by Chong-Ming Lim
The question of what we should do about “tainted” public commemorations—commemorations of people who were responsible for injustice, or commemorations of events of injustice themselves—has become increasingly pressing. Two views dominate public discussions. According to the preservationist view, tainted commemorations should not be removed; instead, they should be preserved. According to another, activist view, these commemorations should be removed. There are, of course, a range of other views—such as adding contextualising information, relocating the commemorations, housing them in museums, or installing counter-commemorations. But these views do not get very much traction, nor do they appear to satisfy what activists and preservationists want.
I argue that the vandalism of tainted commemorations can be regarded as a way of negotiating the demands of the activist and preservationist views. This argument proceeds in several stages. First, I clarify the activist and preservationist views, and argue that they are less naïve than has been assumed. Second, I evaluate two other responses to tainted commemorations—adding contextualising information, and establishing counter-commemorations—and argue that they fail to negotiate the demands of both the activist and the preservationist views. Finally, I argue that vandalism succeeds in this way.
It is worth considering a little more background before we go on. Activists all over the world regularly engage in vandalism of tainted commemorations. Such vandalism is often frowned upon, even by those people who are sympathetic to the activists’ causes. Many of them think that activists should not vandalise statues at all. Many others regard vandalism as an important though unfortunate stepping-stone to the eventual goal of removing tainted commemorations. Set against this backdrop, my defence of vandalism does two things. First, it rehabilitates and vindicates some acts of vandalism that activists are committing—by way of showing that they secure for us some important goals. Second, it goes some way in showing how vandalism can be regarded as a permanent, rather than a merely transitionary, response to tainted commemorations.
Activists and Preservationists
To begin with, we must rehabilitate activist and preservationist views. First, many activists call for the removal of tainted commemorations. These calls are often dismissed, especially by the general public. For instance, activists arguing for the removal of the statue of Rhodes in Oxford are described as taking the easy option by focusing on statues rather than the “real” or more important issue of inclusion and representation. They are also described as seeking safe spaces where they can be shielded from offence and discomfort. Indeed, they have been told to “think about being educated somewhere else” if they cannot embrace the discomfort that comes with debating difficult issues.
These dismissals are uncharitable and, moreover, mistaken. Tainted commemorations are not innocuous. Instead, they are important parts of what may be described as the fabric of a community—these commemorations (and the views that underlie them) are supported by a complex network of institutional arrangements and social practices that, when taken together, present certain views as natural or as the norm. Moreover, tainted commemorations reinforce support for those arrangements and practices, further entrenching the associated views. And these views are deeply problematic, to say the very least. In the case of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, these are views about the glory of colonial and imperial conquest, development and administration, and the acceptability of racial (white) supremacy—even if it comes at the expense of exploitation and oppression, among others. Or, at their worst, these are views that “colonised” people simply do not matter at all—their lives are not important, and their deaths not lamentable in the same ways as white British people. These are views that are corrosive of the self-respect of members of certain minority groups. Activists are therefore not simply seeking to create safe spaces where they can be free from offense or discomfort. Instead, their calls to remove tainted commemorations are more charitably seen as demands to secure self-respect.
On the other hand, preservationists are also often dismissed, especially by progressive activists. Part of this may be related to the heightened language that preservationists use to describe the removal of tainted commemorations. For instance, many prominent historians and academics have described the Rhodes Must Fall campaign as seeking to ‘eradicate Rhodes from our consciousness’, to ‘obliterate painful and offensive figures from the historical record’, as ‘expunging Rhodes from history’, or as ‘erasing history’, and so on.
I suggest that these statements make sense in the context of deeper requirements concerning our dealings with the past—that our dealings with the past must be public, and incorporated into our everyday consciousness and understanding of our history and identity. A reconstruction of what could be the preservationists’ ideal scenario illustrates the point. In this ideal scenario, the actions of Cecil Rhodes, and the values that undergirded them, should be part of the everyday consciousness and understanding of members of the community, of their own history and identities. This does not mean that they endorse those values, only that recognition of these values is incorporated into their self-understanding. Members of the community should be able to recount—even if only in general terms—how Rhodes’ actions have influenced their society, and how the actions of “ordinary” British citizens during his time contributed to his projects. That is, there should be a general understanding of the fact that these “ordinary” British citizens during Rhodes’ time shared the values that undergirded his actions; that many of them did not regard his actions (or their own contributions to them) as abhorrent but saw them as worthy of celebration.
Members of the community, then, should not turn away from the fact that they have inherited a world that is shaped by the injustices caused by their ancestors. Moreover, they recognise that one does not need to be a moral monster to be responsible for, or complicit in, injustice. Indeed, people can be deeply involved in injustice by engaging in purportedly ordinary, or even socially valorised, activities.
