The recent spate of monument toppling in America – which has just recently made its way up into Canada – has rendered a long-standing question in social and political philosophy just a tad more urgent. What are we to do with our heroes who, as it turns out, weren’t all that heroic after all? Well, let’s see.
It’s not that we didn’t know, back when these monuments were erected, that these men were racists or misogynists or homophobes or whatever. It’s that we didn’t care. Now we do. So whether we’re erecting monuments or toppling them, we’re not trying to change public perceptions of history. General So-and-So on horseback doesn’t tell you anything other than his name was General So-and-So and he may or may not have ever ridden a horse. If you want to know what happened, look to the bookshelves inside the library, not to the statue in front of it!
Think about who, among our erstwhile contemporaries, we’d want to memorialize. Nelson Mandela? Mother Teresa of Calcutta? And what will our grandchildren do with these monuments when it’s revealed that …? No, I dare not impugn the unimpugnable. Except to say that it’s quite the opposite of what Mark Anthony said of Caesar. It’s the good that men do that lives after them. The evil Is oft interred with their bones. But, apparently, not forever.
No, in erecting or toppling we’re making a statement of approval or disapproval. But not of what happened back then. What sense does it make to approve or disapprove of the roles of Harold or William in the Battle of Hastings in 1066? Or of Napoleon or Blucher at Waterloo? Nature’s red in tooth and claw. And so is human history. If you win you get a statue. If you don’t you don’t. Unless you’re Robert E. Lee, or Silent Sam, or Louis Riel.
No, in erecting or toppling we’re expressing public approval or disapproval of what’s happening today. We approve of women’s equality, so up goes Nellie McClung. We disapprove of slavery, so down comes Silent Sam. Notwithstanding we hung him back in 1885, we now support the struggle of our Metis brothers and sisters, and so up goes Louis Riel. We’re all paying for the detritus from the treaties our First Nations signed with cannons trained on their villages, so down comes Sir John A. MacDonald. And so on.
If public statues were lessons in history, then by all means let’s have a bronze black man in chains, cuz maybe little Cindy-Lou didn’t know her black playmates were descended from slaves. Of course then we’d also have to put Silent Sam up again. But if the sculptor made sure the slave looks appropriately noble and Silent Sam slack-jawed – and he’d be sure to hear about it if he didn’t – we’re not doing history, we’re doing propaganda, not all that dissimilar to the cartoon renderings of Adonis-like Aryans and hook-nosed Jews under the watchful eye of Joseph Goebbels. Either you’re telling what happened or you’re telling what to think about it. In a book you can do both. In a statue you can’t.
That ‘we’ approve? That ‘we’ disapprove? Who is this ‘we’? More often than not it’s some committee of ‘engaged’ citizens. But no committee can ever reflect the full spectrum of our disparate judgments. So whatever some committee will put up today, someone can be counted on to vandalize it tomorrow. It’s just freedom of expression.
No it’s not. It’s silencing expression. It’s silencing the expression of those who put up the statue. It’s the same as crashing the hall to prevent a reviled speaker from speaking. Freedom of expression is not the freedom to prevent the expression of others. It’s the freedom to speak when it’s your turn. And, of course, to have your turn. It’s the freedom to erect your own statue.
And therein lies the rub.
A statue in the town square is a piece of public site art. Let’s put aside for the moment the distinction between public site art and public sight art. All that need be acknowledged for the moment is that display is an exclusion-conferring concept. That is, unless I can distinguish between what’s on display and what isn’t, it isn’t. So a statue set cheek-to-jowl with a thousand other statues in the public square is not being displayed.
It follows that a license to display is simultaneously a license to exclude others from displaying, at least in the same space and at the same time. That’s why municipalities have a duty, a duty not to vet would-be demonstrations – that would be censorship – but to coordinate them. For example, to confine the Alt-Right to this side of the street, and the Antifa to that side of it.
