figures who fail to meet modern sensibilities in at least some areas would be close to 100. Many of our former selves from 30 years ago would also fail to meet modern social standards

Acknowledging humans and their views as intrinsically contextual does not justify their outdated views, but it does explain them. The alternative is to amputate all people from their cultural, intellectual, and social environments and then, ironically, prosecute them according to the very time-bound attitudes of today.

By refusing to acknowledge the historicity of certain beliefs, we are demanding a purity that can never be met, most of all because social standards will evolve in ways that modern people cannot anticipate. I therefore often wonder what commonly accepted attitudes of 2021 will be the Churchill-esque attitudes of 2120. Our willingness to eat meat, burn fossil fuel for convenient travel, use of nursing homes for mass care of elderly people? Things that society generally accepts but perhaps have a slight unease about now, could smoothly become matters of future societies shaking their head in disgust at our cruelty and backwardness. Which of today’s acceptable terms or practices will we flinch at in 100 years?

This matters not as an interesting mental exercise in moral relativism, but because it helps us to genuinely confront and even empathise with the human-ness of Churchill. What would we want future generations to do with our legacies, those of us who did charity work but also enjoyed steak, or fought racism but also placed our frail parents in institutional care? There is an uncomfortable tension to accepting that people can not just do, but be, both good and bad, if not in their own times then certainly under the spotlight of modern attitudes of equality and human rights.

And maybe this is why there is an unwillingness among some of us to consider Churchill (or any other historical figure) beyond the safe binary of all good or all bad; because that means we would have to see everyone else, and most painfully ourselves, in the same way. We would need to accept that how we think or behave today may not be seen as wholly ethical in the future. Worse still,  that even today we ourselves exhibit an uncomfortable contradiction in our behaviour or words. That we may do very good things, and also quite bad things. That our values in some areas may be more noble than in others. By quickly and firmly casting historical figures into the Irredeemable Pile, we bury our fears that perhaps we too belong there. For how could we not? All of us have done and said both good things and bad.

This does not mean standards are irrelevant; no one is proposing the Mussolini Medal For Bravery. The people we debate are, generally, the frustratingly complex. The ones that did awful things, and very good things. And historic distasteful, even rancid, views must be confronted and where possible, redressed in a modern setting.   But addressing and rectifying needs us to first consider how we understand the offenses were committed, and how they should, or at least could, be framed.

So, what should be done in light of these complicated and at times uncomfortable truths? When considering Winston Churchill, one pressing modern area of consideration is the Churchill Trust. We could scrap programs such as the Churchill Fellowships altogether, arguing that nothing should be done in the name of Winston Churchill ever again. While I appreciate this consternation, I am not convinced this is the correct path for two reasons. One, it ignores that this was the man who brought down arguably the most racist, divisive and inhumane government to ever exist. He said and did things that by current standards were absolutely wrong, and also did things, such as defeat Hitler, that were undoubtedly right. And two, it does not contribute any sort of remedy to the negative things Churchill is accused of.

Churchill’s views are something I have had to consider personally for my own Churchill Gellowship, particularly his reported views on Muslims. His views on Islam are a good encapsulation of the complicated, even conflicting views, Churchill seemed to hold – on the one hand, he is reported to have said some negative and offensive things about Muslims, and yet on the other hand, he seemed to be so interested in Islam that his family were worried he might actually convert.

My Churchill Fellowship project involves travelling to the United States and the United Kingdom to interview people who are experts at fighting various forms of prejudice and bigotry (anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and particularly Islamophobia) to investigate which practices have proven to be most effective over time (some of the organisations I will be speaking to have been engaged in this work for more than a century) and what the most cutting-edge research tells us about how to effectively fight bigotry and specifically Islamophobia. I will then collate this collective wisdom to bring back to Australia for our own local implementation.

I believe the Churchill Trust financing and supporting such a project is a thoughtful, current-day response to Churchill’s 1899 objectionable views on topics such as Muslims. One reasonable way to face and grapple with historical bigotry is to fund its modern redress.

Funding modern research into how to effectively fight Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice in the name of a historical figure with prejudiced views is one meaningful way to atone for that past, and I believe more useful than simply removing that person from modern life and keeping them solely for the history books. The question is not whether Winston Churchill himself would have funded my project 80 years ago, but whether the modern Trust established in his name and operating in a modern world would.

It is not for me to vindicate Churchill. Not only is it not my place, it is also not my intention. It is my intention to propose, once Churchill’s words and actions are considered, one way for a modern organisation operating in his name to ethically proceed, and Australians to engage it.

Churchill said and did things that don’t wash today, and that must be acknowledged. But he also defeated Hitler, ended the most horrifying genocide in modern history, and saved countless lives. That also must be acknowledged. Fully acknowledging the messy complication of a historical figure today requires us to hold both things to be true and understand our discomfort in doing so. Previous negative beliefs or behaviours cannot be fully absolved today, but they can, and I would argue should, be meaningfully counteracted.

Doing so may be one way we can stand at the intersection of historical and future generations, tying them together, ethically.