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  • Nikhil Venkatesh

Statues, Philosophy, and Charitable Interpretation

Statues of slave-traders Edward Colston and Robert Milligan have been pulled down in Britain this week, as well as those of Jefferson Davis and Christopher Columbus in Virginia. There are renewed calls for the same to happen to Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes, whilst a legal dispute rages about Richmond’s of Robert E. Lee. What do philosophers have to say about statues of those responsible for horrific historical crimes?

My friend CM Lim recently wrote an article on this topic. He takes the arguments commonly made by both those who want the statues taken down (‘activists’) and those who want them left standing (‘preservationists’) and generously tries to reconstruct them in their most appealing forms. This is what philosophers call ‘the principle of charity’. Thus, rather than characterising activists as demanding never to be reminded of uncomfortable facts (a bad reason), he interprets them as claiming that the public honouring of slavers and colonialists expresses disrespect to black citizens, and thus threatens their self-respect (a good reason). Similarly, the preservationists are interpreted not as wanting to celebrate awful people, but as wanting us to incorporate history into our everyday consciousness, which can be best achieved through displaying statues of historically important people in prominent places.

Lim suggests a policy that should satisfy both parties: vandalising the statues. If a statue of a bad man is vandalised, it no longer honours him, and so does not express disrespect to his victims or their descendants. And since vandalism leaves the statue in place, the preservationists should not worry that the history associated with it will leave our consciousness. In fact, the vandalism might make the statue even more prominent.

Lim’s argument is ingenious. On its surface, it gives a policy suggestion based in good reasons that both sides should be able to accept, and therefore points to a way of resolving the debate. However, I strongly suspect that most of those who oppose the removal of these statues would also oppose their being vandalised. Consider how the Prime Minister has denounced the spray-painting of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square as “absurd and shameful” and moreover, ordered that it be boarded up to prevent any further vandalising. Does this disprove Lim’s argument? I don’t think so. Rather, it suggests is that what motivates preservationists to oppose the removal of statues is not the belief that history must be incorporated into our consciousness by public display, as Lim’s charitable interpretation suggests. If it was, as his argument shows, they would accept his suggestion of vandalising them. By making a charitable interpretation of the preservationists’ reasons and seeing what would follow, Lim’s argument implicitly exposes the fact that their real reasons are different.

What are the preservationists’ real reasons? Several years ago, I was myself involved as an activist in the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Oxford. In the course of my activism, I engaged in countless debates with preservationists. Here’s how those arguments felt to me: the preservationists had no good reasons for their views. They had a raft of arguments – ‘you’re erasing history’, ‘you’re infringing free speech’, ‘you’re judging him by the standards of today’ – which fell apart as soon as they were examined. They didn’t care, they just moved to another one, until it too fell apart. (Ultimately, we lost that battle, and Oriel College’s reason for not pulling the statue down was the least philosophically respectable of them all: wealthy alumni had threatened to withhold donations if they did.) What I came to think motivated most preservationists – consciously or not – was fear and distaste at the prospect of ‘their’ public spaces being influenced by ‘us’: a black-led group of left-wing students. That’s why they would oppose vandalising Rhodes’s statue every bit as vigorously as they oppose taking it down.

It felt, then, not as if we were engaging in a good faith argument about a statue, but as if the statue had become a shibboleth for those on the other side of a wider struggle over race and power and the public sphere. I think this is probably also how it felt to those on the preservationist side, even if they would describe their (and our) motivations differently. They thought that we didn’t really care about the statue, that our motivation was really to establish a suffocating form of political correctness that distorted truth and discriminated against white men, and that they had a duty to resist it. Now that we see the debate was not over the statue, but on much broader and deeper questions, we can explain why it became so heated and unresolvable. We were not going to be beaten by those who thought we needed to be kept in our place; they were not going to give in to a movement they saw as threatening freedom.

In Lim’s paper both sides have their arguments charitably interpreted, resulting in a compromise that should satisfy everyone. However, his compromise would not satisfy the preservationists for the simple reason that his charitable interpretation of their motivations is far removed from their real motivations. Furthermore, we can’t understand how the debate felt to those in it – or how it played out – without realising that both sides employed un-charitable interpretations of the other.

Similar issues arise when philosophers try to talk about other emotive political issues. Philosophers talk about abortion a lot more than we talk about statues. In the standard philosophical treatment, the central questions about abortion are: is a foetus a person? and if so, under what circumstances is it legitimate to end such a person’s life? These questions, important as they are, don’t seem to explain the real-world political debate about abortion as it seems to the participants. Pro-life activists take their opponents to be not simply people with different answers to these questions, but rather selfish sinners who want to destroy not only foetuses but also the family and organised religion. Pro-choice activists meanwhile take their opponents to be motivated by a patriarchal desire to control women’s bodies. There is some truth in at least one side’s interpretation. So the philosophical debate about abortion looks very different to the one that goes on in the streets and legislatures.

Similarly, take immigration. Philosophers of immigration typically start from the assumption that all people are equal, and ask, given that basis, whether and when states could have a right to exclude some people but not others. But in the real world, the staunchest opponents of immigration don’t seem to share the assumption; at least, their opponents doubt that they do. Their opponents fear that opposition to immigration is motivated by bigotry – and this fear is a large part of what motivates them to take the side of liberal immigration policy. Philosophers, charitably assuming that people are motivated by reasons rather than by bigotry or fear, end up making arguments that lose touch with the real-world politics of the issue.

I don’t mean to say that philosophers can’t comment on politics, or even that we shouldn’t comment on them in the typically philosophical way, employing charitable interpretations and offering nobler reasons those that motivate real-world political actors. Lim’s paper shows how this kind of philosophy can do two things for a political debate: give policy recommendations that accord with good reasons, and expose those who are arguing disingenuously by drawing out implications of their argument that they may find unwelcome. However, there is a third thing that political philosophers could do: characterise the nature of actual, real-world debates. This cannot be done through interpreting people charitably, since very often political actors have bad motivations, or assume that their opponents do. It can perhaps be best done by being involved, as an activist, in the debates themselves.

* Photo by Caitlin Hobbs

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