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.

30 Replies to “Chong-Ming Lim: “Vandalizing Tainted Commemorations”. Précis by Joanna Burch-Brown

  1. I’m very grateful to David Faraci and Peter Jaworski for organising this discussion on my paper, and especially to Joanna Burch-Brown for her challenging and insightful comments. It’s a real joy to receive such detailed attention to and comments on my work, and an honour to have the chance to reflect on and respond to them.

    To begin, a quick note on terminology, following an earlier discussion with Joanna Burch-Brown. In the paper, I refer to commemorations of persons responsible for injustice or of events of injustice as ‘tainted’. Looking back, and as Burch-Brown points out, the terminology of ‘taint’ has problematic associations with purity and, in the European context, whiteness. In writing the paper, my thought was that the idea of taint succinctly captures what some of us think of certain commemorations – that they are a taint (or stain) on public landscape and perhaps even our common humanity. Now, I’m unsure that the choice of this term is on-the-whole appropriate given the potential costs of furthering not just implicit and racialised biases but also the idea of purity in politics. In fact, in a forthcoming paper, I refer to these commemorations as ‘problematic’. This is also the terminology that I will use for the rest of our discussions here.

    **Characterising activists and preservationists**
    Burch-Brown provides a neat characterisation of my argument and argues that P2, P3 and P5 are wrong. According to her, this is because removalists (I term them ‘activists’) and preservationists are not merely concerned with protecting self-respect or promoting historical awareness to the exclusion of the other, but with both values of self-respect and history.

    I agree that P2 and P3 – as they are formulated – are mistaken. I’m not, however, committed to them. Instead, my claims are better characterised as follows:

    P2*. Protecting self-respect is the most important reason for removing problematic commemorations, as opposed to other responses to them.
    P3*. Weaving historical awareness into everyday life is the most important reason for preserving problematic commemorations, as opposed to other responses to them.

    As they are formulated, P2* and P3* do not contain clauses stating that other considerations are unimportant. While activists and preservationists regard the reasons (identified in P2* and P3*) as providing the most important support for removing or preserving problematic commemorations, this is compatible, in principle, with their judgements that other considerations also have value.

    Despite their criticisms of each other, activists and preservationists often recognise that their opponents are on to something of value. For instance, the activists urging the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue make references to the ‘effacement of the histories of millions of black Africans’ and to ‘rectifying and atoning the colonial past’ (p. 190). Additionally, for preservationists, weaving historical awareness into everyday life may facilitate citizens’ owning up to the negative aspects of what they have inherited, in order that they may do better than their forebears in avoiding injustice, or, in this case, protecting the self-respect of individuals (especially minorities) within our communities (pp. 193, 196-197).

    The disagreement between them, then, may be understood as one about how to weigh up the competing values. Activists are likely to disagree with P3*, just as preservationists are likely to disagree with P2*. In this sense, I agree with Burch-Brown that the task is ‘not how to harmonize two values from within a broadly similar world-view’ – where this is taken to mean that activists and preservationists are in broad agreement with P2* and P3*.

    In characterising activists and preservationists in this way, I was guided by two distinctive features of their views. First, even though activists and preservationists recognise the existence and force of other values, they nonetheless judge that on the balance of things the consideration they have each identified leads us to the conclusion to remove or preserve problematic commemorations. Second, many activists and preservationists reject “nearby” responses to problematic commemorations. Activists are often reluctant to stop at adding counter-commemorations or contextualising plaques to problematic commemorations. Preservationists are often reluctant to even *move* problematic commemorations to different locations (including museums). I’ve tried to make sense of these features of their views by clarifying how the concerns with protecting self-respect or integrating historical awareness into everyday life – when rendered in a specific way – supports their conclusions that we should remove or preserve problematic commemorations, rather than these nearby responses.

    As a final clarification on this point, P2* and P3* are my attempts at characterising the activists’ and preservationists’ arguments, in a way that I think best (and most charitably) makes sense of their demands (especially the seeming fixity of the demands). While I take P2* and P3* as constraints on my discussions, I express some ambivalence towards them. For instance, I note that there are various challenges that we can raise to P2* and P3*, though I do not pursue them in the paper (pp. 197-198).

    Burch-Brown then raises a related critique of my characterisation of preservationists – I have neglected 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 of preservationists are simply ‘unlikely to see vandalism of statues as a middle way that addresses their concerns’. The worry is that I have bought on the cheap the conclusion that the vandalism of problematic commemorations is something that should, in principle, address preservationists’ concerns.

    I should have been more careful in making this clear in my paper – it is not my intention to claim that activists or preservationists each form a monolith. Indeed, there are various internal disagreements within each group. Conservatives (especially proponents of the kind of conservatism sketched out by G. A. Cohen) will have different motivations for preserving problematic commemorations from libertarians or far-right individuals. In this sense, any attempt at adjudicating *groups* of people in general is bound to be incomplete. Because of this, an additional explanation is needed – which I failed to provide in the paper – for why we should focus only on those preservationists whose principal concern is with keeping uncomfortable history in view so that we can learn from it.

    Here are my sketchy thoughts on this. Suppose, as Burch-Brown observes, that when many preservationists 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’.

    The problem, here, is that many of these constructions involve – and often *depend on* – a pejorative view of members of some groups. A part of the vignette that Burch-Brown provides is instructive – the speaker ‘loved [their] 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’. What does it mean to love such a depiction of the world? Is it to love, in the abstract, the glory of the British Empire? Yet such an abstraction obscures the suffering of all those who were subjugated by it (and who still, today, find themselves in asymmetrical relationships with the British). It obscures the immoral and needless exploitation, marginalisation and violence (among others) that were directed at these British “subjects”. And doesn’t this love give us a picture of the world where only certain groups of people count, and where people of various colours matter only insofar as they feature in the comparison of which coloniser’s realm or dominion is greater? This view is still with us today. A recent survey showed that around 32% of British people regard the empire as something to be proud of; and 37% regard it as neither something to be proud nor ashamed of (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/11/uk-more-nostalgic-for-empire-than-other-ex-colonial-powers). This is alarming, to say the very least, when we see it in context of what it means for the people who were on the receiving end of the empire.

    There is, then, a question of whether and how seriously we should regard these constructions (along with their importance for identity, self-respect and group cohesion) as *constraints* on our treatment of problematic commemorations. Should we preserve problematic commemorations just to avoid disrupting these constructions? Or should we vandalise or remove them, but at the same time try to bring about a different way of facing up to our past – rather than neglecting or embracing injustice? (On this issue, see Erich Hatala Matthes’ excellent paper https://doi.org/10.1017/apa.2018.13) In this sense, my response is resolute – we should take a stand against these constructions, rather than accommodate them or regard them as constraints on how we should treat problematic commemorations. I hope Burch-Brown would agree with me on this – while she has attentively listened to preservationists, she nonetheless argues that it was right for the Colston statue to fall (https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/toppling-colstons-statue-right-must-4232905); and a part of her strategy, it seems to me, is to respond to preservationist concerns about problematic commemorations, without necessarily taking them as constraints on what we should do about them (https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/defenders-colston-ones-airbrushing-past-40454).

    **Skilful action**
    Burch-Brown concludes with a discussion of the negative effects of vandalism. Vandalism often involves harsh speech, and is often experienced by those who identify with a particular problematic commemoration as expressions of hate, or as attacks directed at their identities and heritage. An environment with vandalised monuments is also not friendly to children (or their needs).

    My response to what some people experience as expressions of hate or as attacks on their identities and heritage follows from my earlier point – we should take a stand against these views. This is not to say, however, that we should do nothing. Activists (and the state, if it participates) may take the opportunity to clarify that what they are after is not a group of people’s heritage or identity as a whole (on this point, see the worries about attacks on “white heritage”), but only those aspects of it that involve neglecting or embracing injustice. Activists should take care to clarify that the message they wish to send is that the moral community no longer protects or tolerates certain *views*, rather than certain groups of people. This is, of course, easier said than done. In practice, criticisms of preservationists’ views tend to be elevated to a great height (or brought to a great depth, depending on how one pictures the relevant relationship) – it’s not simply the views that are abhorrent, but also the people who hold them. I think it’s a mistake to think that the people who hold preservationist views are reasonably or rightly excluded from the moral community – if by that we mean that moral discourse is no longer possible, appropriate or necessary, and therefore that those who hold those views may simply be “pushed around” without the need to provide reasons or justifications.

    I’m not well acquainted with Buddhist ethics, but friends who are familiar with it tell me that harsh speech is not, in principle, unjustified within the framework. In fact, there are moments where harsh speech is employed by prominent figures as a way of bringing about or facilitating learning (or enlightenment). Even if we suppose, then, that we should avoid harsh speech when possible, there is still room for it and for its educational and transformative potential. (Many thanks to Justin P. Holder and Zulhaqem Zulkifli for discussions on this point!)

    The issue, then, seems to be whether the use of harsh speech can, in the case of the vandalism of problematic commemorations, be justified *despite* its effects on members of a certain group. I am inclined to think that it can be – on the one hand is a struggle for self-respect and dignity; on the other are emotional turmoil resulting from constructions of identity, self-respect and group cohesion that we have, in any case, good reason to move away from. Additionally, it seems that the worry about harsh speech does not attach uniquely to vandalism – the removal of problematic commemorations is just as likely to be regarded in the same way (and prompt the same responses) by the preservationists Burch-Brown identifies.

    I wonder, too, if the demand to avoid harsh speech is a kind of demand of ‘civility’, understood as a constraint on activists’ behaviour. (This is how I make sense of Burch-Brown’s worry about generating ‘deep and long divisions’ – as a kind of ‘counterproductivity’ critique against radical or uncivil action.) If so, I worry that this demand may obscure and perpetuate existing asymmetries in the power relations between members of the dominant and minority groups, and that it may convey the false idea that the success of activists’ actions is to be measured solely along the lines of social cohesion (among others; the literature on uncivil disobedience is burgeoning). I worry, also, about making our iconoclasm gentle and beautiful – what are we doing when we slide a problematic commemoration into the harbour in silent vigil, when nothing quite so gentle was (or may ever be) done for each of those people who suffered and still suffer? (My thoughts on this last point are unsettled; I worry, in the other direction, about vindictiveness.)

    I find Burch-Brown’s point about creating and maintaining spaces that are friendly to children really interesting. I struggle, however, to understand what it involves. When we say that an environment with epithets and blood spray-painted across public monuments is unfriendly to children, do we mean to say that the exposure to these things and the sentiments underlying them is, on its own, detrimental or corrosive to their development? When put this way (and I’m not sure I’ve gotten what Burch-Brown is after!), it doesn’t seem very plausible. Indeed, it seems possible to reconceptualise these ugly, vandalised monuments as reminders of our intolerance of views that neglect or embrace injustice. Doing so could very well be part of our broader efforts to face up to and learn from the past.

    Many thanks, again, to Joanna Burch-Brown for her comments (which are far richer than I’ve done justice to in my response). Looking forward to the discussions!


  2. Lim’s reply is wonderfully eloquent and deep, and contains far more than I can respond to in a single post.  For now, let me take up the topic of civility. I shall come back to other points in due course.

    Lim is absolutely right to raise these points about civility.  I agree with him entirely that it is important for public debates not to be governed by restrictive attitudes towards supposedly ‘uncivil’ speech.

    I believe that we should take a highly open and permissive approach when it comes to the speech we accept in public discourse (see e.g. Sigal Ben-Porath’s excellent book on Free Speech).  Where people have engaged in forms of vandalism that are instances of harsh speech, they should not be censured.  And the positive aspects of such speech should be acknowledged and welcomed.  

    As Lim so rightly points out, acts of expressive vandalism can prompt moments of epiphany, leading viewers to see through a deceptive ideology and recognize an injustice that was previously disguised.  Expressive vandalism can counter and block the hateful messages received from a problematic commemoration (a point we’ll return to in later posts, with reference to an argument from Ten-Herng Lai).  Acts of expressive vandalism, like other forms of direct action, are evidence that we are willing to stand up for ourselves.  As Bernard Boxhill argues, drawing on Frederick Douglass, standing up in one’s own self-defence can provide one with an awakening to one’s own self-worth.  As such, rising up in self-defence can provide a basis for self-esteem, relief and even euphoria, countering the wrongful claim that ‘you can be treated this way’. Such acts are often done with great courage and sincerity of purpose, and with important self-affirming effects. Expressive vandalism can instantiate an individual’s confrontation with what Paget Henry writes of as the ‘dread’ experiences of socio historical denial, a society’s conventions that ‘threaten the identify of many of its members with insignificance’. 

    So, although I didn’t discuss it in my original post, there is no question in my mind that expressive vandalism has important positive effects, and that it can play a powerful role in periods of transition.  However, I also think that it will tend to have some important negative effects, and in a sense therefore may generate some further work for us to do down the line.  In other words, it is one thing to say that public discourse should be accepting towards a form of action and shouldn’t be overly restrictive or censuring; it is another to recommend it. My hunch is that at least harsh forms of vandalism are not ideal long-term strategies. The upshot of expressive vandalism is likely to be complicated to the extent that its expressions are harsh, because of the tendency of harsh speech to generate divisions and turmoil and to prompt harsh counter-speech; so I wonder whether it is the most skilful action available.  I do, however, love CM’s reply that harsh speech can in principle and sometimes in practice function to prompt moments of awakening.  I’ll think about this, as well as some of CM’s other wonderfully eloquent and on-point comments, and comment again in due course.


  3. I had the pleasure of teaching Lim’s paper (as well as the one by Burch-Brown that she mentions in her comments) in my seminar this term, and they provoked thoughtful engagement from the students: so thanks to both of you for your work!

    One question that my students raised was whether vandalism might itself require some kind of contextualization to be legible to the public, and so meet the publicity and incorporation requirements. While painting “racist” on a statue may be clear enough, other forms of vandalism could be puzzling to members of the public who are unfamiliar with the details of a commemorated figure’s life. For instance, in the vandalism and theft of the foot from a statue of Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque, there was a specific significance related to Oñate’s history of violence that wasn’t well known at the time. Those who were so motivated were led to learn about it through the vandalism, but it’s not something that your average passerby would have understood at the time (I highly recommend this podcast episode about the case https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/onates-foot/). Lim makes some more critical comments about recontextualization elsewhere in the paper, but I wonder if the practice might warrant reconsideration in relation to vandalism specifically, rather than just recontextualizing the commemoration itself. And might this introduce an additional role for the state in particular (at least with respect to publicly owned monuments)?

    On the other hand, I wonder if successful communication with the public via vandalism is ultimately important, especially from the perspective of activists. I was thinking about this in relation to Bernard Boxill’s work on protest and self-respect. One of the intriguing ideas in that work is that protest is a way for the protester to demonstrate to themself that they are self-respecting: it’s not ultimately about convincing anyone else of something. So, this leads me to wonder whether the communicative efficacy of vandalism (which one might read as being part of the publicity requirement) would unduly curtail the means that protesters might take in vandalizing commemorations, and detract from the a potential focus on demonstrating self-respect primarily to *themselves.*

    Thanks again for this thoughtful work!

  4. Thanks for your paper, Chong-Ming, and to both you and Joanna for your comments here. This isn’t an issue I’ve thought a great deal about, but I have a few thoughts prompted by the discussion so far.

    Let me start by noting the rather striking structure of your argument, Chong-Ming: you begin by identifying two public policy positions and the values that you take to most strongly support them, then discuss some public actions that have actually been taken and explain why they don’t seem to appropriately respond to the values in question. At this point, it would be typical to offer an alternative proposal for public action that would appropriately respond to those values. Instead, you argue that a certain private action may be more justifiable than typically thought in the face of the actual, insufficient public responses.

    There’s nothing wrong with this from a theoretical perspective, of course. But I worry it threatens to imply that these values are in sufficiently close competition that it’s hard to say what public action should be taken, and that this is why you focus on private action. This seems to me to threaten to make the preservationist case look stronger than it is.

    First, it’s not clear to me how to think about the implications of this value of historical awareness. Does it give us reason to make tons of statues to all the things we might forget? That sounds implausible. So maybe it gives us reason just to keep the statues we have? But why? Perhaps it’s a matter of their significance; these are the things worthy of being remembered. But surely that’s part of what’s at issue here: many of these things seemed to the people who made them to be worthy of rememberence because of the very attitudes we now wish to repudiate. And saying that we need to remember those problematic attitudes seems to just move the bump in the rug. (I take this to be related to Joanna’s point about better ways to preserve history.)

    Second, with respect to public action, it wasn’t clear to me why the relevant value speaks in favor retaining the statue. Suppose we just replace the statue with a plaque. Maybe it includes a picture of the statue. Maybe it’s imposing so people can’t ignore it.* The bottom line is that we have objects that both help us be historically aware and express something that shouldn’t be expressed, and I haven’t heard anything to suggest that it is impossible to achieve the same degree of historical awareness without the expression.

    Finally, a quick thing about the potential costs of vandalism: given that vandalism is typically seen as subversive, is there a concern that vandalism might increase the sense that the current population supports the original message? If the statue is just left as it is, then maybe it’s just been forgotten. But if it’s vandalized then the public has explicitly refused to take it down. This might not speak against vandalism all things considered, of course, but it might be yet another reason to focus on more effective public action.

