This article is part of a Face Off series. The opposing article, “Our Monuments Should Stand for a Bright Future, Not Force Us to Dwell in the Past,” can be found here.
Statues and monuments have served as both positive and negative historical reminders to countries around the world. In recent years, officials and citizens have debated taking down controversial statues all around the world. Modern views differ so greatly from those of the past that the case could be made for taking down most monuments of historical figures. Taking down controversial statues and monuments would damage the way we as a society look at history.
Decades after the decolonization of Africa, colonial symbols are still found throughout the continent. In Senegal, statues of colonial French leaders remain, nearly 60 years after its independence. Recently, a storm knocked down a statue of French colonial leader Louis Faidherbe. This sparked a debate in Senegal, as many wanted to replace this reminder of a painful, repressive history with a statue of an undetermined, more inspiring local figure. Numerous citizens don’t want to be reminded of this oppressive past. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Culture of Senegal reinstalled the French statue, stating that it was a part of Senegal’s heritage. However divisive, entire countries that suffered at the hands of colonial powers recognize that there is value in protecting these historically significant monuments.
The excitement of tearing down questionable statues found its way to Oxford University, where sits a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British colonist. Student representative Ramabina Mahapa said, “He represents the former colonial representation of this country – supremacy, racism, misogyny.” But this logic is flawed. When you think about it, didn’t most prominent historical figures also have “flawed” ways of thinking? George Washington, the United States’ first president, was a slave owner. Winston Churchill is often called the greatest British leader, but he vocalized racist views and infamously neglected the British Indian colony in famine, which resulted in at least a million deaths. Should the statues dedicated to these men be taken down? The Daily Telegraph wrote, “The trouble… is that almost every person of that era held opinions that were commonplace at the time but are at odds with modern thinking. Taken to its extreme, this approach would lead to the eradication of almost every building and statue commemorating notable figures of the past.”
Critics of monuments argue that we should not celebrate those who held racist, misogynistic, or otherwise oppressive views. Perhaps we need to re-contextualise the way we look at historical monuments. The purpose of monuments should not solely be to celebrate the influential men and women of our past, but to recognize their historical significance. We can learn from the historical leaders of our past, from both their good features and their bad. A rational solution to this problem could be to incorporate prominent plaques that provide honest insight, detailing the good and bad of these individuals and why their triumphs and/or mistakes matter today. Something like this could make it seem like less of a “celebration” and more as something to learn from.
The most prominent home-turf example of this phenomenon is the statue of Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. He fought for a terrible cause, slavery, out of loyalty to his home state of Virginia. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative said, “He fought for the wrong side and deserved to lose. But notice that after he lost, he called on all defeated Southerners to cease hostilities and to commit themselves to the service of the United States. Lee was the most prestigious figure in the South. It mattered that he did not urge bitter resistance, but rather nobly counseled patriotism.” Robert E. Lee was a complex, although deeply flawed, American. There is much to be learned from him, through his egregious mistakes, but also as one of the greatest, most admired, war generals in American history. Such is the case with most of monuments up for debate in today’s world. To simply tear them down for emotion’s sake would be a disservice.
The study of history is not meant to solely comfort or encourage us. It is meant to inform us and prepare us for the future. Tearing down controversial monuments sets a dangerous precedent wherein any monument of a figure who held scandalous beliefs–the vast majority of them–could be torn down. As Condoleezza Rice said, “I’m a firm believer in ‘keep your history before you.’”
I don’t lose sleep over the fact that countries worldwide are removing their controversial monuments. I may even have felt a tinge of satisfaction as Robert E. Lee’s Charlottesville statue was removed, not because I don’t believe in its historical merit, but because of the hateful demonstrations for its preservation. However, I fear we are losing valuable pieces of history with each monument we tear down. In sanitizing any country’s history, we lose more than we gain.
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