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Is it wrong to Topple Statues and rename Schools? (Part II) | Joanna Burch-Brown

This post is a continuation of this article.


Almost everybody will agree that there are some cases where the argument above applies, and where it is appropriate to remove statues and change place-names. For instance, many people who oppose taking down Confederate statues nevertheless agree that it was appropriate for the statue of Saddam Hussein to be removed. This marked a change of political power, and was a way of communicating the end of an era of rule. However, symbolic expressions of remorse for a community’s past are often controversial. They may be particularly controversial when they involve removing historic aspects of the cultural landscape such as place-names, flags or statues. This has been evidence in the US, where a majority of Americans polled state that they oppose removals of confederate statues in New Orleans, Charlottesville, Baltimore, and elsewhere.[1]

In Bristol, England, for instance, trustees announced their decision to rename the city’s premier music venue, Colston Hall, on the grounds that Edward Colston, (1636-1721), investor and manager of the enslaving Royal African Company, did not represent their values as a contemporary and inclusive arts organization.[2] The announcement was met with a flood of opposition in local, national and social media. Two petitions were launched against renaming the hall, gaining 5,000 signatures each; there was vigorous opposition expressed in social media; and hundreds of letters in the local press have expressed dismay at the decision. Letter-writers argued that removing Colston’s name from Colston Hall amounted to erasing history, sanitizing the past, destroying heritage, doing injustice to a great Bristolian, pandering to a politically correct minority, removing decisions about Bristolian heritage from Bristolian hands, ignoring the fact that white people too have been exploited and enslaved, indulging a ‘snowflake’ victim mentality, ignoring more important contemporary issues like ‘modern day slavery’ and FGM, and unfairly blaming British people for slavery when it was Africans who enslaved fellow Africans in the first place. Several letter-writers described the renaming of Colston Hall as a fascist, Stalinesque and Orwellian rewriting of history. Many also offer a slippery slope argument. If we rename Colston Hall, what else will have to be renamed? The schools and streets? All of the other places named after morally dubious figures?[3] In the remainder of this paper I will address just a handful of common objections.[4]

First, people who favour the preservation of statues and historic place-names often argue that place-names and statues do not necessarily confer honour. Instead, they serve to remind us of both the good and bad aspects of history, and in doing so play and important pedagogical role by reminding us of human fallibility and the complexity of human lives. As time passes, the social function of these cultural objects can change. They can shift from being active parts of contemporary culture, to being historical artefacts. Statues from ancient times no longer signal who we are or who amongst us has power, but instead signal who we were and who did have power. When the history involved is genuinely ancient, it might be argued, then the representation of morally troubling figures does not seem to pose a threat. Moreover, from the perspective of later generations, it can be (although is not necessarily) positive to inherit ancient cultural objects, including objects that are morally complex. If the subsequent generations had destroyed those cultural objects as the culture changed, then we would not have them today, and that would be a loss. Thus it is possible to have ancient historical statues which represent people who carried out grave injustices, and for these statues to present no active threat, and for there to be good reason to preserve them. From this perspective, the idea that we should remove the names of places called after contested figures looks illiberal and fanatical; we might agree that person X carried out grave injustices but hold that we should keep their statues and place-names because they are part of our complex history.

It is true that the meaning of cultural objects can change over time, and that objects which at one point celebrate a major figure can later become artefacts. However, it is mistaken to think that objects like statues of colonial leaders are now mere artefacts, in many cases. Instead, they may be active part of cultural narratives about national identities. Many of the cultural objects that are currently contested are not ‘inert’, but directly connected to ongoing social injustice. Cleo Lake says, of a reluctance to replace un-interpreted, problematic objects with objects that tells the history more directly and critically:

Maybe they want to forget their history.  Maybe they can.  Maybe we can’t.  Maybe we’re walking with it every day.  Maybe we’re still going through the trauma.  It’s real for us…[5]

Speaking of the barriers to black women’s progress, she says, ‘How does it help being reminded every time you come to your premier cultural institution about that negative aspect?’ Likewise, British MP Dawn Butler states in a debate about recontextualizing Admiral Nelson’s column in London,

It is easy to ignore history if you’re not affected by it. So does that mean that I want to see statues being torn down? No. But does it mean that I want to see the context of what that person represented highlighted, in the starkest possible terms? Yes.[6]

That such symbols may influence political as well as personal outcomes is supported by findings such as evidence that priming people in the US South with images of Confederate flags lead to decreased willingness to vote for Barack Obama.[7] Having images of white power and black disempowerment through enslavement is not inert; instead it actively shapes people’s ideas about the current social world. This does not necessarily show that such objects should be removed. However, it does show that there may be a good case for removal.

