Friday, August 25, 2017

Toppling the Statue of Limitations

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We may assume the obvious that statues of people are installed in public places by those who revere something about the person.

 Dictators and other men who ruled with iron hands have been toppled and decapitated years after their death when their nefarious deeds were considered more evil than any good they might have done. And times changed making it safe to destroy an old emperor's image without losing one's own head.

Image result for topple statue

The recent protests about the statues of the Confederate States are not new as Gillian Brockwell explains in her WP post from 17 August. I have been tempted to draw on the culture of honour theories put forth by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen (1996) following some quite creative studies showing the tendency of Southerners to react quickly to perceived challenges to their honor compared to Northerners. (I always had research students read the article-save it for later if you are busy.) However, there is a warning about going too far beyond the lab data-- the problem is summarized by Nigel Barber.

One should not let a beautiful theory go to waste when an ugly fact arises.

It is hard to look at the men of stone and not think about the reasons for their existence--especially given their dominance at the U.S. Capitol. There is a culture of honor in all nations. The U.S. Capitol contains the statues of honor--take a look at the list in the article and see who is worthy of such high earthly honor. And wander around DC where entire buildings are shrines and memorials to many Americans (oh, here's where the women are).

There are those in history linked to horrific evil such that it would be hard to find even a substantial minority desiring to honor them-- let alone put their likeness on a pedestal. Other mortals have more stature as having the good fortune to have been present when a nation began or holding a high office--at least an office worthy of passing around on a coin or those little rectangles pasted on old forms of communication.

But what to do about the statues of those honoured by some and reviled by others? How many statues must come down? What are the criteria for removing one figure and keeping another? Did they fight for a worthy cause to protect the rights of their fellow citizens? Did their actions create a better society despite any flaws they may have? If they did any harm, was it overshadowed by a greater good?

Though I probably am way out of context, I cannot help but think of an old commandment against "graven images or likeness... (Exodus 20)" I think I know this verse is about idols and worshipping people rather than God. But perhaps there's something  to learn about human nature and statues. The fewer the better I say. Nations need their stories to forge a culture. But nations are about all the people -- not just a few public servants. And, although we may appreciate the good that others have done, let us not idolize them because whatever good leaders do, they do so with the help of millions of citizens.

We know about people's strengths and we know about their weaknesses. Statues become divisive--men (and the few women recognized in marble or stone) unlike God, have feet of clay. A statue becomes a cultural symbol around which people can rally like Christians hoisting a cross or patriots raising a flag -- as long as one doesn't look behind the myth and discern that sons and daughters of men are not divine. Let's face it. Human beings may rise to an occasion and lead but may very poor role models in other aspects of their lives.

Some say time heals. But the evidence suggests that many lifetimes pass until the stories statues evoke are part of history rather than symbols of present strife. The debate in the U.S. about removing certain statues is good evidence of the persistence of old divisions that have not healed.

My hope is that the battles are restricted to volleys of words rather than a hail of bullets. And that some people somewhere make peace with a meta-narrative that permits a free people to share their voices of what a statue means to them and their culture. In effect, we can place a limitation on statues with renewed narratives like the rennovation of slave barracks on an old American estate marking a part of history that should not be forgotten (Monticello). We may also view some statues as artifacts of a bygone era in museums where narratives can put matters in perspective.