In every age and culture there have indeed always been upright people opposing maltreatment of others. Yet disenfranchisement, hatred, vindictiveness and exploitation have continued. Viewed in a historical sense, it can be said that we have not sufficiently learned from the past.
If we want to be part of a generation that makes an extraordinary effort to improve lives, we must demonstrate maturity in our ethics, morals and obligations to human rights with people of every race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, language and culture. Protesters should decide: if the statue is an affront to current values, would it be best to deface it, bury it in a harbour or melt it down for scrap.
But if we never see those statues again, many among us may remain oblivious to gross wrongs committed, and those responsible for them. Or, would it serve a higher edifying purpose to leave it in place with an explanatory plaque, or remove it to a museum for posterity’s historicising?
Rather than a statue to one who in the future might become embroiled in controversy, explanatory signs could be a proactive cultural option to memorialise a tragedy or famous event.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently set up a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to recommend which statues in London should be removed. Discrete options already in practice elsewhere include Coronation Park in Delhi, where statues of former officials from the colonial era have been relocated. In Berlin’s Spandau Zitadel special museum visitors can touch most of the objects relegated to a protected indoor display. In Nepal, statues of Ranas in heroic poses on their steeds have been relegated to obscure corners of Tundikhel. Statues of the Shahs were similarly removed in 2006.
As far as names of such flawed benefactors on buildings, cities, and streets, these could indeed be exchanged for contextually more appealing and appropriate names. Alternatively, more societies can shift to a culture withoutmonuments to their heroes.
As Rabindranath Tagore said in 1917: “Because each nation has its own history of thieving and lies and broken faith, therefore there can flourish only international suspicion and jealousy, and international moral shame becomes anaemic to a degree of ludicrousness.”
Altering, dismembering or stomping on statues or other representations, protesters transform their frustrations onto a rehumanised embodiment of their focus. But by doing this, are they not exemplifying a moral reaction obverse to their own desired ethical behaviour by others?
Toxic outrage may force the elimination of symbols of racism or other atrocities, but in the long term it can only be deliberate policy and regulatory improvements in governance, education and civic action that would gradually change the culture of attitudes and behaviours.
I prefer decisions with an understanding of the antecedents of the disliked person, and of the effects of any actions which may elude the preferred education of future generations.
As Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir said in 1975, “One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present”.
Rather we must take advantage of history, including unsavoury history, and keep it visible so as to enable enhanced learning from past misdeeds and errors by showing measured, humane, non-violent responses.
Young and old alike must learn that there is not just day and night, but dawn and twilight as well.
Iván G Somlai is Director of EthnoBureaucratica based in Canada, and was a former consultant with Nepal’s Ministries of Health, Industry, and Tourism.