Representing the Past Should Reflect the Understanding of the Present

Symbols have powerful meanings and associations. As history changes, symbols can come to have new meanings, and the acceptance of the symbol can change.

Lately, the statues of leaders in both Canada and the United States have come into question. The issue is: whether or not keeping these statues up is important in preserving history, or whether it would be better to take them down.

Recently, a statue of Edward Cornwallis was taken down in Halifax. Though this statue depicted the founder of the city, it was taken down because of his having placed a bounty on indigenous people. Jonathan Fowler reflects on this in his opinion piece in The Globe and Mail, “Advances in historical understanding have made the continued public celebration of Cornwallis problematic.” In response to those who defend these statues as history, he says that they need to accept the evolution of history and the fact that taking down a statue does not diminish history.

I agree with Fowler’s point of view. Taking down statues or symbols does not imply that they never existed and that they had no impact. Rather, it is showing respect to those that were victimised in history. This does not mean that they will be erased, but rather re-contextualised into a historical narrative.

To frame this historically, I will do so by examining a well-known symbol: the Nazi’s swastika. James Skidmore, a university of Waterloo professor, discusses the history of this symbol in an article in The Conversation. He discusses the fact that it was a benign symbol before the Nazis appropriated it. However, he also acknowledges the fact that what this symbol has become means that it cannot now be used in any context. The history behind this symbol is important.

The history of a symbol is important, because it informs its meaning. When symbols are associated with genocide, racist movements, or fascism, these symbols become problematic.

We all know that the swastika is associated with the Nazi regime and the genocide of the Holocaust. We now accept that this is not a symbol that should be worn or displayed now. However, we have in the recent past seen the problematic appropriation of these symbols by alt-right groups in the south.

How can this use of offensive symbols by hate groups be considered connected to problematized statues? By looking at the history of these statues, and who erected them. For instance, if we turn to the United States, and specifically the south, we can examine the way that the statues reflect history and a challenging past. These statues have also been in the news lately, regarding a movement to take them down. Those that do not want the statues removed defend them by saying that they represent history.

Historians in an NPR article discuss the true nature of these statues: that they were erected many decades after the civil war, during the time of the Jim Crow laws. These monuments were put up in order to glorify ideals of white supremacy.

I think that by defending problematic statues, people are either purposely or inadvertently supporting the ideals of groups. For example, the KKK is related to the creation of these monuments in the south. Though these monuments seem less questionable than a symbol like the swastika, upon further analysis it is clear that they too are based on a tradition of violence and hate.

The messages portrayed by individual symbols are important, as is their current context. By defending them as part of history, that individual fails to see the history of that symbol and why that symbol is now out-dated and offensive. The context for the creation of these symbols is important as well. Defending these symbols is clearly not a harmless defence of a nation’s history.

In relation to the monument of Edward Cornwallis, though he was not a populist leader or fascist dictator, his racism is still problematic. With the advanced understanding of our current society, it is easy to see why his statue was taken down. To return to Fowler’s comments, these statues clearly have important connotations and them being taken down does not diminish their value for historical education.

In the same way that Nazi symbols are not condoned in our society, we too should not allow the use of symbols of oppression. Symbols have power, so it’s important that we remove and contextualize the negative ones, while being educated about them.

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