‘Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.’ – George Santayana

The mediocre don’t get statues. We live our lives in quiet desperation doing the best we can to make sense of our lives, giving little thought to hitching our way onto a granite plinth. Monuments are reserved for the exceptional. Those who were considered great or important in their time.

The unfortunate thing about exceptional people is that they are often exceptionally bad at the same time. Without Winston Churchill, it is likely that the Nazis would have won World War II and heaven knows what kind of world we would be living in now. However, that massive accomplishment should be balanced by his racist attitudes and heartless decisions that resulted in many, many deaths. In short, like all of us, he was a complicated individual. The difference is that his good, and his bad, were extraordinarily consequential.

Feet of clay. And granite

There are statues to Genghis Khan all over Mongolia and he is regarded as the greatest leader in their history, yet he is well known to have butchered and enslaved those who opposed him. Still, at the same time he went out of his way to encourage religious tolerance throughout his empire and greatly encouraged commerce from Asia to Europe.

Napoleon was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people across Europe. Yet he also introduced his civil code, elements of which are still in force across the world today. He also abolished serfdom and the slave trade.

Nelson Mandela is highly regarded as the man most responsible for the relatively peaceful transition of South Africa to an equalitarian democratic state. His calm, thoughtful manner and conciliatory ways have seen him revered across the world. Yet he was also seen by some as a communist, a friend of dictators, a womaniser and allegedly a wife beater.

The Taj Mahal is the most incredible object I have ever seen, but should it be destroyed because Shah Jahan, its founder, discriminated against Hindus? Should the pyramids come down because they were built by slaves? Should the Acropolis and the Colosseum be similarly destroyed along with every single Greek and Roman statue? What about Stonehenge? It seems doubtful that people voluntarily signed up to drag massive rocks around Southern England.

Nobody is perfect. Particularly not the perfect

A statue does not mean that the individual lived a blameless life (sadly, not even sainthood means someone was a saint). It tells you that at some time in the past this person was thought worthy of remembering. We’re not agreeing with that decision just by looking at those monuments. In fact, we’re often looking askance.

The Victorians, in particular, loved putting up statues and London is littered with them. When I lived there I would read the inscriptions and wonder how those who history subsequently came to ignore had come to end up on a plinth. If we are to remove memorials on the basis that the individual concerned had done some bad things there would be no statues anywhere.

I have no dog in this fight other than as an amateur student of history I think we should think carefully before it is obliterated from our lives; and as a wide-eyed tourist of foreign cities I think that to deprive them all of their statues would be a sad loss. History is both good and bad, and the way it is seen changes over both time and geography. I think we’re wrong to pretend it never existed just because we don’t like it today. Similarly, music, art and cinema are generally produced by humans who will all at some time have done things that somebody thinks is reprehensible.

Statues are like a pencil marker on a door frame that shows how children grow. We shouldn’t wipe out all the old marks, because it’s those that show us how far we’ve come. How can we be ashamed if we don’t know what we’re to be ashamed of?

A smooth sea does not a sailor make

Similarly, in business the tendency is to ignore unsavoury lessons from the past. We like to celebrate the Black Swan successes while ignoring the far more prevalent failures. As the German statesman Bismarck said (there is currently a movement in Germany to take down statues of Bismarck himself): “Only a fool learns by his mistakes. The wise man learns by the mistakes of others.”

It’s very difficult to learn from our mistakes if we pretend they didn’t exist.

• Paul worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best.

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