The problem, then, is not so much those who have a contrary opinion to that of the town councilors who’ve just erected a monument to Martin Luther King. The problem is those who’d deny these malcontents the right to be afforded another square in which to erect a monument to George Wallace.
It would be sound, but I think spurious, to object that there’s not enough park space in the city to accommodate all the statues deserving of erection, including the one to my own sacred mother. (Okay, she was no Martin Luther King, but she did make great dill pickles.) The problem is that communities want the right to approve of some things and disapprove of others, and to do so as a community. They want to be able to say that this is what we stand for, where by ‘we’ is meant an exclusion-eschewing concept.
Public dissention on a community-defining value betokens that we’re not a community. As things stand, if there’s been a terrible tragedy, the mayor can express his condolences to the families on behalf of all of us. But not if some of us are publicly celebrating. How would it have been received if on 9/11 Rudi Giuliani had to preface his outrage with, “On behalf of only some New Yorkers …”? He’d have been better off saying nothing at all!
Similarly, then, a statue of George Wallace at one end of the park defeats the purpose of the Martin Luther King statue at the other. It announces that we’re not one community but two. And that the two are hostile to each other.
So one of the core questions in social and political philosophy is whether, among the rights an individual acquires by entering into civil society, is the right to a social identity, an identity that can only be afforded by her belonging to a particular community, a community stable and homogenous enough in its values to offer its members a social identity. I need to be able to tell myself that I belong to that community that honors the memory of Martin Luther King, and if anything dishonors that of George Wallace. But I can’t say that if King and Wallace are being given equal time, or in this case equal space.
The existence or nonexistence of this right sits at the core of the debate over what’s come to be called identity politics, be it the identity politics in Europe and America that’s driving the resistance to immigration, or the identity politics of blacks or Jews or homosexuals, each playing their own special victim card with a view to guilt-ing concessions out of white male heterosexuals, who are just now cottoning on to how to play this game themselves.
Identity politics isn’t about the right to be who we are. It’s about the right to be who we think we are. And, of course, to be ‘respected’ for it. There’s a Seinfeld episode in which another comedian converts so he can be funnier. Jerry is rightly outraged.
We Jews can’t cook. Italians can but they’re not funny. Germans? Neither. These properties only replicate if present in both parents. Hence Italian Jews are as kitchen-challenged and dour as Germans. I know all this because I took biology in high school.
In Political Science 100 we’re taught that a nation is a people, a government, and a territory. No it’s not. Unless we all believe some of the same things, we’re not a nation. The question is always what beliefs need these be? We signal these minimal commonalities by our creeds, or our pledges of allegiance, be it to the flag or to the Queen. I can’t stop myself snickering when I hear an American trying to sing his national anthem, or a Canadian drone through hers like a Gregorian chant. But even if I can’t engage in these rituals myself, even if I wouldn’t fight for my country, I’m glad, though proudly ungrateful, that there are people who would. And I know that these rituals are important to them.
If you take a knee you’re not putting your hand on your heart. If you don’t doff your hat on Remembrance Day you’re saying they didn’t die for you. And that means you wouldn’t die for the rest of us. These gestures are not trivial. They matter. Trump’s outrage may be a performance, but the outrage of the people who elected him is genuine. And as just argued, it needs to be.
Most Canadians, myself included, regard America as a nation of five year olds. But for that very reason especially dangerous, as evidenced by its current courtship with fascism. Fascism cannot abide dissent because it can’t survive it. Neither can virtually any ism, be it on the so-called right or the so-called left. The social justice warrior is no more tolerant than the racist or homophobe she takes such self-righteous pains to silence. The only ism that may be exempt is liberalism.
