Welcome to our discussion of Chong-Ming Lim’s “Vandalizing Tainted Commemorations”! Joanna Burch-Brown has graciously provided a critical précis, which appears below. Chong-Ming will offer an initial comment, and then all are encouraged to join in the discussion!
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Chong-Ming Lim argues that vandalizing statues is a middle path between the extremes of removal and preservation. Lim’s fascinating paper contributes to understanding of a controversial and high-profile topic in contemporary international public debate. He is attentive to the arguments on different sides, and devotes much of the paper to generously spelling out opposing views. Lim finds reasonableness in many directions and writes in a conciliatory spirit, while nonetheless defending what many will see as a radical conclusion. It is a thought-provoking piece of scholarship, and a privilege to engage with.
Nevertheless, I shall offer an alternative analysis of the ethics of vandalising statues, and arrive at a different conclusion. If expressive vandalism is sometimes right, it is not because it charts a middle path between extremes of preservation and removal, but because it is appropriately radical. Oppression can call for self-assertion, and expressive vandalism may sometimes be appropriately self-assertive. However there is an inherent ethical ambiguity in acts of expressive or political vandalism. I explain this inherent ethical ambiguity by reference to the Buddhist precept against harsh speech.
Chong-Ming Lim argues that vandalism offers an alternative to what he sees as the extremes of removal and preservation. Lim’s argument, as I reconstruct it, is this.
P1: Self-respect and preserving history are distinct practical values. A good approach to public history & monuments will harmonize these two values.
P2: Removing contested monuments protects self-respect, but it does not preserve historical awareness.
P3: Preserving contested monuments helps historical awareness to be woven through everyday life, but it does not protect derogated groups’ self-respect.
P4: Counter-memorials and historical plaques are often ineffective in addressing the threat to self-respect, for a number of pragmatic and political reasons that are contingent but common.
P5: Vandalism, by contrast, protects both self-respect and preservation of history. It blocks the harmful speech of statues and thus succeeds in protecting self-respect. It keeps historical artefacts in view and thus preserves opportunities for people to encounter and integrate lessons of history into every consciousness.
Conclusion: Vandalism can be a good strategy for addressing problematic monuments.
Lim takes it that what motivates activists is a concern with self-respect; while what motivates preservationists is a concern with history. Lim’s argument is truly fascinating, but I think Premises 2, 3 and 5 are mistaken. Both self-respect and history are central values for both removalists and preservationists. In other words, both removalists and preservationists are concerned with the twin values of affirming self-respect for social groups, and integrating awareness of history. The difference lies in which groups’ self-respect they see as most threatened and are principally concerned to protect; and which histories they most want to see integrated into everyday awareness.
In other words, I think that Lim arrives at his conclusion by reading preservationists as progressives, and thus by side-stepping politics. Now, it is absolutely true that there are plenty of progressives who defend preservation, and whose principal concern is with keeping uncomfortable history in view so as to avoid whitewashing the past. So Lim’s argument does indeed negotiate a path between two of the views that are part of the debate. But my sense is that a great many preservationists, and perhaps the greater number, are conservative, traditionalists, libertarian, right-leaning, or right-wing and some are far-right. This significant group are unlikely to see vandalism of statues as a middle way that addresses their concerns.
For many preservationists, there is a fear that public discourse is being taken over by an ideological, liberal elite, whose analysis of contemporary and historical injustice is leading to factional divides, hardening of public attitudes and a narrowing of the stories that can be told. There is a sense that certain lines of speech and thought are becoming taboo, and that contradictory views will be socially punished (a concern reflected, for instance, in Jacob Siegel’s ‘The New Truth: When the moral imperative trumps the rational evidence, there’s no argument’). Many who are distressed by the contestation of statues express a sense that ‘everybody is allowed to have a heritage except for us’, and that if the elite progressive view wins out then we will no longer be allowed to take pride in our past.
These perspectives reflect the extraordinary pace of cultural change that has characterized recent decades. The scholar Anthony Heath opens his book Social Progress in Britain with a vignette that illustrates the point.
Britain has seen huge social changes over the course of my lifetime. The world of the 1950s, when I grew up in a modest suburb of Liverpool, has vanished for ever. The material standard of living we enjoyed then would nowadays seem to be distinctly substandard … There never seemed to be quite enough to eat and we were all rather skinny … My mother did not go out to work, and as far as I knew nobody else’s mother did either.
But we were very proud to be British. We were thrilled when it was an Englishman, Roger Bannister, who beat the Australians and the Swedes to run the first 4-minute mile, and to be honest a bit disappointed that it was a New Zealander and a Nepalese Sherpa who were the first to climb Everest, even though it was a British expedition. And I loved my globe of the world with all the countries coloured red, parts of the British Empire, which decorated so much more of the globe than the blue of the French empire. I avidly collected stamps from as many British colonies as I could…
It is a vanished world – and not one to which I personally look back with any great nostalgia. I think my grandchildren have a much nicer time growing up today. But many people do seem to look back on the 1950s as a golden age of stability and national cohesion, and perhaps it was an age which did have some strengths which we have now lost.
