• Giulio Fornaroli

On Toppling Monuments, Discomfort, and “People Like Us”

My first reaction at the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol (and its subsequent throwing into the river) was to ask myself why the statue was there in the first place, considering Colston’s main accolades are “English merchant” and “slave trader” (first biographical details in the Wikipedia page). I do not see how Colston’s memory can be redeemed by the fact that his revenue was used to fund honorable causes – wealthy people have ample opportunity to donate money and we should not feel overly grateful if they decide to do so; a polite “thank you” is enough.

There is an important objection against this trenchant judgement. Some people think that statues are not necessarily celebratory and that they are instead akin to historical testimonies. In the same way as we would not consider appropriate to destroy Giza pyramids even if we know they were built by slaves, we should also use the same detached attitude to the monuments we encounter in our cities. With reference to Colston’s statue, the argument seems to me implausible, and the same applies to monuments honoring confederate generals in the US South or the Belgian king Leopold II. We have sufficient testimony about the history of the slave trade or the US Civil War even without statues celebrating slave traders or Confederate generals and, if we really want to preserve such monuments in a detached, non-celebratory way, we should agree they belong to museums and not public spaces.

Public space is the key notion here. Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees, who is of Jamaican descent, confessed that he felt that “the statue of a slave trader in a city I was born and grew up in was an affront to me and people like me.” In its simplicity and immediate appeal, this sentence gives us some guidance for the rest of the discussion.

Some people are disturbed by monuments celebrating people like Colston for purely moral reasons – they find it unfair that moral villains receive homage while morally immaculate characters remain forgotten. But, if I interpret correctly Rees’s words, his discomfort at living in a city where the memory of Colston is so pervasive has more to do with the exposure to a public space that contains references to something troublesome or annoying, especially for “people like him.” Notice that I am saying “troublesome” and not “traumatizing;” the reduction of every episode of annoyance to psychological trauma is one of the most annoying (pun intended) aspects of the current public culture.

Unlike trauma, discomfort is under discussed in both philosophy and public culture. And yet there is nothing trivial or childish about the complaint that a certain feature of the urban environment creates discomfort, for instance (as I think it is the case with Rees’s relationship to Colston’s statue) because they remind black Caribbean people that the enslavement and trade of “people like them” was once considered a legitimate source of revenue. Of course, we can all put up with some discomfort but, when the discomfort is pervasive and disproportionately targets specific categories of individuals, there is what in philosophy we call a prima facie argument for making some changes. To take a personal example, the absurd amount of times I was exposed to homophobic representations in the media since I was a child (Italian friends, do you remember TV in the ‘90s?), while coming to terms with my own homosexuality, did not exactly traumatize me, but it is certainly something I would have lived better without. And, since I know my experience is not idiosyncratic, we have reasons to be careful about what gets represented on public media – as today’s media are way more aware than before (way too much, according to some).

The argument from discomfort sounds to me more interesting than the argument from moral desert if we want to discuss the legitimacy of keeping and toppling statues. For once, I do not think statues should only celebrate moral desert – there are countless types of achievement that we might want to give homage to, from the artistic to the political to the scientific. I do not find particularly worrisome that there are monuments dedicated to morally dubious characters, as long as they did something else that is worth remembering (as I am confident is not the case with Colston).

Secondly, focusing on discomfort rather than morality can explain better the difference in sensitivities we have about the issue. For instance, I have mixed feelings regarding monuments celebrating Columbus, but my position is far from “next to Colston in the river!” Does it mean I disagree with those that are horrified about the evils of the American conquest and the massacre of indigenous peoples? I don’t. But, whilst acknowledging those evils, I cannot bring myself to finding a statue celebrating Columbus discomforting. “People like me” (Italians of my generation or older) were raised to see Columbus as not simply a defining figure in history, but a national hero, the incarnation of that peculiarly Italian (or at least Mediterranean) taste for curiosity and adventurousness that Dante portrays in Ulysses. As a child, I even felt pride in the fact that, of the numerous villages that claim to be Columbus’s birthing place, one is in my province.

So, the confrontation we see in the public sphere about which monuments we should keep in place and which we can topple seems to me a confrontation between two types of discomfort. One belongs to those that are comprehensibly tired of living in an environment that does not celebrate “people like them” and that by contrast tends to have a blasé attitude towards historical figures that did egregious wrongs to “people like them.” On the opposing side of the debate, there is the discomfort of those that have come to value the world they live in, not because it’s the best of the possible worlds, but because it contains something that, in its good and bad aspects, is overall worth appreciating and towards which they feel attachment.

There is a word to describe the attitude of those that want the world surrounding them to look similar to the one they lived in so far, and is one many liberal-minded people do not want to be associated with: conservatism. Yet, in the words of one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, “the idea that I might see no reason at all to preserve or sustain any of the things that I myself value seems not merely mistaken but incoherent.”[1] And valuing does not presuppose considering what one values morally superior. I do value Lolita as one of the best novels I have ever read even if I am slightly disturbed by the detached and possibly complicitous way in which Nabokov describes Humbert Humbert’s pederasty.

Conservative discomfort explains to me the rage some Brits have about the vandalization of Churchill’s statue on Whitehall. Some of these people’s attitudes will be to deny or rationalize away Churchill’s racism (“he was a man of his times”) which is simply wrong; historical relativism can only go so far and cannot condone Churchill’s racism any more than Hitler’s. Other people’s attitude (the ones I sympathize with) would be instead to claim that, with all his faults, Churchill symbolizes something that they consider valuable and that they value themselves – say, the British spirit of resilience.

How do we negotiate between these two kinds of discomfort, the conservative and the anti-conservative? We can start by realizing that the desire to preserve what we value, on the one hand, and the desire to live in a world that does not induce discomfort to “people like us,” on the other, are common emotions that people on both sides can appreciate because they will presumably have experienced it themselves sometimes (indeed, as this text shows, I have been subject to both).

In a recent post on this blog, Nikhil Venkatesh has argued that philosophers should not give an overly charitable interpretation of participants to heated debates. I agree and I hope my reconstruction of the positions, though certainly partial, is realistic enough. If it is, we know at least what is at stake, and what are the conflicting desires that need to be accommodated, on one side or the other of the contention.

Let me conclude with two brief notes on how we may go beyond the mere identification of what is at stake, coming from somebody who has expressed conservative sympathies. Firstly, conservatives should accept that some changes are necessary. Conservatism is part of what it means to value something, but it has a tendency to turn into the pathological hatred for anything which is different. When that is the case, it becomes indefensible, especially if “what is different” makes others’ lives better.

Secondly, conservatives should carefully choose which hill they intend to die on. Do you seriously want to be remembered as somebody who fought a battle in defense of Colston, or king Leopold, or Cecil Rhodes? For instance, I would not chain myself to a statue of Columbus, even if I do not dislike a world that contains statues of him. I am willing to strike a compromise on this (maybe, fewer and less grandiose statues of Columbus or more statues of the native Americans that rebelled against colonization) because I recognize that the reasons offered by those that want to stop celebrating Columbus are valid, even though I might not be persuaded by them completely. On the other hand, I find appalling the idea – never fully articulated but, I fear, present in some anti-conservatives’ mind – that we should make certain works of art inaccessible (as opposed to accessible only after a careful analysis of their context) because they do not conform to current moral standards. That is the hill I am willing to die on. Before we get to that moment, however, conservatives like me have a lot to compromise on, especially considering that the world we inhabit is very much congenial to “people like us.”

[1] Samuel Scheffler, ‘Immigration and the Significance of Culture’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 35.2 (2007), p. 106.

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©2020 by Hannah McHugh