What you need to know:
- As societies constantly re-examine their past, there is an argument to be made that the removal of statues is a necessary part of such re-examination.
- Our statues, one could argue, are our fixed unsustainable patterns of behaviour like corruption, selfish leadership and borrowing.
- Like racist statues in Western nations, this behaviour has been given real value, because it has been maintained, restored and protected over the years.
- The same treatment has not been accorded to blacks and other minorities. Does the power of veneration for a perceived past exceed our current capacity to deal with inequality in our current times?
May 25, 2020, the day George Floyd was murdered, will go down in history. It is disheartening that across the world, such brute force being meted upon civilians is not a thing of the past. Will it ever be? We know that in Kenya systemic police brutality is a constant feature of our lives.
Sometimes we may feel that the more questions we ask, the bleaker and vaguer a situation seems. This time, though, there is a sense that the perfect storm for change is brewing. We owe this partly to the reach of the tech and social media revolution as well as the pandemic.
The pandemic has shone a light on the unsettling levels of inequality not only in American society but around the world. The basic instincts to self-preservation and survival kicked in when the pandemic kicked off. However, that remains a luxury to some.
Black people in America have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The same applies to people living on the margins of poverty globally. It is undeniable that the problem is systemic, and perhaps too nuanced to fully explore in a single article.
The way a lot of systems around the world operate is contributing significantly to fatalities, both Covid-19-related and otherwise. One such contributing institution is the police force. Technology has afforded us the ability to experience almost first-hand the horror of brutal police murders.
As Will Smith put it, “racism has always existed. It’s just getting filmed”. Smith is right; injustices of all kinds are now constantly being documented and posted online. Similarly, the rise of anonymous online leaking of information is helping us better understand the order of the world we live in. All this only reveals the extent of the rot.
As we edge closer to returning to ‘normalcy’, the question on everyone’s mind is what this will look like. We have the rare opportunity to carve out exactly what that means to us.
A question of values
Even as the Black Lives Matter movement celebrates wins such as murderous police officers’ dismissals and convictions, there are still questions that must be asked. For example, how is it possible that the protection and preservation of life is in question? And those meant to protect it are among its biggest threats.
To answer that, you must also ask what values are of importance and therefore to be upheld. There is no way of knowing what every individual’s values are, though national ones tend to be more identifiable.
Societies formulate core values and principles by which to live. A nation’s values define a people’s identity, what they believe in, what they stand for and how others perceive and view them. Values guide behaviour and influence relations among citizens as well as with other communities.
One of the most well-known values within the American declaration of independence of 1776 is that "All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Similarly, in France, the motto of "liberty, equality, and fraternity" dates back to the French Revolution in the late 1700s.
However, we know that at the time those values were espoused, they did not apply, for example, to people of colour, on the basis that they were not really “men” at all. Slavery and colonialism were not seen to be in contradiction with these lofty words.
So as the American declaration of independence marked the end of British rule over the United States of America, the same liberty was not extended to black slaves. Slavery in America was abolished 90 years later in 1865.
Similarly, within 100 years of establishing its state motto, France participated in the division and scramble for Africa in Berlin in 1884-5. Their imperialistic pursuits dated much further back. Equality and fraternity were clearly not extended to the colonies.
As Orwell’s paradox goes, all are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Something is different now. There is evidently a shift in the way values ought to be applied. They are not only reserved for the few who have been on the right side of history, but for everyone – equally.
More Americans than ever support the Black Lives Matter movement. In just the past few weeks, support for the movement has grown more than in the past 2 years collectively. Had Floyd’s murder taken place a few years back, it is highly unlikely that support would have been as major as it is.
The protests have crossed borders, with protestors in over a dozen countries marching in solidarity. These foreign protests not only focus on Floyd’s murder but also on specific internal issues such as inequality and marginalisation of minorities within the respective countries.
Of value to whom? Statues as statements
The wave of toppling, destroying and defacing statues is not so much a trend as it is a means of communicating a message. There is an intrinsic connection between statues and the systems being protested against. Bringing down statues has been a form of rebellion for years.
