I’ve had a lot of conversations about statues lately. More accurately, I’ve had a lot of people talking at me about statues lately.
Some say the statues should be torn down, others say some statues shouldn’t be torn down. Others say that only tearing down certain statues helps, but tearing others down is harmful. There are of course some people who say no statue should ever be torn down.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about what they’ve said and I’ve done a lot of reading too. When listening to all this talk the phrase “graven images” came to mind, so I decided to learn more about that.
I’ve heard the phrase “graven images” in the context of religion, which means I most likely first heard it from a Christian (there was little religious diversity where I grew up), but this didn’t make sense as Christian churches are bathed in such images; unless I misunderstood the term?
Based on Wikipedia’s description I had it right, but it goes further back than Christianity. It comes from a translation of one of the Ten Commandments of the Jewish faith.
_ Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them... _
It’s not clear to me if the purpose of this commandment is strictly to illuminate the dangers of idolatry or just an effort to vilify and alienate other religions, but regardless I found some aspects of the idea to be personally relevant to the statue conversation.
The idea that focusing on visual representation being a mistake can be seen all the way back to Taoism as well:
Without form or image, without existence,
the form of the formless, is beyond defining,
cannot be described,
and is beyond our understanding.
It cannot be called by any name.
Through a chain of hyperlinks that I am no longer able to remember I landed on a some scholarly articles on the subject that provide a somewhat more contemporary interpretation. At its root, the discussion was that the danger of these images or idols is that they concentrate on the person or the subject instead of the subjects acts , allowing a “leaky abstraction” to occur between the value of the subject and the value of their work.
To put it another way, consider Thomas Jefferson (or if you prefer, Bill Gates). Some of his actions have been good, and some of his actions have been reprehensible. We can learn from both, and if we care about others we can perpetuate the good acts and do everything we can to prevent the bad acts from ever happening again.
But when we erect a statue of Jefferson, we’re collapsing all of those acts into one immutable entity. When we hold Jefferson in reverence instead of his commendable actions, we create an all-or-nothing relationship with everything he’s done.
We also lose the opportunity to celebrate the only parts of these people we have a real connection with: the results of their actions.
I believe that all people need love and respect, and that they should be surrounded by people who care for them as a whole person. However, no one now living has a personal relationship with Thomas Jefferson . Memorializing him as a person is at best meaningless, and it has a negative side as well.
By idolizing an individual above their actions, a Trojan horse is created in which those who seek to perpetuate the negative actions of the individual can hide. They can openly support the image of the individual under the guise of supporting their positive acts, while secretly using the image to perpetuate harm.
No one can or should aspire to become another person, that is impossible (and as far as I can tell undesirable). However, aspiring to achieve the positive results of others by studying and building on their actions is not only possible, but the primary means in which change occurs.
In light of this, I think that all statues like this should go. Looking at them through this lens, my own relationship to these idols seems perverse, and while I believe that I’ve managed to detangle the positive actions of these people from the negative ones, why deliberately construct memorials that require this? If we are to construct physical remainders of these things why not build memorials to the deeds and their results themselves?
Because there’s no need to build them. If these actions are as good as we think they are, the memorials will build themselves in the form of a functional civilization that embodies the beliefs behind these actions. If we’re not satisfied with the amount of these manifestations, we should be working on increasing the amount of good work, not producing synthetic evidence of their existence.