Moreover, although it is crucial to retain some contested cultural objects for posterity, we can be selective. If removing some problematic cultural objects creates room for more diverse creativity, then doing so may allow us to leave a richer inheritance to posterity. For instance, discussing the aftermath of Nazi Germany, Yuliya Komska emphasizes that removing relics is not a panacea, and that what matters most is the process and aftermath of these decisions. Komska affirms the removal of the most prominent Nazi symbols. However, more subtle symbols pervade the landscape, through architecture, arts and culture.  Komska argues that it was important for major Nazi symbols to be removed, but suggests that there is not a need to remove all such objects. Instead, important education can take place through appropriate, well-scaffolded engagement with them. Observing that ‘bad history can be put to good use’, she cites cases in Ukraine, Taiwan and Germany to argue that ‘the task at hand is to purge the imagery in a way that guards against amnesia, while also transforming the statues from celebratory monuments to objective evidence’[8]

Another argument is that removing these objects erases history and sanitizes the past. It is true that if we remove the objects with no further action, then this could have the effect of obscuring the past. However, as the Yale Guidelines on renaming emphasize, any choice to either retain or remove a name on moral grounds comes with duties of non-erasure – i.e. a duty to ensure that the action does not have the effect of airbrushing history.[9] Removing relics without comment is not the only option, nor the best one. For instance, a school that chooses to change its name might commission artists to create a permanent exhibition about the relevant history of the name and the historic name change, so as to educate future generations about the changes that have been made. Similarly, it is possible to change a place name, but include a smaller plaque or sign stating the historical name. Derek Alderman reports that in Chapel Hill, one barrier to naming a street after Martin Luther King was that the community felt that Airport Road was an important part of its heritage.[10] They created a compromise sign which showed clearly that the road was now called after Martin Luther King, but with a sign beneath stating ‘Historic Airport Road’. This shows that it is possible to ‘layer’ place-names instead of solely removing them. Another example comes from Paris. Historian Olivette Otele describes a street previously named after Antoine Richepanse (who Otele states helped re-establish slavery in 1802) was renamed after Joseph Boulogne, a renowned musican and son of an enslaved woman. A plaque was erected to explain the change. Otele states that ‘The joint presentation of both men’s names ensures that visitors are confronted by multiple histories’.[11]

Moreover, un-interpreted statues and place-names do not necessarily help people learn the true history of their communities. Instead, they are likely to lead people to assume that the figures involved are broadly positive and appropriate sources of pride. For instance, Christine Townsend analyses the way in which Colston has been valorized in Bristol despite his involvement in slavery.

This man was “our hero”, “our heritage”, “our philanthropist” who gave so much to “our” city.  A uniting figure, we were told, who used his money and influence to “help the poor” – a legacy that remains with us today.  Then, as now, we saw this man embellished by local institutions, our historical churches, our Cathedral and within state educational practice.[12]

She writes that the prominence of Colston in statues, stained-glass and civic rituals lead to miseducation, not historical awareness. Arguing that Colston does not in fact represent Bristolians in general, but instead a select elite wealthy class, she writes:

My ancestors, like most of my fellow Bristolians’ ancestors, would have been despised by Colston.  Their labour would have been used to expand his personal wealth’… He is not my ‘hero’, any more than he is your ‘hero’…. The ‘legacy’ he left the city is one elevated, maintained and used by the elite to promote an image that suits their own purposes: Enabling a tiny number of people to hide behind a surface of benefaction, as this man has done down the ages….The murder, the kidnap, the suffering and enforced labour of my ancestors and of yours, has a legacy we see all around us today in the inequitable access to education, housing and quality jobs alike.[13]

If the concern with preserving awareness of ‘history in the round’ is a sincere one, then there should be no problem with removing ambiguous and potentially problematic cultural objects, and replacing them with ones that convey the history in a balanced way, in its complexity.

A further argument against removing, re-contextualizing and renaming is a concern that people from the past should be judged by the standards of their time. The concern is that judging historical figures by today’s moral standards does them an injustice. The fact that few people in Colston’s milieu were vocally critical of African enslavement or other forms of labour exploitation means that his practices were not subject to the kind of critique that would have led him to see his actions as problematic. Indeed, the thought goes, with respect to slavery, Colston was a man of his time; what made him exceptional was his unusual generosity in bequeathing his wealth to Bristol charities.