    *Although I also think a missing consideration here is that even people who are no longer oppressed might have an interest in not being surrounded by constant reminders that they once were.

  5. Thank you both for paper and commentary. I quite like thinking about history and what we do with it, so it’s a pleasure to watch the subject gain traction in philosophy. However, I am worried that the paper does not quite give history its due. Specifically, I’m worried that the paper does not give enough weight to memorials as works of history, and consequently misses what is most significant about memorials. I have two ways of getting at the point.

    (1) The Emmett Till memorial.

    The dialectic when discussing removalism, including this paper, proceeds from the assumption that it is the initial memorial which either is or represents something unethical and that the intervention is done to the end of furthering justice. However, this is not always the case. Several years ago, Mississippi erected a plaque to memorialize the lynching of Emmett Till. Till, a Black teenager, had been lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Two white men were tried for his murder but acquitted, and his lynching is taken to be representative of the evil of the Jim Crow era. The initial plaque was often shot at, and had to be replaced several times until last year a bulletproof plaque was erected.

    I take it that this fits what Lim calls vandalism. Parties, unknown but presumably promoting racism, are vandalizing the memorial and through that vandalism communicating their beliefs. Now, it seems evident to me that Till’s memorial is not in need of a racist rebuttal. However, Lim’s paper does not seem to give us a good way of understanding why the racist’s vandalism is impermissible. The self-respect and remembrance desiderata also don’t seem to capture what’s wrong: the problem with the racist intervention is not that it undermine’s anyone’s self-worth; rather the wrong seems to be that there is a rebuttal at all. I understand this as indicating that there is a way in which history is important that is not captured by either the self-respect or remembrance desiderata.

    (2) What Preservationists are Preserving

    Lim writes that vandalism may satisfy both the self-respect and remembrance desiderata in part by preserving the initial monument. I believe this misunderstands how the monument ‘works’. The monument, as a memorial, offers a particular conception of the past. Certain figures or events are not just presented as important, but presented as important for particular reasons. They are important because, in part, they are situated at a particular point in a historical narrative. So, for example, Sir John A Macdonald is important because he was Canada’s first Prime Minister, and he is important because he sits at a particular point in the historical narrative of Canada.

    What preservationists seek to preserve is the history, and the monument is only important in that sense as a work of history. If vandalism succeeds in the way that Lim requires it to succeed — a way in which I’ll read as affecting the affective and aesthetic engagement with the monument — then it changes the history the monument represents. So Macdonald, for instance, is no longer simply represented as the founder of Canada but as a genocidaire. While the piece of rock that constituted the monument may still stand, the history it represents has been substantially re-written. Consequently, what the preservations seek to preserve has not been preserved, and vandalism is not readily compatible with preservationism.

  6. It is great seeing the insightful comments so far, and thanks all. Here’s my last contribution for tonight.

    I highly recommend reading Chong-Ming Lim’s paper alongside Ten-Herng Lai’s excellent recent piece, ‘Political vandalism as counter-speech: A defense of defacing and destroying tainted monuments’ (European Journal of Philosophy, 2020). The two papers differ from each other in important ways, and they also complement each other, as I explain below.

    Like Lim, Ten-Herng Lai defends political vandalism as a response to monuments. However, Ten-Herg Lai’s claim is not that vandalism is better than removal. On the contrary, he states ‘Tainted political symbols out to be confronted, removed, or at least recontextualized.’ Where officials fail in their duties to confront or remove problematic statues, then vandalism offers a legitimate form of counter-speech. Thus there is no reason, on Lai’s view, to favour vandalism over removal. Another difference is that Chong-Ming Lim restricts himself to claiming that vandalism can be an appropriate response, whereas Lai goes a step further and argues that it can be obligatory. A third difference is that they adopt opposing views on the ‘publicity requirement’ of civil disobedience. It is often thought that in order for direct action to count as civil disobedience, the agent must be prepared to defend the action in public, with willingness to accept punishment as evidence of one’s sincerity. Chong-Ming Lim accepts the publicity requirement, and concludes that people who engage in vandalism should be prepared to explain and defend their actions in public. Ten-Herng Lai, by contrast, rejects the publicity requirement. He holds that it is right and reasonable for individuals to block what they perceive as hate speech, and that there should be no further requirement for them to make identities public and accept legal consequences. As he puts it, ‘Requiring punishment acceptance is effectively placing additional obstacles to hinder the struggle against injustice’ (611).

    The two papers are highly complementary, on the other hand, in that their discussions cover different dimensions of the problem of contested heritage. Lim devotes much of his paper to charitably spelling out arguments for removal and preservation, and to perceptively examining many of the pragmatic and political limitations of counter-monuments and historic plaques (points I hope will come up in the discussion at some stage).

    Ten-Herng Lai, on the other hand, delves into the mechanics of vandalism and monuments as speech acts, and since this contributes to a fuller picture of the topic it is worth summarizing a few of those details here. Lai argues that commemorations are wrong when they involve *derogatory pedestalling*, which he defines as ‘the glorification or honoring of certain individuals or ideologies that can only make sense when members of a targeted group are taken to be inferior’ (602). He then extends the existing literature on hate speech to explain why vandalism is a fitting response (namely, that it blocks a hateful message). Lai likens derogatory pedestalling to a form of hate speech. If someone expresses a hateful message and nobody speaks up, then there is a presumption that the message is accepted. By speaking up, however, the message is blocked; the counter-speech signals to the community that this speech is disputed, and this disrupts at least part of the hateful message. Lai argues that political vandalism is fitting counter-speech, and can be obligatory in the absence of other good options. He considers a number of counterarguments, including the argument that political vandalism coercively inhibits free speech, and replies that there are limits to free speech. And he rejects the argument that we should leave statues uncontested because communities should respect each other’s heroes. He says ‘I doubt that tolerating tainted symbols and telling the already disadvantaged to endure is “healthy”’ (612), explaining that we must be careful about the use of apparently liberal ideals to keep hierarchies in place. Requiring the disadvantaged to tolerate the opposing groups’ derogatory pedestalling is, he argues, counterproductive to future social harmony.

    As this comparative summary shows, these two excellent papers have instructive similarities and differences, and are worth reading side by side.

  7. Just a quick follow-up on Joanna’s question about the publicity requirement. Chong-Ming, I believe you wanted to accept the publicity requirement without accepting a requirement to endure punishment. In reality, though, publicity will typically at least increase the risk that one will be subject to punishment. This is especially true if the publicity requirement is meant to include publicity about who vandalized. So, first, do you take it to include this? If so, can you really distance yourself from the punishment requirement (and is that a problem)? If not, would you be comfortable with fully anonymized publicity?

  8. Many thanks to everyone for your responses so far, and apologies for my late reply! The comments you’ve raised have been wonderfully thought-provoking, and I hope I do some justice to them in my response.

    I agree with Joanna Burch-Brown that the Boxill/Douglass argument that standing up for oneself can be an important contribution to one’s sense of self-worth is really pertinent – doing so is a way of claiming that you can’t and refuse to be treated a certain way. For many people, especially members of historically marginalised or oppressed groups, this is a sufficiently weighty reason such that we don’t have to worry too much about other countervailing considerations. But there may remain a worry, as she observes, about the negative effects of such potentially harsh speech.

    I wonder, however, if we can see things slightly differently. One point that’s commonly raised by activists (especially those from, or on behalf of, historically marginalised or oppressed groups) is that some members of society simply haven’t been regarded as appropriately included within the broader community. In that sense, the division which we are asking activists to avoid creating *already* exists. This division is not created by activist action (though it may be deepened by it), and it does not go away with activist inaction. It is also unclear that it would be ameliorated by activists’ opting for gentle speech. This is what I was gesturing to when I suggested, earlier, that the worries that we have about harsh speech do not attach uniquely to vandalism.

    Burch-Brown’s strategy seems to be to restrict such speech to contexts of transition – in these contexts, the good of standing for oneself outweighs the potential bad of social division. I puzzle about the character of such a transition, if it were to occur. Are we talking about transition in a full-blooded sense, in which members of a dominant or historically-oppressive group come to see the errors of their ways, and in which they work together with those who have been excluded to ensure that everyone has equal standing within the broader community? If so, there is a sense in which the harsh speech is transformed *retrospectively* – the harshness or radicality of the act/speech was needed to prompt (or even facilitate) necessary reflection. In such a case, we may not need to worry too much – I think – about leaving the statues vandalised. Suppose, however, that we are not talking about transition in a full-blooded sense – marginalised or oppressed members are “granted” some additional entitlements or liberties, but major changes to the basic structure of their situation are still required. Perhaps members of dominant groups still do not fully accept that the ways they have been treating others are mistaken. In such a case, vandalism and vandalised statues are likely to be continue being regarded as harsh speech. Those who worry about the negative effects of harsh speech are likely to continue worrying about it in this context. But is this not, also, a transitional context? If so, and on Burch-Brown’s own terms, we shouldn’t worry too much about harsh speech either. It still has an important and powerful role to play in continuing and furthering the process of transition.


