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The Urge to Destroy is Also a Creative Urge

Written by Neil Levy

Statues are the latest front in our ongoing culture wars.  Symbolism (as all sides agree) is not the be all and end all of politics, but it does matter. Those who want the statues to fall argue that they are harmful, because they commemorate racists (and worse) and thereby contribute to making these attitudes, and the exclusion they enable, acceptable. Those who want statues preserved argue that we should learn from history, not attempt to erase it. At most, they say, statues should be framed better, with explanatory plaques that note the misdeeds of the person commemorated and place them in context.

Those who argue we should learn from history, not rewrite it, might point to some recent events to argue that the movement to tear statutes down is ignorant. A number of statues of people who opposed slavery have been damaged or destroyed. The statue of an abolitionist was toppled in Madison, Wisconsin. A statue of another was vandalized in Philadelphia and another in the town of Whittier. If we allow statues to be torn down, we will lose commemorations of people we ought to celebrate, alongside those who are more questionable. Better to educate people about the historical figures commemorated and bring us to a better understanding of where we came from. Or so we might think.

In one sense, of course, the targeting of these statues does illustrate the ignorance of the protesters. Had they known that the statues commemorated abolitionists, they would have chosen other targets. But they also illustrate the contemporary meaning of statues (of the traditional type).

The protesters did not feel the need to read up on the men whose statues they attacked because these statues are read as representing traditional sources of power, with all the structural racism and exploitation that embodies. The protesters may (or may not) be poorly educated, but the meaning of these statues is the same for us and for them. Few of us know who the men commemorated by the public statues we pass really were. We see them as generic: not just dead White males, but dead rich and powerful White males. In fact, there’s a case for saying that not only is that what they actually represent for us, today, but what they have always represented. Statues are expensive, and no matter how radical the individuals may have been in their day, most of their statues were funded by governments and individuals who were content with the status quo with all its inequalities and all its racism (think of how Martin Luther King Jr. is now celebrated as an all American hero, with his socialism and radicalism conveniently forgotten). In any case, whatever their history, these statues carry this meaning now. They are rightly seen as representing the polity in which Black lives matter less than White.

That being the case, the protesters have not made a mistake in targeting these statues.  And they’re not making a mistake in attempting to rewrite history by tearing them down.

The accusation by some on the right that the movement to tear down statues aims to rewrite history is a strange one. That’s what historians do: they rewrite history, because history isn’t simply in the past. It needs to be rewritten in order to bring out its relevance for us and our concerns. It is always in need of reinterpretation because the concerns and values of past historians led them to understand it in ways that are not appropriate for us. The meaning of history is relational and the person who understands it is one pole of this relation. So, too, with statues: they have a meaning, and that meaning shifts across time depending on the concerns of the observer.


In tearing down the statues, the protesters indeed aim to rewrite history. They attempt to rewrite it so that it is responsive to their concerns and not (just) those of the past. They object to the meaning they rightly take these statues to have. Interpretive plaques tend to go unread and it is likely that even with them in place, these statues would continue to represent a set of values that the protesters object to. Tearing them down contests these values, and rewrites our history for new times.


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24 Comment on this post

    1. If it’s a statue “of the traditional type” – ie it looked like a genetic dead white male – than sure. That would be a bad statue of MLK, so maybe it would be okay on aesthetic grounds too.

  1. I can appreciate the sentiment here but there’s a lot wrong here. Commemorative statures should be seen as ‘generic’—they simply aren’t. Monuments honoring abolitionist are different from statues commemorating Robert E. Lee in intent and meaning. Nor is it true that they were all pretty much funded in the same way and by the same kinds of people. The Emancipation statue being targeted in DC was funded by former slaves. The statue of Hans Christian Her was funded by the Norwegian Society of America. Confederate monuments were largely funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy. These are kind of different groups. Nor is there some generic ‘us’ that public statues all have the same meaning to—the Black men seen defending the Emancipation statue seem to have a very different reading of it than those hoping to destroy it. Statues of Junipero Serra mean one thing to traditional Catholics, and something else to the Chumash.

    The sheer number of distinctions washed away with phrases like “traditional sources of power, with all the structural racism and exploitation that embodies” shows how dangerously vacuous this kind of language can become. If nothing else, it is a strategic mistake to ignore details.

