While monuments are not history, they can and should be held accountable to history. Monuments that perpetuate harmful myths and that portray conquest and oppression as acts of valour require honest reckoning, conceptual dismantling, and active repair.National Monument Audit – Monument Lab (page 27)
If we are to hold monuments accountable to history, then we should assess both their alignment with objective history and conversely whether they perpetrate an incomplete narrative:
- How complete is their alignment with an objective perspective on history? How much is fabricated, or ignored?
- What is the role of monuments in shaping how we conceptualize the present, and how we understand various groups within society?
- Does the monument really represent who we are, or rather who we imagine?
- What is the trajectory of their moral/ethical/cultural arc?
Some argue that when we remove a monument we are cancelling culture, rewriting history or reinterpreting our past. But for those monuments in question, the issue is that the history they present is fabricated in the first place and therefore removing the monument removes erroneous information from the record.
So to answer the first question I asked in the initial post in this series, why does it makes sense to remove some monuments from the public space? we find ourselves in a period of decolonization, where the indigenous peoples are working to recover their lost histories, culture, stature, etc. Removing monuments is arguably part of this process. It is:
- An act of reclaiming public spaces that are meant to be inclusive
- Re-evaluate the existing narrative, making room for alternative viewpoints; dismantle specific narratives about racial, cultural, or national superiority
- Removing a visual symbol of historical traumas; “de-glorify” individuals or events associated with colonization, slavery, or other forms of oppression; changes what a society chooses to honour; removes approval or even idolization of individuals who engaged in ethically indefensible actions
- Removes a rallying point for groups that seek to perpetuate hate, inequality, or division.
However, there are cases where retaining monuments, possibly with modification, is compatible with the decolonization process:
- Removing monuments is akin to erasing history, even if it’s uncomfortable. The argument is that all history is valuable for understanding a nation or community’s development, warts and all.
- Adding contextualizing plaques or counter-monuments could provide a more nuanced understanding, turning the monument into an educational opportunity; can spark essential public dialogue about history and ethics,
- Removing a monument because it is offensive to some might set a precedent that undermines democratic decision-making
To answer the second question, what are the arguments for and against? we might navigate the following dichotomies to determine the course of action:
- Assess the consequences to overall societal well-being of keeping / removing a monument
- Balance the glorification of an oppressive historical figure vs. the act of updating (completing) the full historical narrative
- balance the potential perpetuation and celebration of immoral acts vs. encouraging the society to engage with its history, warts and all.
- The marginalization or dehumanization of a particular group vs. freedom of expression
- Social harmony vs. respecting traditions and histories that are important to some communities.
It is clear that there is no single answer, rather a case-by-case assessment is required to find a balance acceptable to all interested parties.