Six Lines

On Objective Standards for Removing Confederate Monuments

Posted by Aaron Massey on 17 Aug 2017.

This past Saturday in Charlottesville, VA, white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee became violent, resulting in several dozen injuries and one death. Although Charlottesville is the most recent violence (excepting Durham, NC), cities, states, and organizations have increased their efforts to remove statues, memorials, and symbols of the Confederacy over the last several years. Much of this started with South Carolina’s debate over whether or not they should remove a Confederate flag from their Capitol in response to Dylan Roof’s slaughter of nine black worshipers at a Bible study. This past May, New Orleans removed four such monuments, and Mayor Landrieu’s comments are worth reading for more context. In June, as a part of this ongoing conversation about Confederate monuments, Radley Balko suggested that we should treat Confederate monuments the way former Soviet citizens have treated communist statues, which is a suggestion that I personally favor.

Of course, Charlottesville has changed the conversation, bringing us to the question: How should we decide what to do with these monuments, memorials, and symbols? Many people are interested in an objective standard, for a range of reasons. At one end of the range, they may want one simply because establishing some sort of bright-line rule could shortcut the debate and prevent violence. At the other end of the range, they may be calling for objective standards as a rhetorical weapon, saying by implication that we shouldn’t do anything if we cannot provide a clear rationale for an objective approach to resolving the question of what to do with these monuments.

I believe the call for objective standards is a red herring. For those seeking to prevent violence by “solving” the problem with a standard, you’re missing the point. The discussion necessary to establish the standard would still have to happen, and the standard would have to be updated if conditions changed. Ultimately, honors such as Confederate statues are social constructs. We collectively give meaning to these symbols because they do not have an inherent meaning of their own. A litmus test for offensive iconography can’t be created outside of the social context in which it exists. For those seeking to use an objective standard as a rhetorical weapon, you’re also missing the point. You’re effectively trying to “prove” that people shouldn’t be offended, which is folly. For any given honor or monument, there will be someone who is inevitably offended. You can’t make everyone happy all the time. In fact, this has never been the goal of American democracy.

So if we can’t solve this objectively, can a subjective solution work? Yes, it can. In fact, most solutions humans adopt to solve their problems are fundamentally subjective solutions. This is not necessarily obvious. We often think of people as having “the” solution to one problem or another. However, those solutions are almost as often not proven logically or objectively, but decided subjectively. This is true for lawyers, engineers, and even religious groups. Let’s talk about a few examples.

Non-lawyers often think that the law is an objectively defined proscriptive rulebook that clearly defines good behavior and bad behavior and that the job of a lawyer is to know what page of that book to turn to given a set of circumstances. The reality is that the rulebook almost universally includes ambiguous words and phrases like “reasonable.” Even words that are seemingly unambiguous are regularly interpreted as such in a legal context.

A recent example is illustrative. After the Snowden revelations, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was asked by Senator Wyden whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all” on millions of Americans. Clapper responded, “No, sir.” Later, we learned that this wasn’t the case. Clapper’s initial defense of his response, however, underscores my point. He pointed to his understanding of the word “collect,” indicating that it meant something closer to examine than to gather.1 A famous Supreme Court opinion may also make this point. Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” description of pornography in the Jacobellis v. Ohio case is just another admission that an objective standard for identifying pornographic images doesn’t exist.

Non-engineers think of engineering as having objectively correct, provable answers. Consider bridge building, something we mostly know how to do well. Given a set of usage conditions, like traffic patterns and weight per vehicle, we can calculate risk tolerances that are well-understood. Over time, standards evolve that define what should be done and how to do it. Because these standards essentially eliminate the problems they address, engineers don’t spend their day-to-day working on them. They spend a great deal of time, however, identifying which problem they are trying to solve and identifying and documenting those usage conditions. Essentially, each objective solution is just a tool in the toolbox of an engineer seeking to accurately identify when to use them. The following story from the Smithsonian magazine about Henry Ford and Charles Steinmetz is illustrative, if perhaps misattributed:

Ford, whose electrical engineers couldn’t solve some problems they were having with a gigantic generator, called Steinmetz in to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot. According to Scott, Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.

Henry Ford was thrilled until he got an invoice from General Electric in the amount of $10,000. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz’s success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.

Steinmetz, Scott wrote, responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:

Making chalk mark on generator – $1.

Knowing where to make mark – $9,999.

Ford paid the bill.

The “solution” is inexpensive, but identifying the correct problem isn’t. The real problems in an engineering career aren’t the ones where you objectively prove solutions from first principles. They involve subjective determinations and weighing multiple theoretically optimal solutions to arrive at a cost effective approach that can easily be maintained. Engineering is a fundamentally human-oriented discipline. You can’t solve problems for people if you don’t understand the people.