Seeing the preservationist view in this way also helps us to explain the discomfort that many of them have about removing and relocating tainted commemorations to museums. Here, the worry is presumably that doing so will reduce the likelihood that these commemorations can be publicly incorporated into our everyday consciousness and understanding of our history and identity.
There is of course much more to say about the plausibility of these views. But for our purposes, I take it that the two opposing views are undergirded by plausible (but potentially competing) aims—concerning self-respect and remembrance. I take them as setting constraints on what we ought to do about tainted commemorations. That is, what we want is to find a response to these monuments that can, in principle, satisfy proponents of both views. A successful response must remove the threat to the self-respect of some members of the community, while not reducing everyday occasions for public remembrance.
What about other “middle ground” responses to tainted commemorations—adding contextualising information to tainted commemorations, or installing counter memorials near them? I argue that neither succeeds in satisfying proponents of both the activist and preservationist views.
Installing counter-memorials can help to address worries about who or whose contributions count as important enough to be commemorated by the community. For example, consider the establishment of a counter-memorial—the Unsung Founders Memorial—beside the Silent Sam Confederate Statue at UNC Chapel Hill. Insofar as the establishment of the counter-memorials leaves the original statue untouched, it is a response that satisfies preservationists. It also appears to satisfy activists—it seems to address the neglect of the contribution of some members of society, by indicating that they too are worthy of commemoration. It also appears to mitigate the threat to self-respect of some members of the community, who are now regarded as having the standing—as equals within the community—to commemorate their own people and their contributions.
However, this is merely apparent. The establishment of the counter-memorial did little to stop the protests against the tainted commemoration in Chapel Hill. Indeed, the protests continued and culminated in the purportedly illegal toppling and removal of the Silent Sam Confederate Statue in 2018. For the activists who toppled the statue, establishing the counter memorial did not appear to address their complaints about the tainted commemoration. This observation is not unique to Chapel Hill. The historian Dell Upton observes that the establishment of counter memorials does not typically cancel out or repudiate the messages of tainted commemorations. Instead, their existence facilitates the development of a convoluted ideology of “dual heritage”, according to which different groups of people—in this case, black and white Americans—simply took different but equally honourable paths to their current status as equals members of the community. More generally, counter memorials also leave open the possibility of viewing the original tainted commemoration in isolation from the counter memorials. They also leave the tainted commemorations in place, untouched in their original glory.
Adding contextualising information to tainted commemorations appears to be more promising, in virtue of its potential to directly address and repudiate the views expressed by a tainted commemoration. It also appears less easy—though nonetheless possible—to view a tainted commemoration in isolation from the contextualising information. However, contextualising information is often presented in the form of small displays or plaques, which can be easily missed by people who interact with or merely pass by the tainted commemorations. In this way, the good work that they can do is limited by their nature. Of course, there is nothing stopping us from establishing massive contextualising plaques—perhaps as grand as the tainted commemoration itself—with an extensive essay detailing the injustice and repudiating it. But if we do this, we run into worries about aesthetics and accessibility—we typically recoil at building ugly structures in public spaces.
Having set aside these two options, I move to the defence of vandalism. Vandalising tainted commemorations immediately communicates repudiation of the target of commemoration. This can be done in very simple ways—by splashing red paint on tainted commemorations to convey that the person being commemorated was responsible for grave injustices, for example. It is much easier to understand the repudiation that accompanies vandalism, compared to adding contextualising information. Additionally, and unlike establishing counter-memorials or adding contextualising information, vandalism leaves no room for audiences to view the commemoration in isolation from the repudiation. Importantly, vandalism can transform a tainted commemoration from a public honouring of an inappropriate target into a public repudiation of the historical figure. Through such a transformation, the threat to the self-respect of some members within the community is removed or, at the very least, mitigated. It is further mitigated if the state or public officials permit the commemorations to stay vandalised, rather than attempt to clean them up. Notice that insofar as vandalism can do all these things, it becomes far more viable as a permanent—rather than merely transitionary—response to tainted commemorations.
There are, of course, several worries about vandalism as a response. First, it is often thought that vandals are ignorant about the value of that which they vandalise, or ignorant about the meaning of their vandalism. Second, insofar as vandals typically carry out their vandalism when nobody is around, and moreover often do not reveal their identities, they are regarded as cowardly. Third, vandals are often dismissed as not representative of the community for whom they speak. Finally, vandalism is illegal.