    1. I accept the correction about funding, with some caveats (it’s remarkable how the formerly oppressed can sometimes come to represent oppressive structures). But meaning is never fixed at origin. ‘Wednesday’ is no longer Odin’s day and atheists can say ‘goodbye’ without invoking god. The public meaning of a statue is the meaning that people attribute to it, no matter its origins.

  2. On one level, destroying statues is a crime (vandalism/ property damage), often of high value items. Of course, as with the protests and lockdown, we have accepted the right to protest as a reason to override laws against vandalism and lockdown- and rightly so.

    But if there is no requirement for objectivity outside of what I, or anyone, take the statues I am pulling down to mean, then what stops me from deciding that *anything* built by “the government or individuals content with the status quo” (ie basically everything) represents to me “traditional sources of power, with all the structural racism and exploitation that embodies”. Can I just set the whole place on fire because the whole of society is based on “traditional sources of power, with all the structural racism and exploitation that embodies”?

    1. Meaning is public, as Wittgenstein argued. There’s a fact of the matter what statues mean, even if that fact is made true by our responses. Statues mean what enough people take them to mean, and if I disagree, I am just wrong (in the same way as “dog” means ‘those furry critters” in virtue of our conventions). We can contest those meanings – for instance, we can point to the history of a statue and if enough people come to accept, we might change the meanings.

      1. Right. So how do we know when enough people think statues of abolitionists represent racism because they look a bit like other statues which do? In this case, presumably the 99.99 % of people who walk by each day without feeling the need to tear it down likely either think the statue is either unrelated to racism or a nice reminder that there were people with non-or anti- racist principles even then so that would seem to suggest on the evidence that the dominant meaning is not that of a relative few protesters.

  3. Andrew T. Robinson

    No, the urge to destroy is the urge to destroy. But this does beg the question of “with what shall we replace that which we destroy?”

    [I am partially recapitulating here an argument I have made elsewhere in this forum, with apologies: it applies.]

    In other words, tearing down the statues yields some good COMPARED TO WHAT? And at what social, economic, and moral cost? And on what evidence are we to accept that what will come will be better than what went before? These are the “three questions” that Thomas Sowell suggests must be posed to anyone advocating for tearing at the underpinnings of our society, great or small.

    To make a general argument that symbols and expressions that may be construed negatively by some person or group ought to be removed or destroyed is to obviate all forms of physical expression, because I can think of none that do not arouse some opprobrium or other. Each human to whom a statue is dedicated is as deeply flawed as any of the others. And in fact, those who rise to public prominence tend to be much more flawed than others (given the research linking an increased occurrence of sociopathic traits to economic, political, and moral leaders, for example).

    In other words, on what basis ought any statue be erected or expected to stand? Almost everyone who lived in the past can be accused of racism or some form of group animus or bigotry. And it is certain that anyone to whom these protesters would erect a statue today will be seen contemporaneously, and by those who come after, as suffering from the same faults. As you point out, MLK Jr. is not a safe object for a statue, particularly for those who understand the wages of socialism in blood and treasure, but also because HE made comments and held beliefs that were considered then to be racist.

    With respect to rewriting history, that is a straw man: there is adding facts and knowledge to existing facts and knowledge, and there is revising history to “lie the other way” a la Howard Zinn. Zinn’s approach, and that of the protesters, is NOT to depict both any past hero (or his society) as a complete person with good qualities along with the warts and blemishes (which we know of because contemporary, mostly white, historians have brought these warts and blemishes to their work), but to depict that person (and society) as uniformly bad. It is a form of damnatio memoriae where the name is left for the history books with lots of frowny faces next to it.

    It is not a slippery slope to claim this is simply the first salvo in a cultural revolution that intends to intentionally redesign our civilization–the “creative urge” you describe in your title. But once again we are confronted with the three questions: this will be better COMPARED TO WHAT, at WHAT COSTS, and based on WHAT EVIDENCE? When we dig into the basis of intersectionality and its “interlocking systems of oppression” we find an attempt to develop a class system based on statistical disparities in outcomes or on the weight of past grievances. In other words, we find Marxism with a social, rather than a purely economic, class basis.

    There is no necessity that what comes next will be better than what is. In fact, what followed the dissipation of the Roman Empire was a 1,000 years of of intellectual and economic poverty. What developed in the 20th century in various fascist and Marxian socialist systems, right up to Venezuela, was massive poverty and the murder of over 94 million non-combatants. What comes next, if it arises from collectivist principles, is almost certain to be worse than what exists now.

