Statues, Philosophy & Civil Disobedience

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This video looks at the Black Lives Matter protests and the controversial debate around statues like Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes, and King Leopold II. What can the philosophy of history and civil disobedience tell us about this moment? What exactly is a statue for? What is public history? How do we think about them ethically? And when is Civil Disobedience justified? I look at John Rawls, W.E.B du Bois, and Malcolm X in particular for some answers. Statues are philosophical objects. They are clearly symbolic of something more than the material they’re cast in. They embody phenomena that philosophers often try to understand– publicness, memory, the nature of history, the abstract and the concrete. Across the world – from the coloniser Cecil Rhodes to slaver King Leopold III and confederate president Jefferson Davis – inanimate busts have become a battleground. To their more mainstream defenders, the argument is usually twofold. That first, these monuments are legitimate because they memorialise a past that, for good or bad, is our history. And second, that even if memorialising a particular figure was not legitimate, removing statues extrajudicially at the whims of the mob is itself unethical and, furthermore, has dangerous consequences for democracy.


Statues represent the ideals and historical footnotes we want to elevate and preserve in the public mindset. Some represent historical figures who by today’s standards fall somewhat morally short, and yes there should be a debate about those, what we want to preserve and who else we can elevate to provide a balanced view of history. However… some, like many of the Confederate Statues in the south here in the US, weren’t put up in the 1800’s, they were put up in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a defiant finger to the Civil Rights movement and legislation. So in that latter case, I have little sympathy.


History for most countries is filled with war, oppression, slavery etc. however I do think it’s important to learn from history. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the people who are tearing down statues or monuments currently, A. Don’t know much of the history of said monuments. B. Don’t care and want to be destructive. C. Haven’t really put in the effort to use said “Democratic procedure” to petition to get these monuments removed. I think it’s a fair argument that some, who support the monuments being there are disgusting enough to want them there for reasons I might find distasteful. But I wouldnt think that’s why they exist. A statue erected solely because someone was a slave trader? I’m not sure if that’s why they were put up in the first place. There have been tens of thousands of people in the streets lately who feel very strongly about the spotty history of the U.S. I agree with their sentiment. I could be interpreting this video incorrectly but I’m gathering that it’s somehow justified to have a mob mentality to destroy statues and monuments that have been placed or kept there democratically because it did not rule in their favor. I would agree with the tone of this video more if there was a more information about what is being pulled down. The Shaw Memorial has $3M worth of damage done to it. The Shaw Memorial represents the first African American volunteer infantry unit that fought after the emancipation proclamation was signed. This was a very important step towards progress and change. It was to honor their sacrifices. It was either be killed or be enslaved. This was not tampered with by people who are pro-slavery it was the mob. Now 9k people have signed a petition calling for the removal of the Lincoln Emancipation memorial. This memorial was paid for by free’d slaves. The complaint is that the free’d slave in the statue is on his knees. That is correct. Because he had to kneel for his previous master and in the same monument his chains are broken. It’s a symbol of his freedom. As long as that monument stands, he is free forever. Petitioning is not a vote. It’s a request that can be denied or put to a vote. At least that’s my understanding. I’m not trying to take away how people Feel towards things. But do you think the majority of people who want certain statues or monuments up is because of the things that make you or someone else uncomfortable? I don’t think so. Some might. Civil disobedience is a great reminder to an oppressive government that free people can and will keep them in check. I personally don’t think tearing down statues and monuments makes a dent in what people are really fighting for. I could be wrong but it seems like very little is being done to protect these things. Politicians often just let it happen to appease the mob because they don’t care. And if they do act outraged they’ll fix it with your money any ways. It doesn’t effect them. But it does create societal conflict. Which is what politicians want. An enemy. Democracy is not perfect either. There will be things in society that you agree with and there will be things that you don’t because it’s a vote. We should respect that or get involved to create bills before siding with the mob.


Removing a statue or a flag which comes from a period of accepted slavery (or racism) does nothing to removed the historically entrenched attitudes which perpetuates either of them. It’s a symbolic gesture that’s empty, meaningless, and shows the complete lack of power of the public to effect systemic change. It’s a distraction.


Personally unconvinced by his analysis of what a statue venerates, which is a vital chain in the logic. The implication he gives is that the context the statues are erected in are relevant, and as they were erected in a time of imperialism, they therefore can be judged to be celebrating some form of racial inequality, or more likely actions that caused racial inequality (such as slave trading etc.). This seems a little hasty a jump for my liking, and is even more uncertain for statues such as that of Rhodes at Oxford, for whom the statue is well understood as being erected specifically for his contributions to the university. What exactly the statue does venerate is an interesting question, as is to what extent the context it was raised in matters, and I feel it deserves proper analysis.