Defend Truth


The future of statues (and the statues of the future)


Schalk Engelbrecht is a research associate with the Centre for Applied Ethics (University of Stellenbosch), and a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Business School.

How would the statues we erect today be scandalised in future? Will future protesters spray-paint ‘Speciest’, ‘Carbon Trader’, or ‘Unjust’ on our pedestals?

Forgotten in an endless desert, rests the statue of King Ozymandias. His pedestal is still upright, but only the king’s legs remain on it. The rest of the imposing Ozymandias, including his menacing expression, lies on its side, half covered in sand. On the pedestal, so the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley tells us, the following words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Time is not always a merciful judge or a bribable curator. In many instances, Chronos mocks our attempts to survive ourselves, relativising or forgetting our grand achievements sub species aeternitatis; in other instances, he actively campaigns against our lacquered legacies, exposing our dirty deeds and flawed selves.

At least that’s what happened this last week, when the Many looked upon the works of Edward Colston in Bristol, and King Leopold II in Brussels… and despised. Thereafter followed, in the not-so-new world, Christopher Columbus, Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee. Because history was unhurried in covering these fellows in sand, the Many impatiently seized Time’s scythe, toppling Colston and committing his legacy to the deep (the state fished him from the harbour later the same week). King Leopold II, on the other hand, was not toppled, but red-faced and sheepish, asked to be removed.  

Something similar happened in Cape Town in 2015, when Cecil John Rhodes was first boxed, then forcibly removed as part of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. Postcolonial discontent has since spread from Cape to Camden.

I will not defend or denounce the toppling of statues. I mean to study statues, not to steady them. If these men were guilty of good, it is buried with their busts. The important and chilling point, instead, is that the evil we do lives after us.

And this, perhaps, is the warning: even the bronzed horses of slave-traders and colonialists are not high enough to escape judgment. The moral status quo of a particular space in time is not an adequate shield. We will not be forgiven by the future because, in our time, “everyone did it”.

The Few that dare disagree with statue-toppling today proffer the hearty epithet “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” I sympathise, but only because I wish to spare, not 50, but one righteous Sodomite among wicked colonisers. You need not be a close reader to know that the Father of Virtue, the philosopher Aristotle, is thoroughly tainted by slavery (“Out, damned spot!”).

But my desire to spare Aristotle does not invalidate the lesson: while we shame the past, we don’t earn immunity from the future. Exposing himself to the Many, Hugh Laurie (House, yes, but more importantly a bit of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and also The Scarlet Pimpernel) best expressed the lesson on Twitter: “For every hour we spend agonising over societal crimes of the past, we should probably allow a minute or two to wonder what we’re doing now that will be similarly be condemned a hundred years hence…” 

Do we need an Oracle? Or could we already nail the future’s 95 theses? We cage, torture and then consume extraordinary and relatable beings on an industrial and scientific scale. We get agitated by those who ask while we eat and transact. We irrationally and selfishly procreate into a tragic future. We destroy what took eons of natural effort to create… for convenience. We dig deep holes in a miracle, and then fill it with poison. We create enough for all, and then find reasons to distribute it only to a few. Ferocious beasts, “red in tooth and claw”, appear less likely to enact violence than the rational animal.

How would the statues we erect today be scandalised? Will the future spray-paint “Speciest”, “Carbon Trader”, or “Unjust” on our pedestals?

If my list be false, and upon me proved… let a different age make work of it.

For now, I have but two recommendations. First, that we urgently tend to the moral wrongs we rationally realise but suppress. And second: legend has it that the headless horseman’s ultimate goal is not to terrify. The alarm he causes is a by-product of the search for his head. While we have lost ours, it is likely we will forget why we’re out here in the first place – a new heading is called for. And since the moralities of our everyday life have proved wanting, it is in order that we extend the search outside this realm towards the radical or unthinkable.

Before starting his narration on the lives of Utopians, Sir Thomas More – ironically himself beheaded – explains the focus of his book, and in the process offers us a goal:

“[M]onsters have ceased to be news. There is never a shortage of horrible creatures who prey on human beings, snatch away their food, or devour whole populations, but examples of wise social planning are not so easy to find.” DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted