The violent death of George Floyd on May 25th has led to universal protests against police violence. In contrast to other cases of deaths of African-Americans by the hands of police officers in the United States, George Floyd’s death has generated a truly historical societal reaction which has not stopped yet and certainly represents one of the greatest pushes for greater racial equality since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement established in 2013 has found renewed strength and widespread approval in American society following the outbreak of the protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Calls for reform of US police have led to the adoption of a new divisive and confusing slogan: “Defund the police” and to new legislative initiatives in the US Congress.
These massive protests in the US and in other parts of the world have also targeted statues that represent slavery or a certain status quo that is comfortable with the systemic racism that black people and other minorities face. The first statues targeted were of eminent figures of the Confederacy, such as Confederate President Jefferson Davies and General Robert E. Lee, and slave owners such as that of the 18th century merchant Edward Colston in Bristol, UK. However, the toppling and vandalising of public statues has affected not only figures closely related to slavery but also many other historical figures which some protesters associate with a racist social system. Among those individuals are on the one side, Cristopher Columbus and Spanish Conquistadores, and on the other side, markedly anti-fascist or anti-slavery personalities such as Winston Churchill, Ulysses S. Grant, and other widely regarded figures such as US President and Founding Father George Washington and Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. These acts are certainly worrying. While defacing or tearing down statues and other symbols has happened multiple times in the past, we have to understand the social dynamics behind those events.
Several questions should be asked: Do these attacks on statues reflect a generalised shift in Western societies’ view of their colonial past and of the presence of statues of historical figures in public places, or do these actions just represent the opinions of a small but impactful minority? Moreover, does this movement have a solid ideological basis or are many of the attacks on statues just a result of ignorance, mob mentality and some peoples’ urge towards violence and vandalism? Finally, can vandalising or toppling statues be a justified action in a democratic society, or does it depend on the meaning and social connotation of the statue and on society’s opinion of it? How should the decision of whether a statue deserves being exposed at a public space be made? By direct vote, through our political representatives or through spontaneous social action?
In order to understand these actions, I will look at several examples from the past and argue whether or not the attacks on statues we are witnessing represent an anti-statue movement more than a push against racism, in detriment to the cause of civil rights.
Statues serve as reminders of our past but also as a way of glorifying historical personalities relevant to a certain nation, community, or other group of people who share a common history or a common set of values. They should not be seen in an apolitical vacuum. Statues often serve political or ideological goals. An example are the hundreds of Confederate statues, spread across the United States. Many of those statues were put up decades after the American Civil War by associations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy which were complicit in the creation of the “Lost Cause Myth” and in upholding the “Jim Crow” laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States between the 1870s and the 1960s. Therefore, statues should not be seen only as pieces of art, but also as representing a certain viewpoint or ideology. The decision of keeping or not a certain statue in a public environment should not only look at it with a modern (but frequently anachronistic) point of view but also understand why it was erected in the first place. At the same time, it should keep a respectful view of the past and of those who came before us while looking at a city as a layer of different periods and sensibilities, without rejecting all that precedes the period we live in.
The destruction of statues and the condemnation of past leaders or ideologies is ancient and it repeats itself with some frequency in the History of Humanity. Some examples include the Roman practice of Damnatio Memoriae, whereby the image of a reviled person such as a disgraced emperor would be cut off from any public monuments in order to condemn that person’s memory, and the destruction of a statue or monument due to political or religious reasons. Examples of this include the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in March 2001, the tearing down of the Statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April 2003 during the Iraq War, or the destruction of several statues of Stalin following the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the disaggregation of the Soviet Union.
The destruction of statues and other representations of figures is often related to the concept of Iconoclasm, which is the “social belief of the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments”. One of the most famous historical periods marked by iconoclasm is the one known as Byzantine Iconoclasm, which took place in the 8th and 9th centuries when a ban on religious figures by the Byzantine emperors led to the widespread destruction of religious icons and other images throughout Eastern Christianity and to a division of Byzantine society into iconoclasts and iconolaters, those who were in favour of the ban and those who venerated religious images.
Iconoclasm for religious reasons can be found in many other contexts, such as Islam, which generally opposes figural representations in sacred spaces, and Reformation-era Europe. Calvinist iconoclastic riots were frequent in the religiously divided 16th century Europe, in particular in what is now the Netherlands, which led to the destruction of all kinds of religious art found in churches and public spaces.
Iconoclasm for political reasons can be observed in many historical occasions, from Ancient Egypt to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It tends to occur in periods of wars or civil strife, or as result of the deliberate action of an authoritarian regime.
The period we currently live in cannot be easily compared to previous examples of generalised destruction of statues or other symbols. Democracies are implanted in most developed countries and regime changes or civil wars do not seem likely to happen. Then how should we interpret these events? Do they really constitute an actual historical breaking point in how Western societies view race relations and colonial history and a desire for disruption and revolution by a part of society? Maybe, but I doubt it.
On the one side, we could interpret the lack of criteria of some of the attacks on statues (including the vandalising of statues of abolitionists such as Col. Hans Christian Heg, John Greenleaf Whittier and Matthias Baldwin) as a result of temporary moments of violence in the context of an intense climate following a global pandemic, rising unemployment levels and the death of George Floyd which led to the unravelling of decades of social frustrations. So, if we agree with this argument, these attacks should be considered separately from BLM and the movement which (rightfully) demands greater equality of opportunities, less police violence and for society in general to be aware of the systemic racism that is still present among us, both in the US and in Europe.
On the other side, we could see these unjustified attacks as a form of Iconoclastic vandalism, as a part of society seems to move towards a disdain of the use of figures of historical figures in public spaces. If we take this last hypothesis as valid then greater social unrest is likely to follow in the future. I do not believe that the majority of society is on the same page of many of those who defend these actions. It’s not just the seemingly random acts of violence on unsuspicious statues or the destruction of businesses that are not supported by most. Even the strategy of many of the defenders of the BLM movement, which follow an approach of “you are either with us or against us” and of fiercely condemning historical figures from the colonial past, is at odds with the views of many.
The depiction of historical figures from the Colonial era or the Age of Discoveries as mostly negative by activists is one that will difficulty take hold, especially in Europe. History is rarely “black” or “white” and no one before the 20th century would pass a morality test based on current values. Violence and bigotry are as much a part of our past as tolerance and compassion. While discoverers and conquerors such as Cristopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Francisco Pizarro and Afonso de Albuquerque were complicit or active agents in the subjugation and destruction of entire peoples and cultures, they are also creators of our modern world without whom we might not be here. In addition, statesmen such as George Washington or Winston Churchill might have been racists or bigots, they are nonetheless some of the most important leaders in the history of Humanity and defenders of democracy.
While activists should definitely take a stance and not expect to be accepted by all (for example, the Civil Rights Movement was not approved of by a majority of Americans in the 1960s), they should also take an educational and conciliatory approach. The rejection of our past prior to the 20th or 21st centuries is not an option. History should be seen as a continuum, formed by people with different cultures, religions, goals and moral principles that cannot be fully understood or judged based upon our modern principles. It should also not be organised into categories that make us comfortable and confirm our views. It should be provocative, educational and undogmatic. The learning of History should be based on numerous sources, methods and tools, from books to museums, from public monuments to our collective memories as societies and peoples.
The adoption of a dogma, be it fascist, conservative, communist or “woke” is rarely positive. Those who advocate for “woke” politics often miss the point and lead to further extremisms.
The improved leaning of our colonial past is of crucial importance and much is yet to be done. Particularly important is understanding the role of slavery in building our modern societies. However, the vilification of our past is not the road we should take. Being proud of the history of your people should not be frowned upon, if you understand the good and the bad that your ancestors did. We cannot let our personalities be seen as exclusive to our personal experiences, heritage, nationality or race. We are complex individuals who belong to higher collective groups but whose identity is not limited to the identity of that group. In addition, a certain group of morals or opinions should not be forced upon us. We should be able to have our own political, religious and philosophical beliefs, given that we respect each other, that we do not step on other peoples’ liberties and follow the basic principles of Human Rights. Conservative, progressive, socialist, neoliberal, communist, social democrat, nationalist, internationalist, it should be up to us to choose what we are. And the destruction of statues would mean that a majority of us partake of the same principles of those who vandalised them.
In my opinion, in a democratic society, decisions regarding the use of our public space should result from a process of generalised discussion by civil society and frequently through the legitimacy of a vote. Therefore, I believe that the destruction or vandalising of statues in public spaces should be avoided. If a consensus around the removal of a certain statue from a public space is created, then the solution should generally be its removal to a museum or another location where it can be better contextualised.
In conclusion, a difficult road lies ahead. The next step in the fight against racism should be treaded skilfully. Iconoclasm and “politically correct” woke politics might not be the most effective strategy to reduce systemic racism and provide minorities with better opportunities as it may alienate a significant part of society which does not share the exact same values and view of the world. Justice and equality can only come with freedom of speech, respect for other peoples’ opinions and trust in democracy.