by Kenneth W. Krause.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes frequently to Skeptic as well. He can be contracted at email@example.com.
To the extent we are rational, we share the same identity.—Rebecca Goldstein.
September was an awkward month for Nature, perhaps the most influential and well-respected science publication on the planet. In August, a group peacefully protested, and vandals subsequently defaced, a Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century surgeon and founder of the New York Women’s Hospital often referred to as the “father of modern gynecology.” Sims’ likeness was left with fiendish red eyes and the word “RACIST” scrawled across its back.
The quarrel stemmed from the mostly undisputed facts that, although Sims helped develop life-saving surgical techniques to help women recover from particularly traumatic births, he also experimented on female slaves without providing anesthesia, and after seeking consent only from their owners. Unsurprisingly, commentators contest whether Sims’ methods were consistent with the customs and scruples of his time (Washington 2017).
Nature’s first inclination was to publish an editorial originally titled, “Removing the Statues of Historical Figures Risks Whitewashing History,” arguing that we should leave such icons in place to remind passers-by of the important historical lessons they might provide (The Editors 2017). The piece also recommended the installation of additional iconography to “describe the unethical behavior and pay respect to the victims of the experimentation.”
Given then-recent events in the ever-emotionally explosive and divisive world of American popular culture especially, vigorous dissent was inevitable. A flurry of indignant letters descended on Nature’s editors. Several writers suggested that, at least in America, the primary if not sole purpose of public statuary is to honor its subjects, not to inform curious minds of their historical significances (Comment 2017). One contributor noted that the history of Nazi Germany has been well-documented in the very conspicuous absence of Nazi iconography. Another reasoned that because written documentation always precedes statuary, removal of monuments would have “no impact on our understanding of the historical failings of those individuals.”
Other letters offered less restrained and, frankly, less disciplined commentary. One author submitted that the editorial “perpetuate[d] racist white supremacy.” Two more branded it simply as “white privilege at its height” and as a “racist screed.” Another found the article in support of “unethical science” and to inform Nature’s minority readers that they “remain unwelcome in science because of their race.”
But more importantly for my purposes here, many writers contributed thoughts on the Sims monument itself that reveal quite plainly our human tendencies to interpret the inherent ambiguity of statues—indeed iconography and other symbolic expressions more generally—consistent with our fears, personal agendas, or ideological mindsets. One author, for example, confided that the Sims statue bid her to “Go away, woman. You have no authority here,” and to “Go away, woman of African descent. You cannot have the intellect to contribute to the science of your own healthcare” (Green 2017). Another saw Sims’ likeness as a “signal” that the “accomplishments of a white man are more important than his methods or the countless people he victimized,” and that “the unwilling subjects of that research … are unimportant and should be washed away.” (Gould 2017; Comment 2017). Yes, all of that from a motionless, voiceless sculpture.
In the end, Nature’s guests called consistently for the icon’s swift removal. And given its and any other statue’s essential ambiguity, I agree. Take it away, melt it down, and donate its metal to a more fruitful purpose. But, regrettably, many writers also petitioned for additional iconography—this time to honor accomplished females in medicine and the victims of sexist and racist medical practices. In other words, they would display more monuments of more humans, no doubt all with potentially hideous skeletons lurking in their so far sealed closets, likely to be scrutinized and challenged by any conceivable number of equally fault- and agenda-ridden human interpreters to come.
In the rush to colonize others’ minds, or perhaps to cast painful blows against cross-cultural enemies, has anyone actually taken the time and effort to think this through? Both duly and thoroughly reproved, Nature’s editors quickly apologized and revised their article, including its title, to comply with reader objections (Campbell 2017; The Editors 2017). But glaring similarities between the Sims controversy and more widely publicized events involving statues of Confederate generals, for example (at least one of which resulted in meaningless violence), have attracted the attention of the general media as well.
Writing for The Atlantic, Ross Anderson aptly observed that “the writing of history and building of monuments are distinct acts, motivated by distinct values” (Anderson 2017). No serious person ever suggested, he continued, that statuary “purport[s] to be an accurate depiction of its history.” So far, so good. At that critical point, Anderson appeared well on his way to advancing the sensible argument that inherently simplistic and ambiguous iconography can only divide our society, and perhaps even inspire (more) pointless violence.
Unfortunately, that was also the point where the author stumbled and then strayed onto perhaps well-worn, but nevertheless unsustainable trail. The legitimate purpose of a society’s statuary, he argued, is “an elevation of particular individuals as representative of its highest ideals,” a collective judgment as to “who should loom over us on pedestals, enshrined in metal or stone ….” But, honestly, no credible history has ever instructed that any individual, no matter how accomplished, whether male or female, black or white, can ever represent our “highest ideals.” And is there anything about recent American history to suggest we could ever agree on what constitutes those ideals? And, come to think of it, how do people tend to react when others choose which monuments and symbols will “loom over” them? Indeed, wasn’t that the problem in Charlottesville, Virginia?
