Toppling statues

There is a debate going on in Montreal which mirrors debates that have occurred elsewhere when statues of prominent people – erected as symbols honoring those we (as a society) admire – have been toppled. Colonial leaders who have endowed colleges, slave traders generous to city coffers, and, a few days ago, prime ministers who dispossessed indigenous peoples of their lands and culture, have all had their statues toppled (or attempts have been made to topple them).

Whilst activists and many people sympathetic to their concerns are happy to see these symbols go, there is a strong counter-discourse accusing statue-topplers of civil disobedience, violence or worse. Even some who sympathise with motivations behind statue-toppling balk when the concrete hits the road.

‘Goodbye Lenin’.
Getting rid of statues is common, and has been applauded by many of the same politicians who now object to it. It all depends on the statue, I guess. Photo from: http://kmfazil.blogspot.com/2006/08/good-bye-lenin.html

This reminds me of a fascinating book I read many years ago called ‘Killing no murder‘ by Edward Hyams, which elaborates on the argument set out in a 1657 tract, also called ‘Killing no Murder‘, advocating the killing of Oliver Cromwell.

The basic argument is as follows: political leaders set themselves up as symbols of ideas, social structures and values. That is how they gain power and maintain it. People who strongly disagree with these ideas are justified – especially if no other means (such as a democratic process) exist, or if these means have been exhausted – to kill the leader. Hyams argues that such killings are symbolic – the killing is not directed at the person, but at what they represent. In such cases, killing is ethically justified because the people being killed have set themselves up as symbols: to effect political change the symbol must be destroyed, however unfortunate it is to kill someone. The beheading of Louis XVI was not personal – it was a way to symbolically get rid of the ancien-régime by decapitating its figurehead (whether it succeeded or not is another matter).

There is a very important proviso to this contentious argument: it is not because these symbolic killings are ethical that the killers should expect to escape punishment. Indeed, it is precisely because the killer is ready to accept punishment – which is also political and symbolic – that killing the symbol is justified in the first place. In other words, the killing of symbolic figures is a political act that should be differentiated from murder for purely personal motives.

Now, I am not advocating political killings. Hyam’s ethical argument is fascinating but needs in-depth consideration. It is by no means obvious that the ethics are as straightforward as I suggest (I read the book long ago…). Even if the ethics are clear, under what circumstances is political killing justified? It is not only the symbolic act itself, but its ripple effects and repercussions, that need to be considered. The key question – “is political killing effective at achieving its symbolic ends?” – is not the same as “is it ethical“? Still, however complex, the argument cannot airily be dismissed: it raises many questions.

What I am suggesting is that this type of argument could usefully be applied to the less contentious act of toppling statues. A Hyam-type argument would suggest that toppling statues, objects whose only purpose is to symbolise values that society respects, is a justifiable political act. This should be set against wanton property destruction, rioting and violence, which are not purely symbolic but can hurt and maim bystanders and other individuals of no symbolic significance. The collateral damage of such acts of protest is real.

There is virtually no collateral damage to statue-toppling (provided no one is beneath it as it falls).

Toppled statue of Saddam Hussein – few in the West disputed the importance of destroying this symbol – why, then, resistance to Cecil Rhodes, John A.MacDonald and others? Photo from: https://www.everseradio.com/top-five-defaced-statues-of-deposed-dictators/

For that reason, I am somewhat disappointed in the way our politicians are reacting. Of course, statue-topplers cannot expect to escape the current law of the land, even if they wish to change it. But sitting politicians should try to rise above simplistic moral outrage or specious claims that history cannot be re-written (isn’t that what every generation, and every victor, does – Boris Johnson first amongst them?): they should engage with the symbolism not only of the statue but of the toppling. Do our leaders agree with the values enshrined in the statue? Do they recognize that statues are not history – that they represent what we choose to honor today, not what happened yesterday? Do they realise that, provided books are not burned, history will not be re-written: rather, history is being written and added to as statues topple?

Mao: Toppling a Statue Before it is Finished
Some statues are toppled before they are inaugurated. The symbolism of this 120ft golden statue of Mao, erected in a poor province (one hard hit by Mao’s Great Leap Forward), was not lost on some officials, who – in 2016 – decided that it was better to quietly tear it down before it was finished. Photo from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/09/world/asia/china-mao-statue-henan.html

I like the idea of placing out-of-date statues in museums, where they can be gawped at as visitors wonder at those ancient times when colonial murderers, slave traders and others of their ilk were publicly honoured. Maybe, one day, statues of derivatives traders – or at least of the Wall street bull – will also find their way into museums. These people are part of history, and their legacy – which is rarely unambiguously good or unambiguously bad – should not be forgotten: this ambiguity can be treated in museums, as can the symbols they represent (usually far less ambiguous than the person).

Wall Street Bull
Another statue due for toppling? Unfortunately it is rather squat, so difficult to overturn. Photo: NESRI, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nesri/5934546528/in/photostream/, Creative commons

The symbolism, today, of a prominent statue erected in a public place is unmistakable: ignoring this symbolism is itself a political act, one which activists and sympathisers correctly interpret as agreement with the status quo and with what has led up to it… Toppling the symbol, especially if nothing else will change things (and who can argue that racism, for example, has successfully been overcome these last four centuries?), is fair game.

Speaking of statues, Shelley’s poem is a good antidote to anyone who thinks that statues are forever:

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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