Keep Our Controversial Statues: We Can Learn From Them

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


July 20, 2020

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

These days, it's not really a good thing to be a statue. As many of you know, statues are getting torn down, defaced, decapitated, spray painted, covered in graffiti, and thrown into harbors by all kinds of folks, protestors, and some people who are probably better described as rioters.

They are saying that these statues all around the United States celebrate racism, the Confederacy, colonialism, and exploitation, and they ought to come down. Statues have been controversial before the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police violence against African Americans.

J. Marion Sims, a pioneer of procedures in obstetrics and gynecology, did many of his operations on African American slave women who basically did not have anesthesia or any means for pain control. He perfected techniques that were pioneering and useful in their day.

His statue was moved in Central Park to an, if you will, unmarked location because people basically said, pre–COVID-19, that this doctor should not have an honorary statue in Central Park saying he achieved wonderful things with surgical techniques, when he did it on these women with such a horrible, painful, and brutal form of research.

How do we understand the ethics of moving the statue of J. Marion Sims, whose influence still goes on in gynecologic surgery to this day, as well as statues of Christopher Columbus, Confederate generals, conquistadors, and even people like George Washington or Theodore Roosevelt, where arguments have broken out saying that statues honoring them should be removed?

I think there is an ethical way to think this through and to make some decisions about what ought to be on exhibit and what ought not. If we follow some of these principles, we might get a better policy about what to do with statues that are out in public and have been on display, in some cases, more than 100 years.

I think the first principle is that we should not honor racists. We should not honor people who were traitors to the nation. We should not honor people who were colonial exploiters. Having statues of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis or other persons out on public display where they're clearly being celebrated and honored is wrong. Those statues should have come down a long time ago. They don't deserve to be put on display, saying we're celebrating this kind of behavior or these kinds of attitudes.

Secondly, we ought to have more statues of people who were abused, hurt, and harmed — a little more Harriet Tubman and a little less Jefferson Davis. We ought to have statues up that honor the sacrifice or the resistance that people made in this country so that part of the history is on display as well. Right now, we have a history, if you will, of the victors, who too often were motivated by racism or eugenics, and not enough about the people whom they exploited, harmed, or killed.

How do we make the decision? I think it's better to have government — local, state, or county agencies — make the call on moving statutes. I don't agree with those who say to let people who are angry tear down statues as they wish. I don't agree necessarily with their decisions. I think it's dangerous.

You'll remember that one of the things the Taliban did when they saw statues they didn't like — the Bamiyan Buddhas, for example, the giant Buddhas — they blew them up because they said they violated their religious values. Iraq saw horrible damage done to many of its statues and artwork because ISIS did not agree with the values on display of those objects.

I don't want panic, desperation, and anger to drive what we do. What we should do is have a discussion and have — as sometimes is happening — a governor, a mayor, the president, or someone make a decision to say this statue ought to go. Where it ought to go is not in the harbor, is not decapitated, but moved to some place of display where we can understand our own history.

I worry that if we simply destroy these statues and if we make believe that a history of racism, bigotry, exploitation, murder, and slavery didn't exist, then we are obliterating a part of our history that we want to come to grips with.

Those statues, kind of like J. Marion Sims, should not be destroyed, but put in places where you can teach about them; explain the past; and point out to the next generation the flaws, mistakes, and horrific actions that took place in this country.

Statues can be put in peace gardens, places where people can meditate and think about the past, or museum displays. They should be in places where we don't chop the head off our history, but learn from our history.

There are things we ought never to forget. We need officials to get in line and say that we apologize for the past, we did wrong in the past, and we're not going to destroy that past, but we're going to present it in a way that we can learn from it so that we can make sure we don't forget it. That seems to be the best fate for statues.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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