    I should note that I would prefer there be no statues, short of purely artistic renditions where we know nothing of the model. Knowing the deeply flawed nature of putative heroes makes it impossible for me to view statues with anything but irony, whether they be George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr., and occasionally overt displeasure. But I do not confuse my displeasure, or the displeasure of thousands or even millions of others with whom I agree, to be the basis for taking down those statues, or any other aspect of our culture.

    1. You seem to have only a straw man view of any alternative to the present distribution of wealth and power. Not surprising since Tomas Sowell is so very prone to straw man reasoning. If you want to get a glimpse of what informed left policy based in up to date economic and social science looks like, check out the report at

      1. Andrew T. Robinson

        I can’t help but notice that you have neither responded to my argument, nor made one yourself. I am openly asking you to describe your alternative and present evidence that even suggest it could be achieved without the same sort of economic devastation and moral atrocity committed by every attempt to impose prescribed social and economic outcomes on human societies.

        I would be HAPPY to see such an alternative described. But the burden of proof is upon you.

        1. I do not need to describe the alternative since it is already detailed by the already linked to IPSP, read the report Rethinking Society for the 21st Century volume 1-3. You should be very happy to hear that there is 800+ pages of it for you to enjoy. Draft versions freely available on the website, final version available in print and e-versions on Cambridge Core.

          1. Andrew T. Robinson

            “I do not need to [present evidence]” is exactly why this movement of yours will fail, either by the pen or the sword. If you want to succeed by the pen, you are going to need to do better than providing a top-level link to a web site. If you do not know the material well enough to logically rebut my specific reasons why “rethinking society” will fail, then everyone who hopes for a solution by the pen will know you have lost the argument.

            I don’t envy you: defending Marxian and intersectional principles is not a task I would wish on anyone. Marxism, and indeed collectivism in all its variants, has a record of oppression, poverty, and murder, which cannot be matched by any society or group of societies extant or historically known. And intersectionality is based on definitions so broad and self-referential, they cannot provide a deterministic way to model the various hierarchies of power and oppression to tell us exactly how society should be reordered–except to say “it ought to be different.”

            For example, how many intersectional victim points do I gain for being an Arab? For being left handed? For having 9 1/2 toes? How many do I lose for being male, cis-gender, and heterosexual? Must I relinquish, or have taken from me, some percentage of what I own and earn? Or ought I be given some percentage of what is taken from others? Do I deserve political power or not? The deeper you dive into this morass, the more you are faced with the failure of such a vision of the world, or the more you retrench in illogic and emotionality to shield yourself from feedback from reality.

            Revolutions starting from such a premise have, throughout history and without exception, led to a stream of blood, massive poverty, or both.

            F.A.Hayek – The Road to Serfdom
            F.A.Hayek – The Fatal Conceit
            T. Sowell – Discrimination and Disparities
            J. Riley – Please Stop Helping Us

            1. I linked to ample evidence. It is your choice to not engage with it.

              “rebut my specific reasons”

              You only have generic straw men, though wordy and pompous. A strong signal that engaging with you, while easy, would be an extreme time sink. Opportunity cost too high! As for Hayek, I agree with everything in this article:

              Over and out.

  4. I am trying to identify and understand the argument in this post.

    Are you saying that it’s OK to knock down statues of abolitionist figures because they “represent” misguided values” or carry a morally flawed meanings because they were made and erected in times were these misguided values and morally flawed meanings were so prevalent, that the statues have been “tainted” by these values / meanings?

    1. The former. They embody the meanings they are taken to embody, since that’s how meaning works.

    2. As a follow up question, would you say that it’s OK to knock down monuments similarily “tainted” by objectionable values and meanings of their times such as, for example, all monuments built until the middle of the 20th century, since after all they’re all “tainted” by values and meanings of those who exploited the labour of workers without paying the slightest attention to their moral due?

      Just so that I understand.

      1. That’s a reason in favour of removing those statues. Is it a decisive reason? Not necessarily. Meanings can change over time and old meanings can be entirely dead. When they are entirely dead, and superseded by new ones, there might be countervailing and stronger reasons in favour of keeping the statutes. In general, I don’t think we need strong reasons to remove statues since they don’t usually serve a useful purpose (where being objects of aesthetic value counts as serving a useful purpose). Obviously this will vary from statue to statue. Some may be genuinely valuable as aesthetic objects.

