Should the government remove controversial historical monuments?
The argument that surrounds controversial historical monuments has long existed but re-emerged after George Floyd’s death and the unrest that followed it.
Rise of the Issue
Historic preservation seems a popular idea, until deciding which items deserve preservation. Different groups find different parts of history important, often for different reasons, and sometimes with entirely different accounts of the past. Enslavement, forced relocations, and genocides are undeniable parts of the U.S. story, just like innovation and its ongoing existence as the most-inclusive self-governance experiment in human history. Voters now debate whether U.S. monuments should be a painful trek through abusive history, or a celebration of those who resisted enslavement and oppression or of a maturing culture that grows through chapters great and ugly alike.
Groups weigh differently which historical details are important, and why. People also weigh differently the non-tangible costs of living near painful reminders about past injustices. Fiscal costs influence public monument decisions, particularly who must pay for upkeep or removal or replacement, or whatever other option a locality might choose. Everyone seeks historical accuracy, but differences arise about which telling’s are accurate.
Richmond, Virginia Adopts Monument to Black Tennis Ace Arthur Ashe
After a tense hearing on whether Arthur Ashe belonged on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a boulevard of statues devoted to Confederate heroes, the international tennis star and pioneer was honored alongside Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
Pittsburgh Removes Stephen Foster Statue
Black American residents had long decried Foster’s music about antebellum plantation life as racist, and objected to the Pittsburgh monument’s imagery of Foster standing over a plantation slave.
2020 - 2022
Protests Following George Floyd’s Murder Ignite Renewed Efforts to Remove Statues
Widespread civil unrest after the death of George Floyd led to protesters tearing down challenged monuments.
July 13, 2022
First Statue of Black American Unveiled in Capitol’s National Statuary Hall
Florida replaced a statue of a Confederate general in July 2022 with its dedication to civil rights worker and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
Some believe removing prior generations’ work erases the messages left for future generations and revises historical narratives. Others argue that some narratives are in need of revision for monuments celebrating a history of enslavement, exploitation, and oppression, because they are disrespectful to people and their families who suffered this abuse.
Freedom of Speech and Expression
Opponents of this issue believe the erection of privately-purchased monuments that celebrate a specific history, such as the Confederacy for instance, is an act of freedom of speech and expression. Proponents believe regardless of a monument being privately-purchased, if it is on public grounds it should not celebrate a history which commemorates a painful history.
Freedom of from Hurtful Monuments
Some argue the First Amendment broadly protects speech, even if it is hateful or hurtful. Residents however still should feel welcomed in their own communities. Some monuments test the lines between recognizing history, speaking politically, and antagonizing neighbors with monuments that celebrate a dark history.
Some believe the government has a narrow role regarding the content of speech, including occasionally what monuments to permit or historical moments to celebrate. This role must balance between improperly promoting or withholding content to remain First Amendment compliant. Others, however, see the government's role as central to promoting an honest expression of U.S. history.
Government can mitigate hurtful images forced into public spaces.
Government can enforce certain levels of decorum in public spaces. Most have used, for example, laws against disorderly conduct or permitless marching. Government must sometimes weigh the harms one community suffers against the benefits others reap from publicly-viewed messages.
Politically-inspired monuments do not convey accurate historical records.
Some monuments lack historical context, or even misrepresent history. Such misinformation fails modern residents in favor of political expediency, or outright propaganda. That is why the government should have a say on the removal or erections of historical monuments.
Some monuments’ historical and artistic values belong in monument gardens with accurate contexts supplied, not as centerpieces of public spaces.
History is written by the victor, and monuments come from victors with resources. Because the story told in monuments is one-sided, public discussion is best fostered in dedicated spaces with contextual and historical information provided. The government should be the one to help foster these spaces.
Costs of celebrating discriminatory figures should not spread across all people.
Taxes paid by minorities should not support tributes to racists. A country that celebrates freedom should not use public funds to honor enslavers. Such monuments, especially those funded by public coffers, arguably force harmed groups to celebrate their own maltreatment. That is why the government should place a role in removing these monuments of pain.
Government must be careful not to endorse historical atrocities.
Contributions to historical development stand apart from a person’s moral fiber. Monuments constructed to celebrate exclusion rather than inclusion, though, are not appropriate for public worship from an inclusive society and the government must be careful not to endorse messages that celebrate pain.
Removing historical testaments is a removal of the right to the freedom of speech and expression.
Government interference with historical monuments and the potential removal of them is in direct violation of the First Amendment.
Hypersensitivity hurts the country, and allows misinformation.
A functioning community cannot cater to its most extreme residents. Limiting public speech to only the most radical alternatives will destroy the proverbial marketplace of ideas, and prevent accurate data from being issued and can allow misinformation.
History is not sanitary, and no one is all good; we cannot expect modern perfection from historical figures either.
Even history’s cruelest, most sadistic, and exploitative rulers contributed to global current events. Removing memories of these persons and events, rather than using those monuments to tell accurate history, is a chance to teach missed.
Removing tributes will dishonor celebrated ancestors, and the other ancestors who built the celebrations.
Destroying the hard work and wealth of forebears, and the ancestors they celebrated, disrespects the heritage and family ties that built, and still promote, the entire country.
The costs of removing and replacing these monuments exceed the costs of maintaining them.
Removing monuments and their related fixtures, only to replace the space usage, costs cash and other resources. Maintaining and updating these monuments demands lower costs over time than removal.