Finally, let’s consider religion. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that religions are essentially just a set of moral absolutes packaged together with a name like “Christianity” or “Islam.” This is, perhaps, a horrible over simplification, but it’s probably not far from how most lay people, even religious lay people, view religions. Aren’t moral absolutes the perfect example of an objective standard? Doesn’t that make adherents of a particular religion examples of people who eschew subjective assessment in favor of objective assessment?

As you may have guessed, a similar pattern emerges. Understanding and interpreting moral absolutes is not dissimilar from understanding and interpreting “the law.” After all, Southern Christians twisted the Bible to argue in favor of slavery. They were wrong purely on religious grounds, in my opinion. Correctly identifying the most pressing moral problems one faces and assessing the tradeoffs of various solutions is not procedurally dissimilar from doing the same in an engineering context. Staying with Christianity for the moment, the Bible contains many, many stories highlighting the tradeoffs of various moral problems. Understanding these is a core challenge Christians face, as highlighted time and again through the various failings of the rule-following, but morally deficient, Pharisees in the New Testament.

So where does this leave us? Does using a subjective measure for something as serious as choosing people to literally put on a pedestal turn the practice into a morass of moral relativism with no anchor? I don’t think so, for three reasons. First, our attempts to collectively determine the right course of action will be guided by our own beliefs, including those things we believe to be moral absolutes. So instead of a single anchor, we have one for each citizen in the discussion.

Second, our system of government incorporates these disagreements by design. Although Charlottesville erupted in violence, the rule of law continues in the city. The city council voted in April to remove the statues, but this has been put on hold pending litigation. This is how our society takes action without universal agreement. The driver of the car that plowed into the crowd in Charlottesville has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. This is what happens when individuals in our society take matters into their own hands. The system is not perfect, but it is functioning and out ongoing discussions seek to improve it.

Third, we are making progress with this approach, which would not be possible if we were trapped in a morass of relativism. President Trump’s views2 on this issue might have been left of center when he was born. We tend to think of people like Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy who was lynched in 1955 for offending a white woman at a grocery story, as a historical figure. Till’s murder and his mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral fueled the civil rights movement in the United States. Had Till lived, he would be 76 years old today. President Trump is 71. History isn’t over yet. We have work to do.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”Martin Luther King, Jr.

We tend to think of people like Ruby Bridges, a 6 year old black girl who desegregated her elementary school in New Orleans back in 1960, as a historical figure. She inspired Normal Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With in 1963. The painting was used as a book cover for Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals, which has been required reading for many high school and college students. And yet, Ruby Bridges is only 62. President Obama had the painting hanging in the White House, and invited her to see it in 2011. We do not give ourselves much credit for the work that we have done.

So, with all that said, where do I stand on this? I think Radley Balko’s suggestion to treat Confederate monuments as communist statues have been treated would be a great starting point. I don’t think we should destroy statues with artistic or historical value. I don’t buy the argument that removing these statues is an attempt to rewrite history for two reasons. First, many of them were placed where they are with the goal of rewriting history, so it would be silly to use that same argument in the opposite direction now. Second, history is always being reconsidered and rewritten as we learn. I think limiting the scope of this discussion to Confederate monuments is a mistake. Replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 is a great plan. I favor renaming the Washington Redskins. I think it is time to remove all of the Confederates from National Statuary Hall.3

Maybe the best way to end this post is to highlight a tweet from, of all people, Geraldo Rivera:

Let’s start with the easier point here. Removing statues, monuments, memorials, and other honors isn’t erasing history. Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee are surely secure there. Anyone claiming to tell a moderately complete history of North America without them is a fool.

The more complex point is the one about which Rivera almost has an epiphany. Yes, we should regularly revisit past decisions to honor people and reconsider them in light of things we have learned. For Christopher Columbus, The Oatmeal, a popular Internet comic, took this issue on directly, resulting in Seattle and Minneapolis officially renaming the holiday. This sounds like progress to me. I would not favor renaming Columbia, SC or the District of Columbia. These names are simply too well established at this point. But I’m open to having the discussion though, and that’s sort of the point.

  1. It is worth mentioning that linguists and philosophers actively debate the implications of this sort of thing. If all human languages are inescapably ambiguous and require interpretation (i.e., language is a social construct), then it doesn’t matter whether we’re able to identify an objective standard on which we can base decision making. We wouldn’t be able to express it. 

  2. At least, his recently stated views on this. I’m not sure he has deeply held beliefs about much of anything. 

  3. Alabama replaced theirs in 2009. I wonder if they would do the same today.