        1. In the original post you wrote: “That being the case, the protesters have not made a mistake in targeting these statues. And they’re not making a mistake in attempting to rewrite history by tearing them down.” Now you write that [the morally flawed meaning these statues embody] is not necessarily a decisive reason to take them down. It’s not very easy to follow your train of thought.

          Alas, you haven’t addressed the question I’ve submitted to you, whose underlying point is: Since past stages of civilization are often tainted with morally flawed meanings (from the point of view of subsequent stages), and if morally flawed meanings accrue as easily as you seem to believe onto physical artefacts, over the course of history, it seems that the following holds: Every historical stage which sees monuments built and erected in an earlier stage has a reason (perhaps not decisive) to knock them down, namely, the reason that they are tainted by moral flawed meanings of the past (from their present point of view).

          Conclusion: Past monuments should at most be *tolerated* from the standpoint of the present, that is, at most should they be spared because the moral flaws which taint them are outweighed by other values — aesthetic, artistic, historical, etc, and in absentia of any outweigh, it’s morally better to knock them down.

          The rub is: Depending how you define the relation of “outweighing a past monument flawed moral values”, it seems to me that your whole argument is not far from triviality: Any artefact can be taken by someone to embody moral flaws of any era it persisted through, and thus by your own reasoning any artefact always requires a similar tradeoff for determining its moral acceptability. Duh.

          1. Sorry, the sentence “Depending how you define the relation of “outweighing a past monument flawed moral values” should have been removed. Triviality is looming regardless of how you define that relation.

          2. Some people think that we shouldn’t tear statues down because that’s rewriting history. I showed they’re wrong. That doesn’t entail a decisive reason that we ought to tear them down. It’s progress, though. And it’s not trivial if my further claim is also correct: that countervailing reasons to keep statues are typically weak.

            1. I don’t see that, sorry. What I see is the *schema* of an argument, a schema which looks like:

              P1. Artefacts of the past are *morally tainted* (in a bad way).
              … under some specification of “moral taint” to be determined ….

              P2. In absence of values *commensurate with*, and *outweighing those making up the bad moral taint of the past*, it’s morally permissible — perhaps morally required — to knock them down.
              … under some specification of, and given some argument for, commensurability of moral with non-moral values, and under some specification of the outweighing relation…

              P3. Statues of abolitionist figures are morally tainted (in a bad way) and their morally bad taint is not outweighed by values commensurate with their bad moral taint* .
              … given some argument for the whole claim…

              c. Therefore, it’s morally permissible (maybe required) to know them down.
              … provided the above holes are filled…

              So I agree it’s shaped like an argument, but I think we can agree there are too many holes to fill before holding any water:
              – missing definition of “bad moral taint” and specification of the domain of things to which the notion is supposed to apply;
              – missing argument for supporting the assumption that moral and non-moral values are sometimes commensurate (so as to license comparisons as required by the “outweighing” relation);
              – missing specification of the outweighing relation and of an argument for the claim that the outweighing relation supports knocking down statues of abolitionist figures

              As I see it, the holes add up to the effect that even if the argument-schema served as a template for a future concrete argument, it would still be impossible for now to anticipate the location of the future concrete argument on the spectrum ranging across these two points:

              – if “bad moral taint” accrues to almost anything of the past and the outweighing relation systematically favours the moral standpoint of the present, then you have the ludicrous consequence that all artefacts of the past must go, and;

              – if the “bad moral taint” accrues to few / minor artefacts of the past OR if the outweighing relation does not systemically favour the moral standpoint of the present, then the argument is either trivial (if it boils down to the observation that putting / keeping things in the public space is sensitive to moral reasons concerning how they might be perceived by people) or invalid (because the conclusion that it’s permissible or required to knock down statues of abolitionnist figures won’t be supported under any specification of the outweighing relation which factors in their good moral taint, i.e. the fact they celebrate abolitionnism).

              1. Sorry a typo again:

                “OR if the outweighing relation does not systemically favour the moral standpoint of the present”

                this sentence should be replaced with:

                “OR if the outweighing relation gives their fair share to the values that taint in a good way artefacts of the past”

              2. I’m not going to spend more time reconstructing the argument. It’s all there: just read it more carefully.

                1. Well if you’re not going doing to do any quality assurance for your own piece and keep pretending that your schema of an argument is an actual argument I might as well be better off investing my time elsewhere. I get the feeling that this blog is marching forcefully into the realm of clickbaits.

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