    Many thanks to Erich Hatala Matthes for you and your students’ questions.

    I have also been thinking about whether vandalism might itself require some kind of contextualisation to be legible, and I’m inclined to the affirmative response.

    There seem to be two related problems here – one general, the other specific. The general problem is that vandalism – as a type of action – is typically stigmatised. It is often regarded as a wanton or gratuitous act that doesn’t convey any message (or any that we need to pay attention to). Vandals – as a type of agent – are typically regarded as people who are ignorant, deviant, transgressive, or unrepresentative of members within the community (more on this later). So there’s a worry that any act of vandalism requires some contextualisation to be legible as protest, or even more minimally, as communication. We can do a number of things in response to this. We can try to augment the status of vandals and vandalism by refraining from describing them in prejudiced ways, or by having representative individuals or collectives speak out in support of them (or explain what they’re about). We could also try to broaden our understanding – through campaigns or even incorporation in history textbooks – of what is legible as protest, including within the set even uncivil and radical actions that were crucial for the success of social and political movements in the past.

    The specific problem – which Matthes has raised – is that some acts of vandalism may be readily legible as communicative or as protest, whereas others may not. Often, and as Matthes points out, this is because the injustice in concern isn’t well known at the point of vandalism. I agree that this is a point where contextualisation would be helpful, if understood as a project of disseminating information about the injustice in concern. This is especially so if the problematic commemoration is connected to existing inequalities, be they material or interpersonal.

    But this kind of contextualisation seems to be importantly different from the one I’ve discussed in the paper. The contextualisation here is a prerequisite or precondition for us to make sense of vandalism (or specific acts of vandalism) directed at problematic commemorations as a protest against injustice. It is not so much a direct answer to the question of how we should treat problematic commemorations, as it is an answer to the question of how we can make sense of a specific treatment of problematic commemorations. The contextualisation discussed in the paper, on the other hand, is a response to the question of how we should treat problematic commemorations.

    All this being said, there are some parallels between the two kinds of contextualisations which I am just noticing. Depending on how information about the problematic commemoration is disseminated, it may be subject to the worries of relative accessibility, distance and prominence, discussed in the paper. It also does not appear to satisfactorily secure the self-respect desideratum – even if extensive contextualisation were provided. This, I gather, is what we can glean from activists’ refusal to settle for contextualising problematic commemorations. In this respect, there may still be good reasons for vandalism as a response to the tainted commemorations. Doing so may also be more effective at disseminating information about the injustice in concern.

    The question of whether a publicity or communicative requirement would unduly curtail activists’ means and detract from the focus on demonstrating self-respect to themselves is interesting. First, I think that we should situate Boxill’s discussions in the context of the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois with which he starts his essay – of whether protesting *when one can do nothing to right it*, is self-respecting. In the context we are discussing, I take it that vandalism and the surrounding protests are part of a broader project of righting the wrong (of having monuments dedicated to persons responsible for injustice). So, there is a sense in which vandalism – if it is successful in transforming the problematic commemoration from a public honouring to a public repudiation – does right the wrong. Second, and setting this aside, even if we think that vandalism as protest does nothing to right the wrong, there is still room, in Boxill’s discussions, to see why there can be something like a communicative requirement. Consider, for instance, Boxill’s claim that “[b]ecause he wants to know himself as self-respecting, the powerless but self-respecting person is driven to make others take him seriously.” Even if we think that the primary point of protest is to demonstrate self-respect to oneself, its satisfaction of a communicative requirement may nonetheless be necessary – if only because it is the publicity of the protest that secures self-respect for oneself.

    Third, and this is connected to David Faraci’s point that publicity will typically at least increase the risk that the vandal will be subject to punishment. I should have been careful to note, in the paper, that I understand the communicative requirement as being quite relaxed – it may be satisfied, I think, when activists as a group take responsibility for the actions of a singular vandal. This is not an ad hoc revision; instead, it is intimately connected to the activists’ project of securing self-respect. Recall that their goal is to mitigate uncertainties about and insecurities in the sources of some members of society’s self-respect. A singular act of vandalism (especially by someone who is regarded as non-representative) is unlikely to do very much in furthering this goal, even if the vandal herself takes public responsibility. When we situate the publicity or communicative requirement in the context of this goal, we see that it is perhaps not so important whether this or that activist comes forward as the person who vandalised this or that statue. Instead, the crucial point is whether their act receives support from others in ways that mitigate the relevant uncertainties and insecurities (see pp. 210-211 of my paper).


    Many thanks to David Faraci for your comments.

    On the issue of private action: is it “private” in the sense that the originators of the action are individuals acting in their private capacity, rather than state actors taking official positions? That may be right, but perhaps not the whole picture. Upon the act of vandalism, the state has to take a stand. Either it rejects the act, in which case the act remains firmly as a private response, or it endorses it (by allowing the commemorations to remain vandalised), in which case the act becomes (is co-opted as) a public response. As I suggest in the paper (pp. 211-212), the request is for the state to be participants in securing self-respect, in a way that is not categorically different from what they are asked to do when it comes to establishing counter-commemorations or adding contextualising plaques.

    I don’t think that the value of historical awareness gives us – not directly, at least – reason to make tons of statues to all the things we might forget. The contexts in which existing commemorations are established is perhaps instructive. They are set up so that we don’t forget some important person or persons’ contributions (and the values or ideals underlying and guiding the latter), which are of especial importance to the community and the identities of its members. If we work with this, we have reason only to make statues for things that cross some threshold of significance for the community. The worry about proliferation may not be that urgent.

    You’re right, however, that part of the difficulty is that the things that seemed to render some people or events worthy of remembrance are exactly the things we wish to repudiate. Here, I think that what is at stake is not simply the reasons we have to remember the past. Instead, it is about how those reasons are connected to the reasons we have for preserving problematic commemorations. On this point, I think that the preservationists’ claim is not that we should continue to commemorate – or judge as worthy of commemoration – the things we now wish to repudiate. Instead, their claim seems to be that we should remember that at some point in the past, some people just like you and me thought that a particular person or event was worthy of commemoration (or of honouring). When specified this way, we don’t seem to run into the issue of implicitly endorsing the reasons supporting the initial commemoration. Indeed, it may be accompanied – as I suggest – with outright repudiation (via vandalism).

    I find the idea of having massive contextualising plaques really interesting. I had only briefly gestured to it in the paper, without elaboration (p. 206). I certainly think an imposing plaque could help us be historically aware while avoiding the problem of having the problematic statue around in the first place. That is, instead of having “hateful speech + public repudiation”, we simply have “remembrance”. I think this could also satisfy, in principle, the preservationists’ requirement that our dealings with the past be public and incorporated (pp. 194-195). We are, however, likely to find that preservationists will disagree with this. Perhaps they also endorse something like a “specificity” requirement, where we must remember *in full detail* the fact that at some point people thought that someone was worthy of commemoration. Perhaps this specificity requirement could even be understood as a more stringent formulation of the incorporation requirement, which only requires that we remember that same point. There may, however, be reasons from the activist side for not having something like this – which ties in with the worries about relative accessibility and prominence. Of course, these worries are not insurmountable. If the plaques you are thinking of do succeed on these fronts, then I’m happy to accept that they are responses that meet, in principle, the demands of the two opposing views I’ve discussed.

    It’s certainly possible that when some statues are left as they are, they may simply be forgotten. This is especially so if the statues are located in non-prominent places, or if they have been moved to some place like the Coronation Park (New Delhi), Fallen Monument Park (Moscow) or Memento Park (Budapest). In these cases, we may be content to let the statues remain in whatever state they’re in; we leave them to slowly fade from memory. But the cases we are discussing are not quite the same. In many of them, the problematic commemoration occupies a position of prominence or honour; they’re not forgotten. So there remains a question of what we should do about them.

    On the worry that vandalism might increase the sense that the current population supports the original message – I think much of it would depend on how things play out. Of course, the fact that activists must resort to this subversive action may imply that the public is generally against its removal. This is indeed a problem, especially if it contributes to the uncertainties and insecurities of some people about their standing within the community. I think, however, that this problem may be mitigated by having various groups come out in support of the act of vandalism and of allowing the commemoration to remain vandalised. This may convey the message that the statue was left standing not because of public endorsement, but because of public inaction, or lack of coordination, etc. Those are not easy pills to swallow, for silence is often taken to indicate assent (of some sort). But the subsequent statements of support may well make up for that.


    More comments below

  9. Many thanks to Daniel Abrahams for your comments.

    First, I agree that it is not always the case that memorials either is or represents something unethical. In the paper, I discuss only the subset of commemorations of that *are* characterised in that way. There are two issues here. One concerns what we should do about problematic commemorations (in the way I have defined them). Another concerns what we should do about people targeting non-problematic commemorations, often for bad reasons. My discussions are restricted to the former issue. I do not take my conclusions to extend easily to the latter issue. In fact, I don’t even take my conclusions as extending easily to all other problematic commemorations or items in general. Importantly, there are some things (like artistic masterpieces) for which we have strong aesthetic reasons for preservation (pp. 215-216). These will require further work to untangle.

    Returning to the latter issue, for which the Emmett Till memorial is a good example, I don’t think that activists who are concerned with securing self-respect, and preservationists who are concerned with facilitating historical awareness, will disagree about what to do. In this sense, you are right that my paper does not give us a good way of understanding why the racist’s vandalism of the Emmett Till memorial is impermissible. Hopefully, that case, along with the latter issue, will be the subject of a subsequent paper.

    Second, what we think of the preservationists you’ve described will depend on the specifics. For instance, it seems possible to represent Macdonald as the “founder” of Canada *and* as a genocidaire. That is, it seems possible to recognise the point in history in which Macdonald featured, and to which he contributed, while at the same time holding on to a fuller picture of what that specifically involved – namely, genocide. This view seems to be compatible, in principle, with changing how we relate to existing problematic commemorations of Macdonald. It may also be compatible with removing problematic commemorations. For instance, the Canadian Historical Association in 2018 voted decisively (though not unanimously) to remove the name of Macdonald from their book prize, citing as a reason the inappropriateness of commemorating him given his actions (see https://cha-shc.ca/_uploads/5bf5c0b5a9df9.pdf , pp. 1-3).

    But these don’t seem to describe the preservationists you’ve referred to, who seem to want to preserve not simply the problematic commemorations themselves (when understood as a physical thing), but also a specific *narrative* of the history centring on that commemoration, and specific ways of engaging with them (perhaps of admiration rather than disgust). In this respect, I am inclined to take a resolute stance. I accept that vandalism is not compatible with this variant of preservationism; what I reject is that the commitments underlying this variant should set constraints on our treatment of problematic commemorations. Insofar as these narratives – of Macdonald as being, uncomplicatedly, the founder of Canada – are problematically incomplete, they should be substantially rewritten. This is connected to the more general point raised earlier by Joanna Burch-Brown, on my focus on some but not all preservationists.


    Many thanks, again, to Joanna Burch-Brown, this time for an attentive and illuminating comparison of my paper alongside Ten-Herng Lai’s paper.

    I’d like to enter one quick point of clarification. My concern with the publicity or communicative requirement that vandals must satisfy is not so much connected to the demand to engage in civil (rather than uncivil) disobedience, as it is to the activists’ project of mitigating uncertainties about and insecurities in the sources of some members of society’s self-respect (see my response to Erich Matthes and David Faraci, above). Because of this, I don’t buy into the additional requirements that often accompany the publicity requirement. Whether, for instance, vandals submit (or be willing to submit) themselves to punishment is a separate issue from the efficacy of their act in securing the self-respect and preservationist desiderata (see p. 210, n. 45). On this issue, then, I am happy to agree with Lai’s point that *requiring* vandals to accept punishment is to place unnecessary obstacles in their struggle against injustice.

    I agree with Lai, too, that vandalism can be a fitting response to problematic commemorations, and which, moreover, may in some cases “undo” the speech of such commemorations. In a forthcoming paper, I elaborate on my suggestion that vandalism can *transform* a problematic commemoration from a public honouring to a public repudiation (p. 208, in this paper). Specifically, I discuss some obstacles to such transformation – the lowly status of vandals (as agents) and vandalism (as actions), the pervasive view that heritage is something positive, and the complaint that vandalised artefacts are “ugly” – and outline some suggestions on how they may be overcome. I see this as complementary to Lai’s discussions of this issue in his paper (specifically, pp. 606-608).


    Many thanks, again, for the insightful and challenging comments so far!

  10. Hello all,
    CM mentioned in his reply that we spoke briefly about the objection from Buddhism. I thought I’d chime in to flesh out what I was thinking a little.

    Prominent Buddhist figures using harsh language isn’t rare. A good example is outlined by Malcolm David Eckel’s chapter of the volume, Madhyamaka and Yogācāra: allies or rivals? (2015). Madhyamaka and Yogācāra are two schools of Buddhist philosophy. Bhāviveka is from the Madhyamaka school and Asaṅga is one of the founders of the Yogācāra school. The example in question is Bhāviveka’s response to a perceived sleight to his school from Asaṅga.

    This is how Bhāviveka quotes Asaṅga (Eckel’s translation):
    “If nothing is real, there cannot be any ideas. Someone who holds this view is a nihilist, with whom one should not speak or share living quarters. This person falls into a bad rebirth and takes others with him.”

    Taking this as an attack on the Madhyamaka school – which is commonly criticised as nihilistic – Bhāviveka retorts:
    iti dveṣāmiṣodgāro ‘bhimānājīrṇasūcakaḥ //
    “These angry words are like vomit: they show undigested pride.”

    I’ll quote Eckel’s own commentary on this line: “The Sanskrit is somewhat more colorful than my bland English translation. The word “vomit” (āmiṣodgāra) actually refers to vomit of raw flesh or carrion—not an appealing image. What kind of creature would throw up undigested carrion? No doubt some kind of scavenger. I imagine that Bhāviveka is saying, in scarcely veiled terms, that the Yogācārins are no better than dogs.” (p.129)

    Apart from the word that Eckel translates as “angry” (dveṣa), the word he translates as “pride” (abhimāna) may also be used to mean “maliciousness”. So there are good reasons to read this as Bhāviveka censuring Asaṅga for expressing so much vitriol towards Mādhyamikas. The thing is: Bhāviveka uses even harsher language to do so! We might conclude that Bhāviveka does take seriously the danger of harsh speech, but nevertheless thinks it is justified to use it as a corrective measure.

    Of course, we might want to argue that both Asaṅga and Bhāviveka are being unskilful in these passages (they are, after all, accusing each other of all sorts of things). But I think there is plenty reason to think that the skilfulness of harsh speech is very sensitive to context. As Burch-Brown rightly notes, Buddhist ethics is focused on consequences. Sometimes some harshness might be needed to show people the error of their ways. Even if this feels bad for the recipient at the time, it might lead them to more compassion in the future (or at least less likelihood to cause harm) where gentleness would not. Judging from the responses, it looks like this might be something CM and Burch-Brown can agree on.

    Thanks to all for a very insightful conversation!

  11. Thanks, Chong-Ming. Two follow-ups: First, yes, by “private” action I just meant action taken unilaterally by individuals; I did not mean the action was not “public” in an important sense. My point was just that you moved away from direct (as opposed to responsive—such as leaving the vandalism) action taken as a matter of public policy, and that this might be read as implying that where direct public policy is concerned, the cases for removal and preservation are roughly equally strong expressions of incommensurable values, and there are no appropriate compromises. Since I am having trouble seeing a plausible preservationist case, that seems to me to make their case look stronger than it is.

    This brings me, second, to your suggestion about retaining historical awareness of the fact that people felt something worthy of commemoration. Surely the fact that people thought something worth commemorating is itself just another fact that must pass the threshold of significance to merit a statue. I see no reason to think such facts will always (or even typically) cross that threshold. Obviously, we haven’t said where the threshold is. But there are plenty of things we don’t feel the need to have statues for that seem to me far more significant to a community than the fact that some people thought racist actions deserved statues.

    This issue is exacerbated if we try to add a specificity requirement, since surely the threshold for “full” commemoration would be higher. There are also concerns about what “in full detail” means here, especially given that, as Joanna discussed, in many cases the activists believe that the original statue misrepresents history, a concern which, echoing your arguments, may not be addressable merely through nondestructive actions like adding plaques or counter-memorials. Ultimately, I just find it very hard to imagine a plausible account of the value of historical awareness that would vindicate the preservationist position in most of the cases this topic brings to mind.

  12. For me as a campaigner, the motivation has always been to find a route into challenging structural injustices. The hypothesis is: If you give the statues a shake, then the structures will wobble. When that happens, you have a chance to bring about structural change. Whether bigger change happens or the structures just stabilize depends on follow-through and on social dynamics.

