Statues, Names, and Changing Society

I’ve been watching the increasing push to take down statues and strike names from buildings and institutions, and I’ve had mixed thoughts about the effort. For the first while, when they were focused around Confederate War monuments, it made sense to me from afar, though I realized I didn’t have much of a dog in the fight or a reason to speak one way or the other about it. The “Heritage Not Hate” pithy slogan has always seemed overly simplistic. When I was in Germany, there were monuments to the victims of the Nazi atrocities, not monuments to the Nazis who inflicted them. I have no idea if there were any “Good Nazi Generals,” but imagine trying to have that argument. “We should honor this guy, because he was a valiant soldier for his country, and he fought because he loved Germany, not just Nazis.”

I don’t think that would fly, and it shouldn’t. In the end, the cause you fight for is just as important as the way you fight. Yes, many try to argue the Confederacy wasn’t just about slavery, and I’m not saying the Confederacy was a bunch of Nazis, but the cause of the Confederacy was certainly problematic at best.

(Interestingly, there were also many monuments to the Soviet forces that liberated East Germany, placed there during the communist regime. You could certainly argue those monuments had some sort of historical significance. They’d been there for a while, and they commemorated various events. They still ended up being neglected and ultimately removed. Because the Soviets and Communists did a lot of terrible things over in that part of the country . . .)

However, there has been another push to call out any historical figure who was a racist or supported slavery (directly or indirectly), clamoring to tear down any statues to them or rename anything that bears their moniker. And this is an area where things get muddier for me.

When I was at ALA last year in DC, I sat next to a librarian who had crossed off the face of George Washington from their name badge. “I don’t want the picture of a slave holder around my neck,” they explained to a friend sitting next to them. I didn’t say anything (because what sort of a tool goes around butting into other people’s side conversations, even if those conversations are loud?), but it’s a statement that has stuck around in my brain for a while.

Is it fair to reduce George Washington to “a slave holder”? Or any of the other many founding fathers who didn’t just own slaves, but traded in them? Profited off their labors? Thomas Jefferson did plenty to smear his reputation, if you actually read history and pay attention.

In the end, the answer I came to on that question is “No.” It’s not fair to reduce people to a single label, but it’s also not fair to idolize them. The Founding Fathers were men. They did good things, and they did bad things. It’s important to remember both, because I’d like to think we could all strive to do more of the good things and avoid more of the bad things. When you put someone on a pedestal (literally, in these cases), you only set yourself up for disappointment.

The same thing holds true for religious leaders. Brigham Young University is in a tight spot at the moment, because a whole lot of church leaders said and did a whole lot of not great things about race. And since BYU is a religious institution, many of its buildings bear the names of those church leaders. Yes, you can argue “it was different back then,” and that certainly can explain away some of it. But that’s not a cure-all excuse. The Church says today that it “disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

But there’s still this tendency to try to idolize past leaders. To think of them as perfect, even as their writings and actions prove them to be anything but. I’ve always been happy to know people make mistakes. I may not be ga ga over the specific mistakes they make, but if the curtain were drawn back on my life, and all my idiotic statements in the past were dragged out for everyone to see, I don’t think I’d come out of it with flying colors either.

So what do I think the answer is? For statues and naming rights, I think it comes down to looking at the person involved as a whole and deciding if the sum of their parts justify the statue or the name. Confederate generals being honored in towns still torn apart by racism? That doesn’t seem like a good call to me. Neither does the statue to Teddy Roosevelt that’s coming down, since it used racist imagery so blatantly. Naming a US military base after a Confederate general? Why was that even done in the first place? Probably to appeal to the people in the area, but would derail this post completely to dig into that concept more deeply.

Should BYU rename itself or its buildings? I don’t think so. (Not all of them, at least. The Smoot building name would seem to be a pretty easy one to change to at least show the Church and the institution is listening and sympathetic . . .) What would be better (in my book) would be if the Church and BYU would address the issue head on. Apologize for the statements made in the past. Admit they were in error. And start having some discussions around what they can do today to correct some of the errors of the past. Stating racism is a sin is a great start, but I think some actions behind that statement would go even further. A really simple (not-nearly-enough-but-something) start would be to name some buildings or put up some statues honoring some of the key minority Latter-day Saints.

I am not trying to dismiss racism of the past as irrelevant. Not all people in the past were racist, though I’d say to overcome the societal racism of the time took much more effort than today (though today’s societal racism is still very much present). But judging people in the past according to one trait and only one trait is shortsighted, especially when it’s a trait that’s so thorny. Denisa’s talk yesterday really resonated in this area for me. When the Salt Lake temple was built, it was built to perfection for its time. In the intervening years, the standards of perfection have been raised considerably. We can honor the craftsmanship that went into it even while recognizing the flaws we now know are present. Just because those flaws are present doesn’t mean it should be torn down, but rather that the flaws should be corrected as best we can today.

It’s not an analogy that covers everything (no analogy typically does), but it does get close to many of the thoughts I’ve been having. (Typical Bryce: more conservative than many of my friends would like, and more liberal than most of the rest of them would prefer . . .) There could be aspects of this I haven’t thought through all the way. If you’ve got constructive criticism, I’m ready to entertain it. Just keep things civil, as always.

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