I suppose this must be what epidemiologists experienced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic: suddenly, the thing you’ve been writing and thinking about for years is all over the news.
It’s been slightly surreal over the past week or so to see the amount of coverage of controversy over statues, memorials and place names, both here in Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas. Examples of problematic memorials and names I’ve followed and written about in the past (including on another blog that covered a period spent living in Scotland) are now mentioned in daily news bulletins and opinion pieces: the Edward Colston statue in Bristol; the Robert Milligan statue in London; the Melville monument in Edinburgh; the Boulcott’s Farm memorial in Lower Hutt; the name of the New Zealand town of Picton; and streets named after imperialists and slave-traders.
As with Covid-19, there has been much thoughtful commentary on the issues raised by controversies over monuments and place names; thankfully, I’ve seen fewer ill-informed reckons about these controversies than about the pandemic (though the reckons are certainly out there).
The latest round of debate about memorialisation has occurred in response to the police killing of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis. But these debates are not new. The current memorial controversies overseas are a continuation of campaigns that began with the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter movements in 2015, but whose roots go back further. In Aotearoa, Māori and their tauiwi allies have raised concerns about memorials since at least the 1970s, and there was a wave of attacks on memorials here in the 1990s.
Still, the current moment, in which attacks on statues are fueled by red-hot outrage at racism and police brutality, may not provide the best environment in which to consider how to deal with contentious monuments. In a series of earlier posts (here, here, here and here) I wrote about a range of strategies for responding to such monuments, and concluded there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There can also be value in the debate itself, which can provide an opportunity for communities to learn about history and to better understand different perspectives on the past.
So I agree with Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon that it would be helpful at this point to pause and allow time for community dialogue, rather than rushing into decisions about monuments and names. I can also see value in the Māori Party’s call for an inquiry into colonial monuments and names. (The Waitangi Tribunal is due to look at monuments as part of a kaupapa inquiry on identity and culture, but that could be years away and would provide limited opportunities for public dialogue.)
At the same time, while a national inquiry could establish principles for decision-making and perhaps deal with some high-profile cases, it should not take the place of ongoing discussion at the local level, as communities work through how best to respond to monuments and names in their areas. In my own city of Lower Hutt, for example, the council plans to provide some balance to the one-sided recognition of the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm through new street names commemorating the pā of Māori expelled from the Hutt following that battle.
There’s another reason why a longer-term approach to monuments and place names is better than quick fixes. As I’ve written before, I believe there is value in symbolic change, but there is also a danger that it can be tokenistic or can distract from the need for substantive, structural change. Working towards equality of symbolic representation is important, but surely not as urgent as addressing inequalities in the justice system, in employment, in health care, and so on. We can work on more than one thing at once, but I’d suggest we can also allow work on memorialisation to follow a longer track.
While some issues have greater urgency than others, some memorialisation is also surely more offensive than others, and therefore more in need of correction. When it comes to the individuals who are commemorated, there is a difference between (for example) someone who actively enslaved other human beings and someone who expressed racist sentiments. Yes, racist speech contributes to the perpetuation of racist structures, as does silence about racial oppression. But some are more culpable than others, and few reputations could withstand close scrutiny of everything a person wrote or said.
Even Mahatma Gandhi, sometimes portrayed as the paradigm of unimpeachable morality, has come under fire for anti-African racism and for attitudes that were patronising, at best, towards India’s Dalit communities. There have been calls for statues of Gandhi to come down, despite his leading role in resistance to British imperialism. (From a different angle, Rachel Buchanan has asked why there is a statue of Gandhi at Wellington railway station while Māori history is largely absent from public space.)
A large part of the problem with statues and memorials to individuals is that individual human beings, with all their flaws, are set up as representatives of a community. As we seek to redress symbolic imbalances, we could think about moving away from the focus on commemorating individuals towards memorials that recognise previously marginalised and under-represented groups of people.
Where, for example, are New Zealand’s memorials or public artworks for the kinds of workers we relied on to keep doing their jobs during the Covid-19 restrictions: the supermarket staff, the aged-care workers, the cleaners, the truck and bus drivers, and others? Usually low-paid, often Māori, Pacific or Asian New Zealanders, these workers deserve better pay and conditions above all. But perhaps there is also room for creative recognition in public space of their contributions, now and in past generations, to our society? As we consider the fate of the stone and bronze men standing on pedestals, we should also think about how we can recognise the ordinary people who have so long stood in their shadows, but without whom our society could not function.