    Since my goals are certainly larger scale, it very much matters to me what the overall impact is on public attitudes. I don’t think we can tell what these effects are by looking at a single moment in time. People can react defensively in the moment, and then later on settle down and absorb the message. But it can also go the other way, so we really need to be artful here, not rely too much on hunch and intuition, and actually listen and talk to people over time, to figure out how actions are being interpreted and absorbed by people across a range of social positions.

    My strong intuition is that if segments of the public feel that they (or nearby others) are becoming the targets of hateful and derisory attitudes, then the overall effect will be to entrench hostilities and fix an ‘Ethos of Conflict’ (see fascinating work by Daniel Bar-Tal and Eran Halperin).

    More soon!

  13. Earlier, I said that I think it is helpful to ask whether a given strategy for contested heritage creates a good environment for children, and meet’s children’s needs. CM said he wasn’t sure what I had in mind. Thank you, CM, for inviting me to elaborate on this!

    I suppose I mean that our public environments should help parents to introduce children to challenging parts of a community’s history, in ways that are safe and developmentally appropriate. The ideal, to my mind, is through memorials that tell the history forthrightly and respectfully, with options for parents to choose how far to go into more challenging material at a given stage, and with aesthetically powerful space for reflection.

    Racist statues don’t fit the bill. Children tend to be delighted by statues. And they also are very tuned in to the importance of standing up for what is right; and they have strong needs for trust. As a parent, this leaves you with a very strange dilemma. When your 3-year-old child runs to the statue in delight and says ‘Who is this?!’, what do you tell them? If you say, ‘Well, actually this is a statue of a person who did some pretty terrible things’, this is confusing and disturbing for a child, who asks, ‘then why is there a statue of them?’ You can figure out answers, and yes, there is a lesson here, but I don’t personally think this is the best way to introduce children to the profound injustices of history and the present. I feel this should be done through museums and memorials that are more forthright and clear in their messages.

    On the other hand, statues that have been vandalised in derisory or harsh ways are also not particularly good for children, because they create a sense of insecurity and threat. Beheading statues, painting them with blood and scrawling epithets are all forms of expression that I think are not ideal from the perspective of child-friendly environments. Some of these use violent imagery and symbolism. It isn’t good for children to see violent images on their streets (and I’m not sure it is good for adults either).

    On the other hand, I’m coming around to thinking that my concern isn’t really about vandalism as such, but against harsh modes of vandalism. I can imagine a community deciding that its statue of Robert E. Lee will now be a graffiti park, and regularly repainting it in all different colourful ways, starting with psychedelic swirls or rainbow colours. I like this idea, actually. I hereby propose this…

    We do need to introduce children to information about historical injustice, but it is best to do so in a way where the message that is conveyed first and foremost is that they are and deserve to be safe and protected; that differences are to be respected; and that social injustices can be overcome when ordinary people come together (see Bree Picower’s 6 Elements of Social Justice Education).

  14. Thanks Justin for providing a very helpful elaboration of and context for harsh speech in Buddhism.

    Thanks for your follow-up comments, David. I see now that I had misunderstood your earlier point about private action. I don’t think that no appropriate compromises exist when we’re thinking about direct public policy. One candidate policy that could secure both desiderata might be to invite representative members of formerly oppressed groups, or artists and citizens in general, to modify (including vandalise) problematic commemorations (p. 212-213 of my paper). This can be something the state takes a direct and active role in bringing about, rather than being responsive in the way that you have described.

    There is still, of course, the worry that even if such a compromise exists, it relies on a characterisation of the preservationist position that is stronger than it is. (And I agree that the worry about the plausibility of the preservationist position seems to be exacerbated if we try to add a specificity requirement to it.) If the preservationist position is simply implausible, then we may not need to take it seriously when we think about our treatment of problematic commemorations. I share your concerns. In the paper, I express some ambivalence about the activist and preservationist positions alike, but state that I do not take a stance on their plausibility (p. 198). It may even turn out, upon further examination, that one or both of the positions don’t present a conclusive case for how we should deal with problematic commemorations. In that sense, my discussions don’t imply that where direct public policy is concerned, the cases for removal and preservation are equally strong. Instead, my discussions begin by setting that issue aside.

    This response is admittedly unsatisfactory (slippery, even!). The following comment may be mitigatory. There is a puzzle of why there are eminent historians, among others, who hold the preservationist view. There is a further puzzle of why historians seem to be more likely to care about preservation than philosophers. In light of these, I thought it would be best to give the preservationist position as good a characterisation as I can give, rather than set it aside prematurely (or to simply write a paper supporting vandalism from the activist position, which Ten-Herng Lai has done). Of course, at this point this is nothing more than an appeal to (historians’) authority. Perhaps we (myself included) may eventually decide that the preservationist position on problematic commemoration is simply implausible – in which case, I would be happy to be corrected.

    I had intended the point on thresholds of significance to apply to creating statues, but as you point out, it appears to readily apply to preserving statues too. But I think the two kinds of cases are different. On the one hand, we are selecting someone or something to establish a commemoration of, where there isn’t already one (or, at least, where there isn’t already one in the place that the commemoration is intended). On the other, we are deciding whether to preserve or remove an existing commemoration that was established because some people in the past thought it was significant enough for their community. Whatever disagreements we may have at the point of establishing commemorations (and there typically are serious contestations during the process of establishment), once they are established they play a role in legitimising themselves. The message they send – especially about values and ideals – tend to be taken as commonplace, even if they are not always accepted or embraced. People also form attachments to them, weaving them (and the narratives about and justifications for them) into their identities and senses of self (Joanna Burch-Brown’s commentary discusses this eloquently). Even if we judge that, on the whole, the person or event simply shouldn’t have been commemorated in the first place, *these other things* seem very important to remember. So, and qualifying my earlier response, we’re not looking at simply remember the fact that people thought racist actions deserved statues, but also these other things.


    Now thinking about Joanna’s response; more soon!

  15. While CM is pondering my last post …

    Justin, your example is fabulous, and thank you! That’s fascinating, although I have to admit that the skillfulness of this particular speech isn’t obvious to me. : ) Maybe you had to be there! To my mind it seems to illustrate the point that harsh speech tends to prompt harsh counter-speech. Do we find out what happens next in the story??

    I recognize the idea that harsh speech can sometimes startle people into an awakening, and I’ve noticed examples in Zen Buddhism of harsh speech for this purpose. However, I think the presumption lies in the other direction. Within accounts of the eight-fold path (addressing view or understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and samadhi or concentration), the training on speech involves abstaining from lying, idle gossip, divisive speech generating enmity and hatred, and harsh speech. So abstention from harsh and divisive speech features prominently in most accounts of Buddhist ethics of speech – and intuitively from experience I feel that it is better to assume a presumption against it.

    (Yes, indeed, this goes far beyond statues!)

  16. Thanks, Joanna, for elaborating on your earlier comments. They’re really helpful, and I have a better sense of the difficulties that you’re concerned about.

    I think you’re right that we shouldn’t disregard public attitudes about activist actions, because they do affect (often quite strongly) how effective activists are (or will be) in achieving their broadest goal of mitigating or eliminating injustices. This is a chance, too, for me to elaborate on an earlier remark. Radical acts, including vandalism, are often viewed negatively. Among other things, they are criticised for being ineffective for or counterproductive to achieving activists’ goals. Insofar as generating an ethos of conflict may be ineffective or counterproductive in these ways, it appears that activists have good reason to avoid engaging in them. However, radical acts may serve goals that critics have missed. Among other things, activists may also be interested in generating publicity, starting discussions, sparking and sustaining interests, or building solidarity with other activists or simply protesting against everyday practices. An action that is ineffective or counterproductive with regards to one goal may instead serve other goals. It seems that we should be cautious on two issues. We must not assume that one goal (or a subset of them) is the most fundamental, and the only goal against which the assessments of the effectiveness or counterproductivity of acts are to be made. Moreover, even if there were indeed one fundamental goal (perhaps the most general one) – and one which is endorsed by the disobedients themselves – we must not assume that disobedients must always act in ways that directly and immediately serve that goal.

    I also have a suspicion about how the worry about creating a negative impact on public attitudes is often used (or misused) by some people to constrain activism, in ways that actually diminish their effectiveness at mitigating or eliminating injustice. There may be circumstances where behaving in ways that don’t create an overall negative impact on public attitudes may not be effective at bringing about change. The relevant causal chains are obviously difficult to trace; the task is made more difficult by the fact that radical actions may have “flank effect” on moderate activists’ successes. I don’t think historians or social scientists have come to a settled view on the effectiveness of radical action, and in any case there’s a lot of work that I’ve yet to go through – so I’m not taking a stance on this issue here. But this suspicion seems to be worth taking seriously.