Vandalism can overcome these worries. The first two worries may be mitigated if vandalism is carried out in line with a principle of communicativeness. In our context, such a principle imposes two requirements. It requires, first, that the act of vandalism conveys a message that is directed at the tainted commemoration. When vandalism is communicative in this sense, it avoids the criticism that the vandals are ignorant. The second requirement is that the act of vandalism needs to be non-evasive. The vandal should be willing to articulate their commitments and reasons for their actions to others within their community. In practical terms, it means that activists must take public responsibility for their acts of vandalism, in the sense of admitting to their vandalism. When acts of vandalism are communicative in this sense, they also mitigate the intuitive negative judgement about vandals.
The third worry may be mitigated if the vandal receives support from other activists and organisations that are representative of at least those members of oppressed groups whose self-respect are at stake. This may be in the form of public statements, released after the fact of vandalism, in support of the message that the act conveys. When these statements are made public, we leave little doubt about the representativeness of the vandals’ views. Uncertainties about the representativeness of the vandals’ views may be further mitigated, if local authorities permit the tainted commemoration to stay vandalised, rather than attempt to restore it to its original state.
The final worry concerns the illegality of vandalism. Here, it is important to note that the vandalism of tainted commemorations need not be illegal. The possibility is open that the authorities could invite representative members of formerly oppressed groups to vandalise such commemorations as part of some event (either of commemoration or reparation). The vandalism of tainted commemorations during such events would then not be illegal. While this raises worries about the co-option of a form of resistance, the vandalised commemoration and the participation of the authorities would still be effective as a response which secures self-respect. Or, even more radically, the authorities could abolish or revise existing legislation (concerning the preservation of such commemorations, or the defacement of public property) that renders the vandalism of (some) tainted commemorations illegal. More broadly, the worry that the vandalism of tainted commemorations is illegal, and thus to be avoided, implicitly assumes that the broader contexts in which our political resistance occurs are fixed. We do not need to go along with this assumption.
Of course, the likelihood that the authorities will take these options is low, and we need to take seriously the worry about the illegality of vandalism. Here, we may note that the duty to obey the law is not always overriding. There are many situations in which individuals can permissibly break the law or even have a duty to do so. In our context, it appears that the duty to obey the law (by not vandalising a tainted commemoration) may be overridden when there are no other effective responses to tainted commemorations that would satisfy the demands of both activists and preservationists. The conditionality of this argument for vandalism reflects our considered judgement that law-breaking actions should not be taken unless activists have run out of fruitful legal options.
To sum up, vandalism secures some important goals—it mitigates (or eliminates) the threat to the self-respect of members of minority groups, and promotes deeper historical understanding. Because of this, vandalism can, in principle, satisfy proponents of the activist and preservationist views. Additionally, insofar as vandalism succeeds in securing these goals, we have reason to regard it as a permanent, rather than a merely transitionary, response to tainted commemorations. It is also possible for us, with some further work, to extend this defence of the vandalism of tainted commemorations, to our relationships with all public artefacts or public spaces more generally. I undertake such an extension, and defend its plausibility, elsewhere.
 Damien Gayle and Nadia Khomami, ‘Cecil Rhodes Statue Row: Chris Patten Tells Students to Embrace Freedom of Thought’, Guardian, January 13, 2016.
 Mary Beard, ‘Cecil Rhodes and Oriel College, Oxford’, Times Literary Supplement, 2015, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/cecil-rhodes-and-oriel-college-oxford/.
 David Cannadine, ‘Introduction’, in Dethroning Historical Reputations: Universities, Museums and the Commemoration of Benefactors, eds. Jill Pellew and Lawrence Goldman (London: Institute of Historical Research, 2018), pp. 1–14.
 Will Hutton, ‘Cecil Rhodes Was a Racist, but You Cannot Readily Expunge Him from History’, Guardian, December 20, 2015.
 Javier Espinoza, ‘“Rhodesgate”: Campaign to Remove Rhodes Statue “Is like Isil’s Destruction of Antiques”, Says Oxford Don,’ Daily Telegraph, December 22, 2015.
 There are two questions about such a reconstruction. First, is remembering the actions or beliefs of such “ordinary” British citizens simply the other side of the same coin of remembering the actions or beliefs of those people of Rhodes’ times who were critical of, or resisted, his endeavours? Second—and assuming that the answer to the previous question is in the affirmative—does that support the preservation of tainted commemorations (rather than the establishment of new ones)? Our potential resistance to answering these questions in the affirmative may indicate a need for an alternative reconstruction of the preservationist view. Whether such a view accurately captures the preservationists’ central concerns is beyond the scope of this essay to consider.