The contentious debate over the legacies of historical figures continued this week as the movement to demolish controversial statues heard an argument from both sides.
On Monday, a board in New York City voted to remove a statue of a controversial 19th century doctor. Wednesday, Tennessee punished Memphis by stripping the city of $250,000 in state funds, a direct response to Memphis removing two Confederate statues last December.
Overall, the two sides disagree over how to properly remember historical figures with complicated pasts. Should we honor them despite their flaws or are we whitewashing history?
What we shouldn’t do is ignore the issue in an attempt to respect history or legacy. Sometimes people who do great things also commit horrible acts. What matters most is how we frame them and remember their legacy.
Building a memorial doesn’t do this. A statue of a man posed in a position of strength and dignity doesn’t provide context or give the audience a true history of the person.
Over the last year, the battle over monuments and the history of the people who influence them has been a constant debate. As we look back and reflect on the actions of these individuals, some have reconsidered whether or not they deserve to be honored.
The most recent argument came up this week as New York City’s Public Design Commission voted to remove the statue of J. Marion Sims. Sims is acknowledged as the father of modern gynecology, but his history is much darker than his statue suggests.
Much of Sims’ findings came from experiments done on women who were slaves, and many times these experiments were done without any anesthesia. While his experiments were influential in creating procedures that have since helped many women, some rightfully have brought up the women who suffered through his research.
Considering this part of his history, it seems extremely disrespectful to portray him as a gentle figure. This essentially erases the pain of the women upon whom he built his legacy.
One of the common arguments is that removing a statue like Sims’ obscures them from history and some have even claimed that it is a form of censorship.
That was one of the main arguments made last year when the statues of Confederate leaders were protested across the country. However, this idea seems odd considering the fact that the vast majority of historical figures do not have monuments in their honor.
If a statue is the only way to remember someone, why don’t we have more of them? Why don’t the women Sims worked on have statues depicting them?
This argument seems especially disingenuous considering many of the Confederate memorials were erected in the same century as the Civil Rights Movement, a response some believe was a direct message of intimidation to African Americans.
If critics are worried about controversial people being erased, they can relax. Books will still exist and the fact is that these figures will not be forgotten, because they can’t be.
If someone wants to understand the politics of the Civil War they need to study not only Abraham Lincoln, but the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. We can’t examine the lead up to World War II without acknowledging the rise of Adolf Hitler.
To understand history we have to study every angle, even the ones we would rather forget. There is very little chance they will be forgotten if their tributes are removed.
By taking down these statues we are not forgetting these figures, we are only removing them from a place of respect. There is a difference between remembering and celebrating someone.
Symbols matter to a society and by creating these tributes we are honoring their memory. Unfortunately, some figures are too complicated to be remembered this way.
Someone like Sims will be remembered by medical students and historians. They will be able to see how he shaped the field while still understanding the atrocities he committed.
But should he be given a special place of honor by himself, while the women he hurt are forgotten?
I’m not saying our idols need to be perfect (no one is), but we have to be careful in how we portray them. As a society we need to be more careful with who we place on a pedestal.
As time moves on we need to be honest with ourselves about some of the memorials that have been erected. We should be able to look at them objectively and decide if they still deserve their place of respect.
Sometimes heroes fall. Maybe some of their statues should, too.