Why only maybe? Because the only way liberalism can be exempt is if it’s become, and if it can remain, definitive of our national identity. But can it? Not much more than four score and seven years ago our fathers [sic] brought forth on both sides of the 49th Parallel two new nations, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that neither Congress nor Parliament shall make any law establishing any doctrine. Now we are engaged in a great culture war, testing whether these nations, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
On its own, the fight over monuments is trivial. But it’s as good a stand-in as any for the struggle between those defenders of liberalism who are hanging on by their fingernails, and the ever-recurrent forces of communitarianism. And then within the latter, whether it’s to be a fascist communitarianism or a Soviet one. So if finding a solution to the monument crisis is the test of whether liberalism can long endure, then we liberals better get cracking and find one.
To that end, let’s thinkfor a moment about public sight art. Let it be granted that I can’t run a swastika up a public flag pole. But what about in my own picture window? Germany had good reason not to allow this. It was occupied by those who had good reason to fear the resurgence that might have coalesced around that symbol. And in Germany that’s still the rationale for the ban on Nazi symbols. But in North America the official worry is incitement, and incitement is actionable under Mill’s Harm Principle. (Though it’s unclear who’s more likely to be incited, the neo-Nazis or the Jews.)
I say the ‘official’ worry because I suspect that incitement is really just a beard. The swastika doesn’t incite. Certainly no more than does the crescent. It doesn’t undermine national identity any more than the Confederate flag, or the Cross, or the Star of David. No, it’s that the swastika offends. Public sight art, if it’s to be actionable, is actionable not on Mill’s Harm Principle, but on Joel Feinbergs’ Offense Principle.
But freedom from offense is not a communitarian value. What could it mean to say a community is offended? And so citing offense escapes the charge of courting communitarianism’s tyranny of the majority. Freedom from offense is only of value to an individual, and so making offense actionable need not do violence to our liberal commitments.
Thus what remains to be shown – and this is no small task – is that a) freedom from offense is one of the reasons we enter civil society in the first place, and b) this freedom can be protected without doing violence to another reason we enter civil society, namely to provide some protection to freedom of expression.
I can’t presume to answer either of these questions here, except to point out that defenders of the Offense Principle argue that offense is provocation – usually but not exclusively to anger – and that provocation is not expression. This is because I can piss you off without in any wise expressing myself, for example by cutting you off in traffic. Fair enough. But what about inadvertent provocation, i.e. provocation which is the autonomous effect of some expression? For surely there’s a difference between my saying something that offends you and my saying something to offend you
Thus the argument is that since the only reason I could be displaying my swastika in my picture window is to offend you, if it succeeds it may therefore be actionable. I say “if it succeeds” because if no one’s offended it’s unlikely an information will be made. (That is, we can safely rule out the charge of attempted offense,. Surely failure to offend should be punishment enough.) But if I paint my house lime green because I like the color, then, on my account, even if I anticipate it’s likely to offend the neighbors, it’s not actionable.
So on my account actionability hangs on intent. Establishing intent is often a challenge for the law. But the law is no stranger to this challenge.
Do I like this solution? Not one whit. But I think it’s the best we can do. And, as it happens, it’s by and large what we do do.
Are there people who would like to express their admiration for George Wallace? Certainly. And they have plenty of mediums by which to do so. But erecting a statue to him is not among them. Erecting a statue to him could only be an attempt to offend. By contrast, the statue to Sir John A. was never intended to offend, neither when it was erecting, nor today. The fact that it does offend doesn’t cut the mustard. So he stays. And the same goes for Silent Sam. Are there people who would like to express their admiration for the Confederacy? So a Confederate flag in the window stays. And so on.
Are there people who would genuinely like to express their admiration for Osama bin Laden? I know there are, because I’m one of them. So a portrait of him in my picture window stays. But now comes the distinction between public sight art and public site art. What argument can be given for why those of us who admire bin Laden can’t put a statue of him in a public park? I can think of only one. It wouldn’t last the night. But given the way I’ve reluctantly parsed the issue, as a liberal I couldn’t countenance the town prohibiting it.
That’s the problem with liberalism. It’s easy to preach. It’s not so easy to practice.