    I’ve thought regrettably little about children in general, so please bear with these brief and rough thoughts. I agree that we should think about how leaving problematic commemorations vandalised will affect children. But I wonder about the weight of this consideration relative to that of securing self-respect. Two considerations seem to be relevant here. First, children’s introduction to vandalised commemorations and their surrounding history – which may very well be scary or disturbing to them – need not be done by interacting immediately with the commemorations. It appears possible to prepare children, in safe (or safer) spaces, before they encounter something like this. Parents already do this for a whole range of scary things – crossing the road, making purchases from strangers in shops, etc – and it seems like we could add this to the list. Second, and relatedly, it seems that we may reasonably ask parents to prepare their children to confront scary public spaces and statues. In contrast, it seems that we may not reasonably ask them to prepare their children to confront spaces and statues which introduce uncertainties and insecurities about their status as equals within the community.

    Perhaps your suggestion – of painting and repainting problematic commemorations in different colourful ways – might be a good way of balancing the competing considerations here. But I suppose a lot would depend on the specifics. Would a problematic statue painted in colourful ways secure the self-respect desiderata, which we began with? And may it make it even more attractive and therefore confusing for children, to whom explanations must now be given for why the aesthetically pleasing statue is a way of rejecting someone who’s done really terrible things? I don’t have good responses to these questions; it would be interesting to hear what you and others think about this.

  17. Thanks, Chong-Ming, that’s all super helpful. Consider two possible projects. One is to offer the best possible case for both sides. A second is to explain what’s actually motivating those who support both sides. It is tempting to read you as engaging in the former project (a number of Joanna’s concerns seem to be about the latter). But I worry what you actually did—understandably, in order to make room for your point about vandalism, which I take to be your central interest—was simply to identify the values involved in the best possible case for both sides, but without actually carrying through to show how those values support the relevant positions. Again there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. But consider your puzzle about eminent historians. Your discussion might seem to imply that because of their positions and interests, these historians recognize that the value of historical awareness speaks in favor of preservation. But it seems to me at least as likely that because of their positions and interests, these historians misconstrue both the nature of the relevant value, as well as its comparative weight, leading them to vastly overestimate the strength of the case for preservation. Of course, you didn’t explicitly say anything against this, so I don’t mean this to be a criticism of the contents of your arguments. It’s more of a dialectical concern: it can be dangerous to merely identify values in this way, because “this genuine value supports preservation” is naturally read as implicating “this genuine value supports preservation to a sufficient degree to be create a presumptive case for preservation.”

    As to your point about the asymmetry between establishing and protecting statues: I agree that people form attachments to things and that this should be taken into account. I personally find that a rather weak consideration when it comes to things that express disrespect. But setting that aside, this point seems likely to be part of the explanation for your point about historians: surely they are amongst those most likely to have such attachments! It is then an open question whether this should be seen as revelatory or biasing (though you might guess my view).

  18. Oh, I think there is a great deal to be said for whimsy. Thank you for entertaining the Rainbow Robert idea, CM.

    In Odessa, they converted a statue of Lenin into a statue of Darth Vader, which seems like a stroke of genius.

    In the paper I mentioned earlier, I argue that a great range of strategies can potentially work well for handling contested heritage. A test is to ask how to ensure that whatever strategy we adopt, it is consistent with rights identified in the UN Guidelines on Transitional Justice – namely rights to justice (accountability), truth (acknowledgement), symbolic and material reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence. I suggest there that many strategies can be consistent with these. And I argue that many or most successful strategies for responding to contested heritage involve some form of celebratory, inclusive reclaiming, very broadly conceived. As I put it in the paper, ‘Reclaiming refers to any strategy that adopts a previously pejorative symbol and resignifies it to create a new symbol of pride and affirmation, in a way that empowers a previously disempowered group. Reclaiming involves symbolic reconfigurations. It takes metaphors, meanings and associations that previously seemed rigid, fixed and negative and recombines them to generate new meanings.’ It can be consistent with removal (turning a location of a former statue into a site of memory), preservation (turning a preserved statue into a site of reparative activity and guerilla interventions), and of course many kinds of recontextualizing are forms of reclaiming. Ideally reclaiming involves symbolical transformations building pride, identity and commitment to repairing injustices.

    In any case, a rainbow-graffitied statue seems like a delightful option to experiment with, in statue-reclaiming. It neutralizes the threat and the authority, levels the pitch and creates a welcoming space. I’m not worried about the fact that kids would enjoy it more. You can also have an interpretive plaque. *Readers, if you try this in your hometown, let me know how you get on.*

  19. Hi David, thanks again for your helpful comments. I think you’re probably right in construing the project in this way, as identifying the values involved in the best possible case for both sides, without actually showing how the values support the relevant positions. I see this as being connected to the aim of showing that the opposing views – that we should remove or preserve problematic commemorations, rather than other nearby ways of dealing with them – are not naive, and that they are instead on to something of value (p. 189; pp. 197-198). As I see it, this is a project of rehabilitating those positions, set in a context where proponents of either position are quick to dismiss each other, and where commentators implicitly take the positions as naive in their attempt to offer “middle ground” responses to problematic commemorations. You’re right, however, that doing this runs the risk of implying that the values I have identified do support preservation (or activism) to a degree to create a presumptive case for preservation. I ought to have said more about this in the paper to resist this implication, than the simple claim that I do not take a stand on their plausibility (p. 198).

    There’s potentially another way of seeing the implications of the way the paper is framed. Suppose that I have succeeded in identifying values that feature in the best possible case for both sides, even though I do not show how those values support the relevant positions. Suppose, next, that preservationists reject my argument for vandalism. Here, it seems that they either have to point to some other value or values and explain how they also feature in the best possible case for preservationism, or, failing which, be exposed as not being really concerned about the values identified. Either way – be it elaboration or exposure – we seem to make some progress in our discussions about problematic commemorations.

    I’ve not spoken to as many historians as I would like to have, and I’m cautious about saying that the position they endorse is due simply to reasoning errors or other motives (p. 194). In fact, historians themselves recognise that preservationist claims are often supported by ulterior motives masquerading as a neutral concern with history. I think this lends indirect and partial support for taking them more seriously when they nonetheless support the preservation of problematic commemorations. Of course, all this is compatible with the possibility, upon further examination, that the preservationist position is actually mistaken.

    There’s a different way of understanding the importance of remembering that ordinary people much like you and me may, under certain circumstances, form attachments to or endorse the values and ideals underlying problematic commemorations. It is to fold, as it were, the concern with engaging with the past into the concern with self-respect. Johannes Schulz seems to do this, when he suggests that in some contexts preserving statues is the response that’s most likely to further the establishment of relations of respect (https://doi.org/10.1111/jopp.12176). On this characterisation, those concerns about historical engagement which do not serve the aim of securing self-respect appear to be set aside as illegitimate, at least when we are thinking about our responses to problematic commemorations. On Schulz’s view, then, there is no fundamental disagreement between the two opposing views, only a disagreement about which response best secures a common aim to which they are *both* committed. I don’t take this view in the paper; it may be regarded by preservationists as distorting their view and loading the die in favour of activists. But, again, I leave open the possibility that this is in fact the best possible case for preservationism.


    Thanks, Joanna, for your additional comments. I think that, yes, something like Rainbow Robert could work, if it indeed secure the self-respect desiderata. It may even be less of an eyesore than something like Headless Robert. So this could potentially be a qualification of the case for vandalism – we should eventually aim at gentler, rather than harsher, forms of vandalism. This is not to say, of course, that the latter forms of vandalism may not be important in getting us to taking something like Rainbow Robert seriously, or be important on its own terms (especially when we think about its expressive power).

  20. Thanks again, Chong-Ming! I don’t know that Schulz work; I’ll have to check it out. Also thanks again to you more broadly for participating in this, and to everyone else who participated, too!

  21. Thanks for following up on the Buddhist point, Joanna. I have a lot of sympathy for where you’re coming from. I think you’re certainly right that this example demonstrates how harshness invites harshness. I think the key issue, though, is that there are at least two interpretations of right speech at play:

    1. It’s not permitted to use language that one expects to cause offence.
    2. Verbal abuse should be avoided, but aggressive condemnation of wrongdoing is permissible even when it is expected to cause offence.

    Now there may be many arguments we can make about which interpretation is better, but my point is this: among canonical, prominent Buddhist philosophers, (2) is generally the principle being adhered to (if either). That, of course, does not mean that (2) is the correct interpretation, but it does mean that if you reject (2) for (1) you are committed to the position that these major Buddhist philosophers either didn’t understand this basic aspect of their religion or were hypocrites. That’s a tough stance to hold, even if it’s right, and that makes me wonder whether it helps your case here to raise an objection that hinges on this. It seems to me like a better strategy here would be to just argue directly for the conclusion that the distress caused by vandalism is a significant enough problem to weaken CM’s argument. Perhaps specific arguments from Buddhists could help with this, without relying on the idea that Buddhism itself condemns the behaviour in question. That way we’re not drawn into the endless night of interpreting Buddhist doctrine.

  22. Thanks to those involved for this discussion. It has been enlightening. As a rightist preservationist, it seems to me that there are too many unshared assumptions here regarding the function of monuments, their correct interpretation, the ethics of official interpretation, the rights of peoples to their heroes, and the ethics of policies around monuments in multiracial/multicultural societies to broach them here. I’d like merely to ask for a summary regarding Dr. Burch-Brown’s concern regarding reaction. Is the view that the proposed defacement would have a positive effect on race relations in Western countries? For it seems to me that if I were determined to sow the maximum amount of racial discord I could (short of crimes against actual people), it would be defacement of memorials to culture heroes. First, people “on your side” deface the monuments and memorials you want defaced. Second, people on your side deface monuments and memorials you don’t want defaced. Third, people on the other side deface monuments and memorials to your culture heroes. Things devolve from there. I don’t think monuments, as memes, evolved to serve as canaries in coal mines (Schelling points) for this sort of thing; but if they did, they couldn’t serve better to warn their supporters of what the defacers have in mind for them, unless they toe the line. So is it that this prediction is just not shared by supporters of defacement? Or is the idea that defacement would “out” at most a small number of unreconstructed types who can be easily quashed, at which point the culture could transition into a more racially just and harmonious era? Or is it that self-respect requires defacement, even if it probably will lead to destabilization of the societies in questions in ways that ultimately lead to much more injustice and may even lead to worse outcomes for the aggrieved groups? Thanks!

  23. Everyone: looking back I wasn’t as clear as I should have been. I’m just soliciting opinions on whether defacement would have the grim effects I foresee, whether the view is that those negative effects are justified, etc. I’d be happy to hear from Chong-Ming, Joanna, or anyone else. 🙂

  24. Thanks again, Justin, for elaborating on the Buddhism point.

    Thanks for joining in, Dan. The view being proposed in the paper is not that vandalism would have a positive effect on race relations. Nor is that implied by the discussions. The point is simply that vandalism is a response to problematic commemorations which respects the values grounding two dominant and opposing positions – removing or preserving them. The fact that vandalism succeeds on this front, says little the permissibility of doing so. As I suggest in the paper, other worries may rule out vandalism all-things-considered (p. 214). For one, the potential distress caused by vandalism is a consideration that needs to be taken into account in our deliberations about its overall permissibility. We should, of course, also recognise that social cohesion is not the only good. We may not always have conclusive reason to take the paths that best furthers social cohesion. This being said, accounting for and responding to considerations such as those which you have identified, will require further work.

    You’re right that there are assumptions about monuments, interpretations, rights, etc, which are not shared – even among preservationists. On this point, please see my first response to Joanna, about the kinds of preservationists that I have chosen to focus on and about how activists have reason to be cautious not to send the message that the moral community no longer protects certain groups of people. My response there extends to the concern with defacing memorials to cultural heroes – presumably, the concern with and the right to such memorials (and to having heroes in general) is not entirely content-neutral. It may be that when we are thinking about what to do about the most problematic or offensive monuments, we have good reason, all-things-considered, to remove (or vandalise) them – that is, disregarding or overriding whatever concerns, interests or rights we may have. But again, these discussions concern the permissibility of any given treatment of commemorations that I have yet to tackle.

  25. Dan, thank you for joining the conversation, and I’m really glad you did. I was floating off on a vision of Rainbow Robert and you brought me back to the ground with a thump. Thank you!

    You ask whether others agree that vandalising statues will lead to conflict and unrest.

    I think it can tend to have this effect, yes, and that’s a concern I’ve been raising above.  But it depends on the ecology of a given community, as well as the historical moment.  A community with a lot of intergroup connections and strong cross-group civic society can absorb the social tension and make it fruitful. When tension arises, then ‘bridging’ people from different social groups will talk to each other, figure out how events look from the other perspective, reassure community members etc. A community with weak or non-existent civic links between social groups won’t absorb this tension, and will be more prone towards violence. (Compare with Ashutosh Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life.)  So I think the ethics of contested heritage depends on the local ecology.  Of course these actions are highly symbolic and images travel around the world; so an act in one country might have all sorts of effects on intergroup relations in far-off places.  Which means you can’t just think locally, you also have to be mindful of what you actions mean on a bigger stage, in a given historical moment.

    I do think there is a lot of agency and responsibility involved.  All sides have options about how to respond, and can choose to either diffuse or escalate.  My own view is that there are ways to go about things that express fundamental respect and love towards all, and we should choose those ways. “The great way is calm and large-hearted.”

    That’s it from me.  Thanks for a great discussion, everyone!

  26. Dan, thank you for joining the conversation, and I’m really glad you did. I was floating off on a vision of Rainbow Robert and you brought me back to the ground with a thump. Thank you!

    You ask whether others agree that vandalising statues will lead to conflict and unrest.

    I think it can tend to have this effect, yes, and that’s a concern I’ve been raising above. But it depends on the ecology of a given community, as well as the historical moment. A community with a lot of intergroup connections and strong cross-group civic society can absorb the social tension and make it fruitful. When tension arises, then ‘bridging’ people from different social groups will talk to each other, figure out how events look from the other perspective, reassure community members etc. A community with weak or non-existent civic links between social groups won’t absorb this tension, and will be more prone towards violence. (Compare with Ashutosh Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life.) So I think the ethics of contested heritage depends on the local ecology. Of course these actions are highly symbolic and images travel around the world; so an act in one country might have all sorts of effects on intergroup relations in far-off places. Which means you can’t just think locally, you also have to be mindful of what you actions mean on a bigger stage, in a given historical moment.

    I do think there is a lot of agency and responsibility involved. All sides have options about how to respond, and can choose to either diffuse or escalate. My own view is that there are ways to go about things that express fundamental respect and love towards all, and we should choose those ways. “The great way is calm and large-hearted.”

    That’s it from me. Thanks for a great discussion, everyone!

  27. By the way, I’ve been alluding to Buddhist ideas without any references above. Here’s what I’ve been reading:
    – Peter Harvey, 2000, *An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, values and issues*. CUP.
    – Roy Perrett, 2016, *An Introduction to Indian Philosophy*. CUP.
    – Rupert Gethin, 2008, *Sayings of the Buddha: New translations by Rupert Gethin from the Pali Nikayas*. OUP.
    – Rupert Gethin, 1998, *Foundations of Buddhism*, Opus.
    – Christmas Humphreys, ed. 1979. *The Wisdom of Buddhism*.
    – Shunryu Suzuki. *Zen mind, beginner’s mind*.
    Thanks to Simon C and Rupert G for helpful discussions of some of these issues at an earlier point.

  28. Thanks, Joanna, for your comments, and to everyone for participating in this discussion! You’ve all given me lots of think about, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to clarify and revise my thoughts. Above all, it’s been great fun. Thanks again, David, for organising this!

  29. Oh yes, it has been great fun. David, thanks from me, too, and thank you, CM, you have been brilliant!

  30. Oh oh oh! I so meant to say something else, and I think it gives better balance to my point above (which otherwise might give a misleading impression.) Sorry to add this when we have so graciously closed and thank you for humouring me! I wanted to say…

    Justin, I love your point that in Buddhist ethics, it can be right to speak truth even when that truth is unwelcome.

    Unwelcome speech can generate social tension, but where there are major injustices, social tension can even be important (see the ‘Irony of Harmony’.)

    There’s a Buddhist text that says “if a Truth-finder knows something to be a fact, true, connected with the goal, although it is displeasing and disagreeable to others, then he knows the right time when it may be stated … What is the reason? A Truth-finder has compassion for all beings.’ (Humphreys p 78.) In other words, truth can be stated, and you can perceive the right time through compassion.

    When Colston’s statue came down I feared immediate backlash, but it didn’t play out the way I expected. I was amazed, indeed astonished, by the proportions of people saying the statue should have come down years before. In fact, it seems as though *seeing* the statue come down caused lots of people to suddenly feel that it *should* come down. Colleagues at the former Colston Hall (now Bristol Beacon) had spent 2017 to 2020 fielding relentless criticism for voting to change their name, and now suddenly they were being snowed under with questions about why they’d taken so long to announce the new one. It wasn’t at all what I predicted.

    Anyway! Thank you so much again for a great conversation

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