So in the same way the values mentioned above may have represented a history of greatness for some, statues are a reminder of a painful past for others. Statues of slave owners, racist leaders and other problematic symbols are essentially history encapsulated. They speak of a particular time and of certain ideas.
Those against the demolition of statues believe that they should be preserved for historical purposes. However, art historian Erin L. Thompson observes that because these statues occupy public spaces, the assertion is that their version of history is the public version of history. Therefore, the point of view that they represent is problematic. It also costs taxpayers to maintain and restore these statues.
So if they are purely historical artefacts, why not move them to museums like other artefacts? This way history is preserved and not used to make a public statement. Or even still, why not preserve their memory in photographs, rather than physically?
So while the removal of the statues may appear to be an act of vandalism and violence to some, it is a cathartic process for others, a way of expressing moral outrage. Toppling statues is a statement of opposition to the history or part of the history that they represent. It must feel like uprooting systemic failures and injustices, and in a biblical sense, throwing them in the water for cleansing.
There is a further problem relating to veneration. Statutes tend to lead to idolisation of those commemorated and to a sense that the person should be entitled to unimpeachable veneration. Reality is, of course, a lot more complicated. Churchill was undoubtedly both a great war time leader and a racist that believed in the moral superiority of Caucasians. For example, he spoke and wrote of Africans and Indians as inferior.
However, there is a thin line between the act of removing statutes being problematic and being cathartic. How far is too far? And how do you ensure that the assertion of power that comes with it is not abused?
Real versus apparent value
The issue of statues’ importance is a good starting place for a discussion on what is really of value within societies. The situation allows us to examine what is of real value, versus what is of apparent value.
The debate surrounding whether or not statues should be toppled and removed is telling.
While people try to come to an agreement on the fate of statues, we deviate from the real question on human rights. These statues are regularly maintained; restored when they are vandalised; and protected when there are threats to vandalise them. The same treatment has not been accorded to blacks and other minorities. Does the power of veneration for a perceived past exceed our current capacity to deal with inequality in our current times?
Historically, the contents of Western laws, values and principles have done more harm than good to blacks and minorities. They also simultaneously created privilege, which is discernible in headlines such as “When we tear down racist statues, what should replace them?” forgetting that for some the question was: when our family members are taken from us, who should replace them?
As societies constantly re-examine their past, there is an argument to be made that the removal of statues is a necessary part of such re-examination.
Our statues, one could argue, are our fixed unsustainable patterns of behaviour like corruption, selfish leadership and borrowing. Like racist statues in Western nations, this behaviour has been given real value, because it has been maintained, restored and protected over the years.
On the other hand, we degrade the spirit of the Constitution, codes of ethics, standards of procedures and our national values to the level of apparent value. This is despite having examples of what good behaviour looks like. Every year on Madaraka Day, the President awards and honours Kenyans of all ranks for distinguished and outstanding service to the nation.
This year, the Uzalendo Awards were established by the President to recognise and honour those Kenyans who have exhibited exemplary service, sacrifice, patriotism, heroism and a high sense of civic duty in helping steer Kenya through the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, front line workers from journalists, to healthcare staff and donors were recognised.
Our problem has neither been praising good behaviour nor calling out bad behaviour. We do it all the time. We stress the importance of freedom of expression, we call out politicians and we even shame the police. Our problem is that we never fully see justice being carried out.
The system is warped and we perennially wonder when the time will be right for change. As a column dedicated to the study of the rule of law in our context, we are constantly grappling with the question of toppling mind sets and behaviours.
It should not take the killing of someone for us to change our country. We know how that worked out for us in 2007-2008. We should value our dignity, our values, and our voices. Raising our voices and standing up for our values can make a change.
This article is part of a long series of articles on the rule of law in the context of politics and ethics. The views expressed here are personal and do not represent institutional views. The series is researched and co-authored by:
• Karim Anjarwalla, Managing Partner of ALN Anjarwalla & Khanna, Advocates
• Wandia Musyimi, Research Associate at ALN Anjarwalla & Khanna, Advocates
• Kasyoka Mutunga, Research Associate at ALN Anjarwalla & Khanna, Advocates
• Prof Luis Franceschi, Senior Director, Governance & Peace, The Commonwealth, London