One thought expressed in this objection is the idea that morality is relative to a given time and culture.  According to this view, morality is constructed by communities, and there is no continuity from one time to another; what is wrong today was not wrong in the past, if a given community did not see it this way.  There are several ways of responding to this. First, moral relativism is not the only option. It seems plausible to instead argue for at least some limited form of moral universalism. On this view, there are some kinds of things that are in fact wrong or unjust, even if people do not know it at a given time. For instance, many argue that the system of mass African enslavement was a crime against humanity, and that this is true regardless of what people carrying out the enslavement believed. If people sincerely did not understand the moral significance of what they were doing, then this matters, because it influences the kinds of attitudes we should hold towards them. However, it does not show that there is no need for reparatory action in light of the injustices suffered by enslaved people. For instance, it does not show that we should continue to celebrate Edward Colston in the same way that we have done historically. It is possible to agree that his historical context is an important factor which acts to mitigate responsibility. However, this does not change the immense harm suffered by people who were enslaved on his ships. A great injustice was still suffered by these individuals, and we have a duty to take appropriate steps now to repair this injustice, for instance by now showing due respect for the lives of people who were harmed.[14]

Another argument against renaming is a counterfactual one. Colonialism and Atlantic world slavery profoundly affected the course of world history, making it difficult to evaluate harms. One argument is that the people who exist today would not have been alive had a different course of history occurred, and thus that they have not been harmed by this history. Another argument is that colonial exploitation involved problematic relations but that it is impossible to evaluate whether people today are worse off than they would have been had colonialism not occurred. One response, from Daniel Butt, says that in reflecting on this question the correct counterfactual is not how people would have been had no colonial interaction occurred. Instead, it is how people would have been had interactions taken place on just terms, i.e. without subjugation, domination or unfair use.[15] This seems to make the harmfulness of colonialism clearer. A second argument, from Seana Shiffrin, states that the conceptions of harm above are problematic, because they treat harm as a matter of costs and benefits. Instead, she says that a person is harmed if they are treated in a way that is in fundamental violation of their personhood. The kinds of relationships involved in colonial subjugation and enslavement are unambiguously harmful in this way, as are the ongoing racial injustice that is the legacy of these periods. This shows that we should reject the claim that people involved were not harmed and thus that reparatory actions are not needed.[16]

Finally, a common argument against renaming and removing symbols of white supremacy is a slippery slope argument.

Premise 1) Many places across the world are named after people who benefited unjustly from colonialism and slavery.

Premise 2) If we rename one of these places for moral reasons, then for consistency we would have to rename all of the others.

Premise 3) It would be absurd to rename all of these places. That would be airbrushing history and denying our past.

Conclusion) Therefore we should oppose attempts to rename any of these places on moral grounds.

However, this argument is problematic. Premise 1 is uncontroversial; it is true that there are many places named after people involved in slavery. However, we can reject the idea that consistency would require renaming all of these places (Premise 2), because there is no reason to assume that every place should be treated in the same way. Different places serve different social functions, so there might be good reasons to rename some places while retaining the names of others.

For instance, there could be strong arguments for renaming schools that are currently named after people who famously endorsed white supremacist ideals, because of the unique role that schools play in the formation of young people’s self-concepts and group identities. It may be problematic to ask young people to form positive shared identities and school community around the name of a person who defended white supremacy.[17] Young people may feel like it is incompatible with their self-respect or their moral principles to form a strong positive identity associated with such a figure. Moreover, because of phenomena like stereotype threat, and the potential for moral conflict with teachers over the name, having a school named after a known white supremacist might negatively affect the learning environment for some students, particularly for students racialized as black.[18]

Likewise, as we have seen, it is possible to put pressure on the idea that renaming places leads to airbrushing history and denying the past (Premise 3). Renaming need not involve airbrushing the past. Instead, any choice to either retain or change the name of a place comes with attendant duties to avoid sanitizing history, and to instead tell history in the round. A place which decides to change its name would be airbrushing the past if it simply removed all references to its previous namesake, and discouraged further engagement with its history; but it would not be airbrushing the past if it created a permanent educational display telling both positive and negative aspects of the former namesake; explaining the decision change the name; and prompting people to think for themselves about the issues of public ethics involved.

