Lloyd Roberston: How to Cool Canada’s Overheated Statue Removal Business

Every now and then, I come across an article in C2C that has broader interest and application than others. This one by Robertson is one of these, particularly citing this test for discussing whether a statue or monument should be considered for removal.

While there will always be different interpretations and opinions, these kind of “tests” provide useful frameworks for debate and discussion, rather than more knee-jerk responses, both from those advocating for removal as well as opposing removal.

There are likely some other tests out there and grateful readers flag any of interest.

The Witt Test

This brief survey reveals several possible ways to deal with statues of complicated historical figures without allowing the decision to be made by a mob with a hack saw and length of rope. Simply engaging in extensive public debate, as per Frum v. Cosh, is one way to channel energy away from violent beheadings. Adding extra information or modifying displays, as has been the case with Champlain, Bryce, Scott and Mason, allows more voices to be heard, which also seems fair. And India’s Victoria Memorial provides the option of a statuary refuge where past figures can be given general immunity from their crimes of history in a peaceful and contemplative setting. There is, however, another possibility: come up with a dispassionate and rigorous system to judge all figures from the past and let the evidence determine who is worthy of memorialization and who is not.   

Applying the Witt Test to Canadian figures such as Macdonald, Ryerson and all the others now in peril of being removed from the national landscape offers a rational and fact-based method for making these decisions.Tweet

In 2016 Yale University gave historian John Fabian Witt the task of figuring out whether Sen. John C. Calhoun, a central figure in the lead-up to the Confederacy, should continue to have his name recognized on campus with Calhoun College. Witt’s report is a marvel of clear thinking on this fraught topic. It begins by characterizing renaming exercises as “exceptional events” that should not be used frivolously or to make political statements. “Renaming has often reflected excessive confidence in moral orthodoxies,” he observes, pointing with caution to the Soviet Union. He then lays out four questions meant to judge a historical figure’s actions by both the standards of his or her time and contemporary values. Answering each requires substantial research and documentation, rather than hair-trigger emotionalism. And while his remit was to decide on the names of buildings at Yale, Witt’s four questions work just as well for statues in Canada. Here, modified for the task at hand, is a Canadian Witt Test: 

  • Is the principal legacy of the person fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? 
  • Was the relevant principal legacy of the person significantly contested during their lifetime? 
  • At the time the statue was erected, was the person being honoured for reasons fundamentally at odds with Canadian values? 
  • Does the statue play a substantial role in forming community? 

Note that the first two questions require a determination of the “principal legacy” of the historical figure in question. This raises the standard of proof beyond evidence that someone might have once briefly supported a concept now considered repugnant, as has been the case with Ryerson or Wood. And it forces Macdonald’s critics to grapple with his accomplishments as a whole, rather than simply focusing on his impact on Indigenous people. This system also requires a clear enunciation of Canadian values then and now and consideration of what public art means for the public-at-large.  

Using the Witt test, Yale declared Calhoun unworthy of memorialization and removed his name from campus. This was because his principal legacy was determined to be the promotion of a white supremacist view of America. Calhoun called slavery “a positive good” and claimed the Declaration of Independence erred in stating all men were created equal. It was a position strongly contested in his time, as well as ours. It is hard to argue with Yale’s conclusion because it carries the weight of evidence and offers due process to the accused. The University of Mississippi has also used the Witt Test to decide its own historical controversies, and its use was briefly discussed in Halifax as a way to decide on the fate of Cornwallis’ statue, before less-rational heads prevailed. 

Applying the Witt Test to Canadian figures such as Macdonald, Ryerson and all the others now in peril of being removed from the national landscape offers a rational and fact-based method for making these decisions. It may be true that not every figure from our past deserves the honour of a public statue. But their legacies ought to be given a chance to speak in their defense. Surely we owe our predecessors that much. 

Lloyd W. Robertson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and has taught at the post-secondary level in the U.S. and Canada. He writes on Canadian and U.S. politics and history. 

Source: https://c2cjournal.us19.list-manage.com/track/click?u=e8efce716429c34122979e2de&id=11a8ef3065&e=4174a59277