Many of the figures immortalized in statues around the world did some questionable things. And modern society is right in calling them out. However, taking the statues down is an enormous error of judgment.
The “take the statues down” crowd is viewing history from a 2020 lens. Sure, they might have good intentions and their moral compass might be pointing in the right direction. But they are judging others actions through their own circumstances and knowledge. Which is a mistake. Individuals should only be judged by the year they lived in, not by the year of who is judging. We cannot judge everyone who ever lived with the same standards we have in 2020.
In 2020 you most likely won’t do the horrendous things your ancestors did because you haven’t been in a situation that requires you to.
Take a 19-year-old in modern Germany. It’s easy for him to be a moral paragon. After all, he is not being drafted to a war he has no control over. Now, that same teen in the Eastern Front in 1941 would have it much different. Do you think he would be able to maintain the same moral-high ground? Most likely not. He wouldn’t have a choice.
We all have a monster deep down that is ready to eat anyone alive to protect ourselves and our tribe. Most young people in western countries have just not faced the circumstances where they have to display that monster. They have a superior moral high ground not by choice or character but because of circumstance.
What a difference a mere 80 years makes? No teenager growing up in the party capital of Europe–Berlin–might ever imagine they would have to decide whether to kill a prisoner of war or face their superiors. Now imagine what a difference 160 years makes. Around the time many of the individuals pictured in confederate statues in the United States lived. They were very similar to us. But they operated under a much different social and moral ecosystem. One that cared much less for the preservation of the dignity of every man and woman. As unfortunate as that is. It’s history.
It’s foolish to think that had we grown up in the 19th century American South, or Imperial Britain, or the Roman empire, we would have had the same notions regarding race, morality, gender, as we have today.
Tearing down statues is also a trap. From a street-level perspective, it’s a low effort/high reward activity for someone who wants to “prove a point” and gain social justice validation points.
Yet, on a social level, it’s a rite of passage. It normalizes the destruction of something you don’t agree with. It allows a group of politically sensitive people to police what should go and what should stay. The statues are just a milestone, taking them down might seem inconsequential. But what’s next?
Let’s say we allow the “problematic” statues to be taken down. Then what? A crowd bent on destroying will always find an object to destroy next. So where does this stop? At what point will they say “ok, enough, we have eliminated all of the world´s oppressive legacies, now we can relax”.
It won’t stop. There are calls to take down movies, Youtube channels, books (Cervantes´ statue was already vandalized so it might be a good time to ban Don Quixote). Next thing we know history is erased and rewritten. And if it’s all erased, from where will we draw the lessons? History is to be learned from. Not erased.
This serves as a dangerous precedent. We are approaching an age where every single thing that surrounds us has to be pre-approved by the most outraged group of society before they can be authorized to the rest.
If you dig deep enough you will find questionable behavior–and tweets– from almost anyone. Including yourself. Your friends, your family, your country, and definitely your ancestors. Does this mean you need to cancel them as well? You will operate as an autonomous entity in any way or form associated with the past because the past is…”evil”?
History is not a Netflix show. Where producers create characters based on audience preferences. History’s greatest figures are conflictive. Especially powerful people who had the means to pursue their desires. Even more so, those who lived in times were notions as human rights were yet to take form.
Gandhi, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Theodore Roosevelt, all made great contributions to their countries. They also displayed behaviors that most people in 2020 find deplorable. Many of our behaviors will most likely be seen as deplorable in 2100. So what?
The statues are there because they were remembered by much more than by the transgressions they want to be taken down for. This is why there are no statues of Hitler in Berlin. He is mostly remembered as a mass murderer and not because he rebuilt the German highway system.
Churchill on the other hand, has a statue, and deserves to. He was a leader instrumental in the fight against Hitler. He is not remembered for his drinking, or his questionable racial views, or for his abysmal failure at Gallipoli. These are mere footnotes of his life.
Ghenghis Khan’s statue in Mongolia is not there because he killed, plundered, and raped. Most modern Mongolians would find this despicable. He is immortalized in a 131-foot (40 m) metre statue in Ulaanbaatar because he is a symbol of strength. Mongolians transcended their nomadic beginnings and became a national entity thanks to him. He left a trail of blood while doing this, but this is how all nations were forged. They were not forged by bureaucrats in over-priced luncheons.
Statues are there for the sacrifice these individuals made for their territories. They are there because these individuals, despite their shortcomings, were critical in the region’s history.
To those tearing down the statues: Leave the statues. Better study history so you become a force that can identify and stand against real intolerance. Work towards improving your life and community. Set the example for future generations. Go build something instead of tearing down. Build your own legacy. It is much more satisfying than destroying that of others.