Understanding the Statue & Memorial Debate

Toppled Captain Cook statue
Toppled James Cook statue.

As the Black Lives Matter protests continue in many parts of the world, the discussion has turned to the validity of statues, and other relics of the past, which for many people act as a constant reminder of oppression. In some situations, these discussions have turned into actions, with statues of former slave owners, racists, and murderers being toppled in the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand, Kenya, and Belgium.

Whether statues, racist television shows, books, or trinkets should be removed is a very old conversation, reinvigorated by the current political climate, and it is well worth understanding the key perspectives which inform the discussion.

Those who want to keep the statues

We begin by discussing those who align themselves with a conservative stance. Their view is that statues are a part of our past, and that their removal is an attempt to rewrite history, disrespecting our past.

For those who hold such views, it rarely occurs to them that the history they fiercely want to protect is already a heavily revised projection of our past. White people and their allies have been rewriting world history since the days of Roman might and glory. It is a bastardised, propaganda based history which invariably aligns with their own world view, which speaks to tales of brave explorers, a white Jesus, and their own ancestors decisive or unwitting roles in world building. Scientific, technological, cultural, and mathematical discoveries and strides all give credit to the white man, without reference to their true origins, when in many cases they are to be found elsewhere. It is an entirely myopic view that places western cultures on a pedestal, whilst diminishing the truth of our global inheritance.

If we remove statues, where will it stop?

A question commonly raised when there is talk of statues being toppled or different perspectives being offered is, “where will it stop?” This is often paired with a statement for such action being “a slippery slope”. However, statements like these are made without any genuine attempt to analyse or reflect on their validity. They are provocative, throw-away lines which service panic, and a fear of the unknown, yet they are easily dismantled upon any sort of scrutiny.

If statues, plaques and monuments are to be removed because they feature the likenesses or stories of people who have committed or enabled murder, it will of course lead to the removal of memorials featuring those who committed other kinds of atrocities. However, where murder, genocide, slavery, rape, and oppression are concerned, there really is no justification that can validate the existence of a monument to someone who has committed such crimes. It is not a matter of balance.

We can’t judge the past using modern values, can we?

The good that someone has done during their lifetime cannot serve as an excuse for their crimes. Heroes in the minds of some, are the monsters in the nightmares of others. George Washington was an American patriot who owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln gave slaves in some American states their freedom, whilst denying freedom to others, as well as being against giving black people political equality. He is also responsible for the largest mass execution in US history, when he ordered the deaths of 38 Sioux warriors who had defended their home. Mahatma Gandhi loved his countrymen and peacefully protested against their oppression, but at the same time he was rather comfortable with the oppression of Africans, whom he considered inferior. Winston Churchill was a racist whilst Lt. James Cook shot at Aboriginal people before he even set foot on Australian soil.

These facts and others like them are commonly met with a morally and intellectually lazy defense that goes along the lines of “we can’t judge historical figures by the morals of today.” However, for such thinking to be valid, it would require us to believe that murder, genocide, slavery, rape, and oppression weren’t looked upon as crimes in the period in which they were committed, or at least recognised as the morally dubious actions of the corrupt, to which polite society dare not speak of openly. It would also requires us to throw aside the fact that those same modern defenders have willingly judged their heroes broad successes as worthy of adoration, by applying the same set of morals. Furthermore, and critically, it’s not a modern lens being applied – it’s a white dominated societal lens. The victims of all of these crimes – the millions of Africans ripped from their homes, murdered, tortured, and raped, the hundreds of thousands of Australia’s First Peoples, and First Nations Americans, Aboriginal Canadians, and those who have been systematically oppressed around the world, and continue to be – they know that these are crimes, and it is important that we acknowledge history from these perspectives as willingly as we do with the views of white people.

In all of the aforementioned examples, whether Gandhi, Churchill, Cook, or Lincoln, these were people who knew that their views were not universally appreciated, or accepted as moral, even if they themselves, or parts of society felt otherwise.

All heroes have flaws, and like a child who idolises a character in a comic book, when we reach maturity we are supposed to learn to move forward, think for ourselves, and ground our thoughts in reality, rather than fantasy.

If it isn’t erasing history, then what is it?

The way in which we understand history grows with our knowledge. We can no more consider Lt. James Cook, Lachlan Macquarie, Mahatma Gandhi, Cecil Rhodes, Angus McMillan, or Abraham Lincoln, heroes, than we can believe a man can fly. That doesn’t mean that we can or should erase them from history. Despite fears to that effect – erasing people from history has never been what protesters have wanted. Armed with greater knowledge, we must be honest, and expand on their stories, or relegate them to the periphery, if stories of greater importance and value should emerge. Lincoln and Washington will always be important to American history, regardless of their value as heroes, or villains. We must move forward, just as we have knowing that neither OJ Simpson or Bill Cosby are actually good good guys, and that Harvey Weinstein is more of a monster than people had already assumed. We can still however enjoy their Superbowl highlights, comedy, and the films they produced, just as long as our funds don’t find their way into their pockets, and that we don’t glorify their memory by erecting statues in their names.