According to Anderson, the activists demanding removal of the Sims statue and its replacement with iconography of presumptively more deserving subjects ask only “that we absorb the hard work of contemporary historians … and use that understanding to inform our choices about who we honor.” But, as any experienced historian knows, historical facts can be, and often are, responsibly parsed and interpreted in many different ways. And why should common citizens blindly accept one credible historian’s perspective over that of any other? Regardless, shouldn’t we encourage the public to consult the actual history, rather than convenient, but severely underdeveloped and necessarily misleading shortcuts?
Author Dave Benner argued, instead, that we should preserve our monuments (Benner 2017). Pointing to the New Orleans statue of Franklin Roosevelt, which, to this point, remains free of public derision and vandalism, Benner reminded us of Executive Order 9066, by which FDR displaced 110,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps, without due process, in “one of the saddest and most tyrannical forms of executive overreach in American History.” Should the FDR monument (indeed, the dime) be purged according to the same reasoning offered by Nature’s revised editorial and those who oppose the Sims statue? By such a standard, would iconography depicting any of the American founders survive?
Perhaps not. But to what supposedly disastrous end? By Benner’s lights, the removal of cultural iconography would “simply make it harder for individuals to learn from the past.” But, again, as the many dissenter’s to Nature’s original editorial observed, the purpose of statuary is not to inform. And let’s be completely candid here: nor is it to “honor” the dead and insensible subjects of such iconography who no longer hold a stake in that or any other outcome. Rather, the unspoken object is no less than to decree and dispense value judgments for the masses.
And some would no doubt argue the propriety of that object in the context of politics and government. But can and should science do better? “As the statues and portraits of Sims make clear,” offers Harriet Washington, award-winning author of Medical Apartheid, “art can create beautiful lies” (Washington 2017). “To find the truth,” she advises, “we must be willing to dig deeper and be willing to confront ugly facts. No scientist, no thinking individual, should be content to accept pretty propaganda.”
Science’s battle is not with any particular ideological foe. It stands against all ideologies equally. It has no interest in turning minds to any individual’s, or any coalition’s social cause because it has no agenda beyond the entire objective truth. Science is incapable of pursuing ambiguity or any shortcut, especially where the potential for clarity, completion, and credibility persists. And science certainly doesn’t need more icons; it needs fewer, or none.
A final thought on symbolic expression:
Yes, American history is saturated with political symbolism, from the flags of the colonial rebellion to the Tinker armbands and beyond. As I wrote this column, however, the discussion of alleged “race” in America grew increasingly inane—dominated, in fact, by Donald Trump, our Clown in Chief, on one side, and mostly mute and under-studied NFL football players on the other. The social, popular, and activist media, along with their rapacious followers, of course, seemed thoroughly enchanted by this absurd spectacle.
I take no position on this “debate,” if it can be so characterized. Indeed, comprehension of the contestants’ grievances is precluded by their irresponsible methods. The President’s very involvement is inexplicable. But, for me, it’s the players’ exclusively symbolic expressions that cause greater concern. Again, not because I disagree with whatever they might be trying to say. Rather, because their gestures are so ambiguous and amenable to any number of conceivable interpretations that, in the end, they say nothing. Is this the future of all public discourse?
Waving or burning flags just isn’t impressive. Nor is standing, or sitting when others stand. Nor is raising a fist or locking arms. Because these expressions require no real investments, they amount to cheap, lazy, conveniently vague, and, thus, mostly empty gestures. I’m old enough to know that they’ll persist, of course, and no doubt dominate the general public’s collective consciousness. I only hope we can manage to maintain, perhaps even expand, spaces for more sober, motivated, and responsible discourse. In any case, I’d prefer not to spend my remaining years watching them being torn down, especially from within.
Anderson, R. 2017. Nature’s Disastrous ‘Whitewashing’ Editorial. Available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/09/an-unfortunate-editorial-in-nature/538998/; accessed September 27, 2017.
Benner, D. 2017. Why the Purge of Historic Monuments Is a Bad Idea. Available online at http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/23021; accessed September 27, 2017.
Campbell, P. 2017. Statues: an editorial response. Nature 549: 334.
Comment. 2017. Readers Respond to Nature’s Editorial on Historical Monuments. Available online at http://www.nature.com/news/readers-respond-to-nature-s-editorial-on-historical-monuments-1.22584; accessed September 26, 2017.
Gould, K.E. 2017. Statues: for those deserving respect. Nature 549: 160.
Green, M.H. 2017. Statues: a mother of gynaecology. Nature 549: 160.
The Editors. 2017. Science must acknowledge its past mistakes and crimes. Nature 549: 5-6.
Washington, H. 2017. Statues that perpetuate lies should not stand. Nature 549: 309.