These are not decisive arguments; there might be other reasons to keep school names and statues. However, the discussion above does show that a) there are some prima facie reasons in favour of changing the names of the schools and removing prominent statues; and that b) several of the most prominent arguments against changing at least some names and removing some statues are ineffective. For instance, schools play a unique role in society, so we may have an obligation to rename the schools even if we do not rename other places; and doing so will not erase history provided we take appropriate steps to raise historical awareness in conjunction with changing the names. There are many other issues that bear on whether a name change is appropriate; but this shows that several of the most common objections can be rejected.

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[1] Chris Kahn, A majority of Americans want to preserve Confederate monuments: Reuters/Ipsos poll, Reuters (Aug. 21, 2017),

[2] See Emine Saner, Renamed and shamed: taking on Britain’s slave-trade past, from Colston Hall to Penny Lane, The Guardian (April 29, 2017),; David Olusoga, Bristol’s Colston Hall is an affront to a multi-cultural city. Let’s rename it now, The Guardian (Feb. 25, 2017); Madge Dresser, Obliteration, contextualization or “guerrilla memorialisation”? Edward Colston’s statue reconsidered, Open Democracy(2016).

[3] From letters of The Bristol Evening Post, April – December 2017. Thanks are due to Mark Steeds for collecting these letters. For discussion of memorialization of slavery in Britain more generally, see Alan Rice, Creating Memorials, Building Identities: The Politics of Memory in the Black Atlantic, (Liverpool University Press, 2010); Katie Donnington, Katie, Ryan Hanley and Jessica Moody, Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a National ‘Sin’ (Liverpool University Press, 2016)

Within Britain, Bristol is a particularly interesting case, because of the major role that the city’s merchants played in promoting Atlantic world slavery, and the fact that public memorialization of this history has often been reluctant.  For discussion of Bristol’s role in slavery and controversies around memorialization, see eg: Madge Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in Bristol, (Redcliffe, 2017),; Olivette Otele, Bristol, slavery and the politics of representation: the Slave Trade Gallery in the Bristol Museum in Social Semiotics, Vol 22, 2012. doi:10.1080/10350330.2012.665231;

 Sally Morgan, Memory and the merchants: Commemoration and civic identity, 4(2) International Journal of Heritage Studies 102-113(2013),

[4] For succinct statements of other objections and replies, see Joanna Burch-Brown, Speaker’s Corner: Defenders of Colston are the ones airbrushing the past, says Bristol University academic, Bristol Evening Post, (April 30, 2017).

[5] Cleo Lake & Christine Townsend, Channel 4 News (April 29, 2017),

[6] Dawn Butler MP, Alan Duncan MP, Ian Paisley Junior MP, Ella Whelan, ‘Any Questions?’ BBC Radio 4.

[7] Joyce Ehrlinger et al. How exposure to the Confederate flag affects willingness to vote for Barack Obama, 32(1) Political Psychology, 131-146(2010).

[8] Yuliya Komska, Take a lesson: How Germany handles monuments from Nazi and communist eras, The Inquirer (Aug. 17, 2017),

[9] Witt, supra note 22.

[10] Derek Alderman, ‘A street fit for a King’,

[11] Otele, Olivette, Slavery and Visual Memory: What Britain can learn from France, Open Democracy (Aug. 29, 2016),

[12] Christine Townsend, How we Bristolians have been brainwashed into thinking that Edward Colston is a hero, Bristol Evening  (Nov. 2, 2017)

[13] Id.

[14] Perhaps more contentiously, in some cases, it is also possible to argue that people in a given era should have understood the moral significance of their actions, given the conceptual resources available to them at their time. For instance, given the emphasis on values of freedom, people in Enlightenment era Europe arguably should have understood sooner the wrongness of enslaving African people.

[15] Daniel Butt, Repairing historical wrongs and the end of empire, 21(2) Social and Legal Studies 227-242(2012).

[16] Seana Shiffrin, Reparations for U.S. Slavery and Justice over Time, SSRN(2009).

[17] John Fabian Witt et al., Report of the committee to establish principles on renaming (Nov. 21, 2016).

[18] Michael Inzlicht & Toni Schmader, Stereotype Threat: Theory, process and application (Oxford University Press, 2011).


Dr. Joanna Burch-Brown is a lecturer in Philosophy at University of Bristol. This article was originally published in the Journal of Political Theory & Philosophy.

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