Off with their heads!

It seems like scarcely a week goes by without some statue being pulled down by a mob or some building being renamed or currency redesigned with a less morally fraught visage. The mob raises their fist in righteous indignation, “Thomas Jefferson was a bad person. He owned slaves. Pull him down.”

Those who judge past actions by today’s standards are practicing “presentism,” a term first used by historians in the 1870s describing British Whig history which used the past to justify less than noble behavior of the then-present Whig party. This issue has popped up for me in conversations with several people in the past few weeks, I felt compelled to develop my own thoughts on a complex subject. The presentists claim that it is right to judge the past by today’s standards and that those who say we should avoid this practice of judging the past based on present practices would be guilty of moral relativism – saying that one set of morals was acceptable then and is not now.

I find this a bit funny because in terms of modern ideologies, we have the ironic situation where the liberal presentists are accusing the conservative deontologists of being moral relativists, a charge that used to be hurled in the opposite direction. Oh well.

After spending way too much time thinking and dreaming about this problem, I have decided that the somewhat relativist position of many conservatives has merit. That if one was a slaveholder in 1750 when it was widely practiced and acceptable (at least for the European populations), then we cannot judge that person today for not being a moral crusader and likely a martyr. Obviously, such relativism cannot be used to justify all historical actions. For example, the ethnic cleansing of 800,000 Tutsis by the Hutu tribe in Rwanda cannot be justified any more than Hitler.

Morals, ethics, and socially acceptable behavior changes over time. Even the bible traces a moral arc from tribal retribution pre-Ten Commandments to the ancient Jewish notion of an “eye for an eye” all the way to the teachings of Jesus to “turn the other cheek.” Most of us can look back in history at characters who had evil intentions and caused great harm. They are fair game for judgement and condemnation. But Jefferson, Washington, Robert E. Lee? If we condemn them by today’s standards, how will future generations judge us?

If we take a more forgiving, magnanimous approach, we might just try to accept our ancestors and historical figures for their beliefs and accomplishments. They were only human and did the best they could within the confines of their social systems. But that still leaves us with the question of toppling statues.

OK, we can accept without condemnation, these figures for the good and the bad that they did. But morals and ethics change over time, hopefully for the better. And in the changing moral climate of today, what do the statues symbolize? Does a statue of Robert E. Lee inspire and uplift a black American? In our pluralistic democratic society, I suggest a single criterion be applied to public displays of art and statuary. “Does the work uplift and inspire ALL people? Does it represent the best values of our nation? Does it convey a sense of goodness, decency, kindness, or hope?” If a work can pass that test, let it stand. Otherwise, tear it down because if we cannot stand together, we will fall apart.

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