Alex Trachsell, Staff Writer
What are the purposes of public statues? For anyone engaged in the debate regarding statues of morally flawed individuals (such as John A. Macdonald or Robert E. Lee), it seems like this would be the first question one would need to ask oneself. After all, how can we decide whether statues of Sir John A. should continue to stand when we don’t know what he’s meant to be doing up there in the first place?
This question appears to have stumped the people of Bristol, as ever since protesters removed a statue of a slave trader last summer, the plinth hasn’t received a permanent replacement. While some have put up their own statues, including a BLM protester and Darth Vader (the latter of whom seems to be an unusual figure to idolize), all have been taken down within a matter of days.
Now, one might think that this question has already been pondered extensively, but it seems unlikely, since, having pondered the question myself, it looks like almost everyone has it wrong.
Statues Are For: History
One of the most common arguments made by those who defend statues of highly flawed individuals is that these statues represent our history. Thus, erasing these statues from public view is to erase history. Historian Mary Beard seems largely to share this sentiment, as she notes that it is “not the job of the present to tick off the past.” Professor Beard also claims that there is a sense of hypocrisy in students’ desires to remove statues of the colonialism advocate Cecil Rhodes while they simultaneously benefit from the scholarship funds he left behind.
This explanation does not seem to hold water as there are individuals whom almost everyone would oppose a statue to, regardless of how historically relevant they are. To exemplify I need only to point to the individual often wheeled out for arguments: Adolf Hitler (or some other Nazi monster). Obviously, Professor Beard and just about every other rational individual would not subject the public to taking a stroll in a park dominated by a statue to Hitler. Even if the statue was from the late 1930s (a historically significant period) and of Hitler (a historically significant person), it seems like most would agree that such a statue would belong in a museum – an entire building dedicated to history!
Furthermore, Professor Beard’s comment about the Rhodes scholarship seems confused at best, as removing Rhodes statues in no way erases his association with the fantastic scholarship. In fact, and Professor Beard would be helped if she noticed, Mr. Rhodes’s name is actually on the scholarship. Arguing that students must respect Rhodes statues because some receive his scholarship is akin to arguing that the government should not be criticized by people who receive welfare. Just because one person does one good thing, it does not mean that everything they’ve touched is sacred and that everything which bears their resemblance must be protected. This goes for everyone, including John A. Macdonald or Egerton Ryerson (who helped create residential schools and is the namesake of Ryerson University); historical contribution is not enough to make one untouchable.
Statues Are For: Identity
If statues are meant to give people a sense of identity (be it national, regional, racial, etc.), then we must seriously question why we want individuals to constitute this identity. Of course, every individual has flaws, but I see no reason why these flaws (be they misogyny or a different flaw that we only realize by the twenty-fourth century) should be part of our national identity. What most consider elements of Canadian identity, for example, includes toleration, multiculturalism, equality, community, and peace. It seems counter to this common sentiment that we would want to maintain statues of racists, misogynists, and all other assortments of bigots.
Statues Are For: Honouring
Defenders of these statues tend to claim that statues are useful for the reasons outlined above, but I see no objections to the suggestion that at least one of the purposes of statues is to honour the subject. After all, the definition of putting someone on a pedestal (i.e. what statues actually do) is to “give someone uncritical respect or admiration; treat someone as an ideal rather than a real person.” In fact, most seem to implicitly accept this, by instead arguing that all individuals of the past hold outdated opinions (as Professor Beard does). As such, if we ceased honouring one on the basis of their outdated opinions, we would have to tear down the whole lot. Similarly, others argue that even our twenty-first century opinions will seem immoral and outdated by the twenty-second century. They claim that we would be vain to think that our current ideals are flawless and deserve eternal respect. Thus, if we tore down the current statues, it would be wrong to put anyone up in its place. And I agree. The reason I (snarkily) remarked that no one has properly explored this line of inquiry is because the side that wants to preserve current statues and those who want them taken down should be able to agree on this conclusion.
For those who want the statues taken down, we must recognize that statues perpetuate the status quo. By uncritically honouring their subjects, statues imply that their subjects are correct and beyond scrutiny. For too long statues of these individuals have conveyed the message that those who hold their opinions share in something honourable and worthy of respect, as the statue of Robert E. Lee did for racists. For too long the exaltation of John A. Macdonald has implied that his refusal to enfranchise women or racialized people is an acceptable flaw because he was our first Prime Minister. Given time, statues of individuals we currently idolize will impose this experience on future generations. In order to avoid this, we must avoid statues of individuals, since they commemorate their subjects as if their opinions are timeless and without flaw.
Additionally, to those who think that statues should be maintained for historical or identity purposes, I would note that statues that represent ideas rather than people would better serve these purposes. As was already mentioned, statues can be better historically contextualized in museums. One might rightly worry that this will hide history from the public and this is why I suggest that statues of historically significant individuals be replaced with the historical event we’re actually trying to display. Does a statue to Hitler remind us of the Holocaust? Potentially, but a memorial to the victims would certainly convey the message we want to send.
In the end, it seems like the people of Bristol have the right idea (kind of). While the vacancy of their plinth is because they simply haven’t gotten around to erecting a different statue, I think they should maintain the emptiness they have there. Rather than putting on a pedestal someone who may become a symbol of oppression, representing messages with which society no longer agrees, keeping the plinth empty creates a memorial to the inherently flawed nature of putting anything on a pedestal. Out with the old… and that’s that.