Conservatives are able to accept that bad things happened in the past, but white guilt, and fear based inertia are conservatism’s primary driving forces. Those forces have always resulted in decades of exhaustive evidence based arguments, and various forms of civil action, used in an attempt to bludgeon them into change. And despite it all – change invariably comes, even where it might take generations. In western culture, to be conservative as the winds of change are blowing is to find one’s self on the wrong side of history, fighting a war which has already been already lost.

Minority voices need to be heard

Because calls for change are often led by marginalised voices, redressing the past is a complex and emotionally charged matter. Despite their position of absolute power in the way history has always been told, any change to this dynamic is seen as a threat by many white people.

Getting white people on board with reality not only require significant amounts of evidence, but also the willingness of an entire, controlling majority to accept that the views they hold, which are based on what they had been told by their teachers, breakfast TV hosts, books, friends, newspapers, and politicians, throughout their entire lives, are in fact wrong. This is a difficult realisation for many, as it speaks to an inherently gargantuan problem with the society to which they belong, and it means that there may also be other problems not yet recognised. To understand how to work with such problems, we first need to recognise how they were created in the first place.

What is history?

History is the product of humanity’s imperfect efforts, through multiple perspectives, to reflect upon the passage of time. It is our naive attempt to understand a universal truth, informed by our knowledge, and modified by our ignorance, and bias. As events unfold, we document them without the benefit of hindsight, but we reshape them as new information becomes available. Because of this our perceptions on history are fluid. They are always changing. Where history once told us that Celtic tribes were uncivilized barbarians, we now know this to be an outdated and unrealistic depiction. Where stories of Vikings once showed us warriors wearing horned helmets, we now know that this was not the case. Cleopatra was Greek rather than Egyptian, the Pyramids weren’t built by slaves, and Marie Antoinette didn’t say “let them eat cake”. None of these examples are history being rewritten. It is simply gaps in our knowledge being filled.

Filling in the gaps

Despite our efforts to fill in these gaps, and our best efforts to accurately reflect the past, there are some who will allow the truth to be relegated to being of secondary importance. Whether this is due to an individual or group’s failed ethics, their efforts to make political and social gains, or in some cases the result of a simple unwillingness to change the status quo – this is where rather than bias, or ignorance, propaganda is installed in place of the truth. In such instances the result is a commentary that introduces “personal truth”, and other synonyms for lies. Unfortunately, personal wealth and power are major factors in how history is told, and this is what we need to break away from, whether, we are white, black, grey or green.

It affects us all

For those who may believe themselves unaffected by inaccurate representations of the past, it can be very difficult to hear the views of others, until falling prey to those who readily manipulate our lack of understanding, by telling us that America or Australia don’t have a systematic race problem, or that Australia doesn’t have a history of slavery.

For those with a greater, more thorough understanding of history however, such willful ignorance can be incredibly painful to witness. This is because of their awareness that there are people alive today, who continue to be impacted negatively, in numerous ways, by the cruelty of those that some people continue to commemorate and celebrate, glorified in stone, steel, brass and marble.

Statues are not how history is recorded, nor have they ever been that. We have books for that, and other forms of media. Statues serve only to glorify the memory of someone, placing them higher up the list for whom we might read up on, or Google.

What do we do with the statues once they are removed?

This is perhaps the most complex question to consider in this discussion, in here there is a greater diversity motivating people’s thinking, where both conservative leaning, and progressive minds meet.

There are those who would gladly see statues of racists, sexual predators, and murderers melted down and turned into prison toilets. Others might simply prefer to see them destroyed without emotion or spite. Whilst a third group may see value in placing statues into museums, where they might be used for educational purposes, to teach people about racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and inequality. All three of these ideas have some sort of merit. The third proposal however is where we begin to see complexity enter into the equation.

Some might be horrified by any aspect of the past being destroyed, no matter how troubling its story, and this is a reasonable stance to take. However, it is a stance that is both hopeful and procedural, rather than one influenced by a minority perspective, and real world impacts. It’s a stance which values more of a sense of purpose, and a consideration for what might be achieved, rather than what may continue to be done, hurting those we might want to help.

If walking into a museum or gallery places you in direct confrontation with a larger than life memorial to someone who murdered, raped or otherwise brutalised members of your family, or your community, whether in antiquity or living memory, there’s probably something wrong with that scenario. This is particularly so, when the same story could be told as well, if not better, using a photograph or a film, showing the monument at its most useful – in the moments it was being torn down.

And then?

Statues have value when they serve their original purpose. They are a celebration of the lives of those who made our world better, without taking a considerable, horrific bite out of it at the same time. No human is without flaws, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find a few people who didn’t enable or take part in the murder or domination of their fellow human beings, right?

John T. Patten is a Yorta Yorta and Bundjalung historian, educator, artist and filmmaker.

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