When moderate, right-leaning and right-wing groups speak about the loss of history, they have in mind a complex but ultimately positive sense of national history, that has been a basis for their constructions of moral identity, moral self-respect, self-esteem, and group cohesion, and that now feels threatened. Preservations are just as concerned with protecting the moral status of a social group as they are with history.
Likewise, activists demanding removal of statues are concerned as much with public history as they are with self-respect. They argue that problematic commemorations obscure history, by downplaying the seriousness of a community’s past injustice. As Ana Lucia Araujo puts it, ‘Pro-slavery monuments don’t preserve history. They preserve racism.’ Activists, including myself, have argued that there are better ways to ensure that this history is remembered, such as creating memorials that tell the history forthrightly and that foreground the perspectives of those who were most harmed by the injustice in question. Thus activists calling to remove monuments are concerned not only with protecting moral status of derogated groups, but equally with recovering and publicizing a more accurate understanding of history – one in which historical wrongdoing is recognized and acknowledged.
If both sides are concerned with protecting self-respect and historical memory, but have different group-based interests, then the basic moral problem is not how to harmonize two values from within a broadly similar world-view, but how to harmonize values across significantly different worldviews, in a way that respects the positive distinct identities of diverse parts of the community. As I ask in a recent paper, which of the available strategies will allow distinct groups to affirm their positive distinct identities, and build positive relationships with their pasts, while at the same time integrating mature understandings of history?
As a heuristic, I think it is helpful to ask whether a given strategy for contested heritage creates a good environment for children. Prioritizing children’s perspectives is in keeping with the UN Guidelines on Transitional Justice, which state that societies recovering from histories of injustice and normalized wrong-doing should give particular attention to children’s needs. Answering to children keeps grownups more respectful.
An environment with epithets and blood spray-painted across public monuments is not friendly to children (just as an environment with racist monuments is not friendly to children). Thus my sense is that vandalism can be of great effectiveness in particular radical moments, but that it is not a long-term solution. This is in large part because vandalism usually or often involves harsh speech. Even where the intention is solely to repudiate a racist attitude, such acts are often experienced by the opposing side as expressions of hate.
I think it is worth distinguishing, here, between guerilla arts interventions, and vandalism. Many forms of direct action involve artistic interventions around statues, which are often temporary, thought-provoking and potentially allow great scope for creativity and diverse expression. I have argued that a positive step for cities who are just beginning to learn about recontextualization is to allow guerilla interventions, with mindfulness about age appropriateness; perhaps facilitating rotating arts interventions by schools and local artists of diverse perspectives.
Vandalism is different, in that by definition it involves damage to a property. In communities where many still identify positively with the figures depicted, acts of vandalism will be experienced as attacks on them, their history, their self-esteem and indeed their moral self-respect. Vandalism is often overtly aggressive in tone, using epithets or symbols of violence like red paint for blood. To those who identify positively with the figure in the statue, vandalism sends the message that the moral community no longer protects them. Vandalism sends this message because it often involves doing to statues what we would not or should not tolerate doing to persons. It would be ‘cruel and unusual’ to punish a person by publicly covering them in red paint, or enacting the other humiliating gestures carried out against statues. Cruel and unusual punishments are prohibited by law because of the distinct psychological harms that they are thought to cause. A long-term strategy of vandalism would generate deep and long divisions, by continuously sending a signal that ‘here is a group of people whom the moral community no longer protects’. This is problematic in itself, and can backfire against activists’ intentions, by giving the public the impression that the community under attack is the dominant group.
In Buddhism, ethical action is called ‘skilful’, while unethical action is ‘unskilful’. Skilful acts are those that free beings from the causes of suffering, namely states of hatred, greed and ignorance. Unskilful acts are ones that perpetuate causes of suffering and turmoil. At the foundation of Buddhist ethics is an awareness that actions have consequences, and can either function to release beings from states of suffering or continue them.
Buddhist thought holds that harsh speech is unskillful because it leads to a turmoil of emotions in both the listener and the speaker. Harsh speech tends to prompt harsh counter-speech, and both sides experience turmoil. Buddhists sometimes liken harsh and divisive speech to picking up the burning end of a branch in order to strike one’s opponent.
When Colston’s statue came down in Bristol, I found myself elated on the one hand, but also in turmoil. I have spent several years listening carefully to people on all sides of these debates, and I knew how distressing many would find it to see Colston’s statue painted with blood and dragged through the streets. I admired the courage of demonstrators and felt it right that Colston’s statue was gone, but I found myself wondering if there was a version of events with different symbolism that might be more swiftly healing. I’ve imagined demonstrators toppling the statue and catching it as it falls; then covering the body with a cloth bearing a peace symbol, lighting a sea of 500,000 candles – one for every person enslaved on a Bristol ship – and sliding the statue into the harbour in silent vigil. No expression of contempt, just a decision for the city to move on.