There has been a lot written in the last few years about the suitability of removing statues for the crimes of the persons they depict. The statues of Cecil Rhodes. For the crimes of colonial theft and racism. The statue of Gandhi in Ghana. Because he believed black people are inferior. The statues of King Leopold II of Belgium. For the crimes of murder, torture and slavery of nearly 15 million people in Congo. Statues of so many Americans ‘heroes’ known and celebrated for their racist ideologies.
Let us face it, the removal of statues commemorating historical events and people has always been a part of our social landscape. Both the putting up and pulling down of historical signs are historical and political. That is nothing new.
Personally, I am a bit ambivalent about statues. Whether they stay up or get pulled down does not really affect the price of gaari in the market. However, I am slightly irritated by the supposedly rational arguments against pulling down statues. So I am going to examine a few of them. I will ignore the more hysterical and ridiculous ones.
Pulling Down Statues Amounts to Rewriting History: Really? Firstly, history cannot be rewritten. History is a fact. Unless you are Dr Who. (I know it is correctly The Doctor, so don’t write in about that.) Secondly, books and not statues exist for the preservation of history. A statute is a celebration of a person not a historical record of them. No person intending to study history will be satisfied with the study of statues so how can the removal of statues, rewrite history? Or is it that history did not happen unless commemorated in stone? As true historians will tell you, history is contestable. And when we know better, we do better. Maybe some people – who will still be remembered in history – should not be celebrated? Our view of history continues to change. And our view of history is subjected to forces of perspective and power. We continue to write history. From the perspectives of all people.
Pulling Down Statues Means We are Emotional/Unobjective About the Past: Again, really? Firstly, wanting statues to stay up as a symbol of a particular image of the past (false image) is covered in pride and nostalgia and more emotion than contained on the set of a million telenovelas. Secondly, an appeal against emotion as being an impediment to reason, is an attempt to shut people up. In effect, it says ‘your emotion makes you unable to reason’. In truth a lack of emotion is impossible in humanity. By claiming that your adversary is emotional, you are privileging your emotion above theirs. You are privileging your claim to humanity. Finally, an appeal against emotion presumes that objectivity can be perfectly attained. An effect of the false assumption of neutrality. Only those who benefit within a structure of inequalities can claim to be neutral. Preserving the structures means preserving their privilege. Our discussions are never value-free. A measure of objectivity is only obtained by acknowledging our subjectivities.
We are Judging Statues by the Values of Our Times, not Theirs: This is the argument that I hear the most. And it incenses me that people say this with a straight face. It seems that it has been repeated so many times, that people do not seem to understand how ridiculous it sounds. Let us ask all the enslaved who laboured if their values supported their own oppression. Let us ask the bodies who drowned in the Middle Passage, if their values welcomed this baptism of death. Let us ask those whose lands were imperially stolen on every single continent whether their values were in favour of the colonial theft and violent occupation they were subjected to. And please tell me again the values upon which we can judge statues. Racism is not ‘old-fashioned’. It existed then and it exists now. Colonialism is not ‘old-fashioned’. It had supporters then and it has supporters now. Slavery is not ‘old-fashioned.’ It existed then and it exists now. And racism, colonialism and slavery were always objected to. Always. The fact that most white people now think these things are bad puts a privilege and flippancy on what we can called fashion. As if stealing 1 billion people from Africa was ‘in fashion’ then and out of fashion now. And we all know that fashions regarded as old come back into vogue after a while. So we live with figures of remembrance of ‘old fashions’ looming over us. Waiting for time to return.
So no. The passage of time does not improve our values. As is self-evident. Keep the statues up. Pull them down. But know this. They commemorate horrible people. Horrible then. Horrible now.