Honour, Commemoration and Emotional Imperialism
Alfred Archer (Tilburg University) and Benjamin Matheson (Stockholm University)
War and conflict are often commemorated through statues, ceremonies, and objects. While these forms of commemoration can play a positive role in public life, we will argue that the emotional regimes that often accompany such forms of commemoration are unjust. On our view, commemoration involves (among other things) honouring and admiring and identifying a particular person or group as admirable. After setting out this account of commemoration in §1, we then, in §2, present a range of cases where commemoration is enforced. For example, the Derry born footballer James Maclean refuses to wear a poppy to commemorate those who have died while fighting for the British Army. He does so because of the oppressive behaviour of the British Army in Derry, including Bloody Sunday in which the British Army killed 28 unarmed civilians on a peaceful protest. We use this case, together with others, to explore the dangers of commemoration. Maclean has repeatedly been subjected to negative reactions in the media and from supporters for his decision, including occasional death threats. In this paper we argue that these reactions constitute a coercive emotional regime. We then draw on Iris Marion Young (2011) to argue that such attempts to force Maclean to prioritize his emotions in line with the values of the dominant culture constitutes a form of cultural imperialism that we will call “emotional imperialism”. This emotional imperialism constitutes a form of what Amia Srinivasan (2018) calls ‘affective injustice’. This is a second order injustice that victims of oppression face in having to manage conflicts between their fitting emotional responses to a situation and their desire to protect their own well-being. Our aim is not to argue that we should not commemorate. Rather, it is to draw attention to the oppressive potential of commemoration practices.
Like Him or Not: Defences of Sir John A MacDonald and How to Resist Them
Daniel Abrahams (University of Glasgow)
In this paper I argue that that the primary goal of statues honouring public figures is to create and shape a collective (usually national) identity. The way that these statues further the goal of identity is not by holding up the subjects of the statues as admirable but rather by asserting that the subjects were in some way objectively important and central to some group surrounding the statue. I take as my case study the recent historical debates in Canada surrounding its first Prime Minster, Sir John A MacDonald. I will look at the defences for keeping statues of and awards named after MacDonald, and show that the primary concern is not with defending the character of Macdonald but rather that removing him is in some way “erasing history.” I argue that these defences are not about defending MacDonald as a person but rather defending a conception of the Canadian identity that requires MacDonald play a central role. Against these defences of MacDonald, I show that the “objective history” case for him and other such similar figures fails. In the particular case of MacDonald it fails because he was actually just not that important for Canadian history. In the general case of negative public figures, I provide a short defence of how group identities are not static and not unchangeably rooted in a single historically-based articulation.
On the Ethics of Publicly Dishonoring the Contemptible
Macalester Bell (Bryn Mawr College)
Recently, student protests have unfolded on a number of college campuses around the world. While the precise nature of their demands differ, many protesters are calling for the removal of building names and other memorials honoring those who are, by contemporary standards, generally regarded as racist. The calls for the removal of these memorials are motivated by protesters’ sense that leaving them in place is profoundly disrespectful and tacitly condones, and perhaps unintentionally celebrates, the racism of those honored and memorialized. I first offer an analysis of the protesters’ demands and actions: as I see it, the protesters object to the unfitting admiration these memorials display for dishonorable people. To publicly express admiration for the patently dishonorable is, protesters assert, to make a deep and insulting moral mistake. The memorials must be removed because the continued public honoring of dishonorable people is disrespectful. In short, the protesters are calling on their institutions to express contempt for the formerly honored by ritualistically removing the monuments. While the public honoring of racists, even long dead racists, poses a serious moral threat, I have argued in previous work that the protesters’ demands for the removal of these memorials are ultimately misguided. The form of contempt the protesters are asking their institutions to publicly express is not the kind of contempt that is especially well suited to answer the ongoing threat posed by racism and the public honoring of racists. In this paper, I take up the question of how to publicly contemn well. I argue that public expressions of contempt do have a role to play in dishonoring the dishonorable, but the contempt expressed must be active, rather than passive, contempt.
Commemoration and Admiration
Anja Berninger (Universität Stuttgart)
In this paper, I discuss acts of commemoration for political figures. Some of the figures thus commemorated (like Churchill) are also guilty of atrocities. If one assumes commemoration is an expression of admiration, one might wonder, when this sort of emotion is appropriate. I sketch three answers to this question and show that they are unconvincing.
- One might suggest a person merits admiration, if he or she has admirable qualities. The problem here is that even brutal dictators such as Mao may seem to have such qualities. Yet, they do not seem to merit admiration.
- One can suggest that acts of commemoration are only appropriate, if the person as a whole is admirable. This approach, however, places the bar too high. Even admirable figures such as Nelson Mandela have some shortcomings. But, intuitively, it still seems right to admire them.
- A third option lies in suggesting that we must see which features are most central to the person in question. The problem here is that this seems to suggest achievements can in some sense offset moral failures. But, it is not at all clear that this can be the case.
In the light of these issues, I make a different proposal. I suggest that in commemorating political leaders we are, in fact, treating them as symbols for certain social movements. Thus, in commemorating Mandela, we are not concerned with him as a person, but rather see him as symbolizing the struggle against Apartheid. Our admiration is directed towards the courage shown by the participants in this struggle. I conclude by highlighting the important role narratives play for enabling us to see political figures as such symbols and how this is compatible with also holding ambivalent views of them as persons.
Would renaming our schools erase history?
Joanna Burch Brown (Bristol University)
The transatlantic enslavement of Africans had uniquely harmful consequences, due to its scale and its justifications. It generated ideas of racial hierarchy which were used to justify African exploitation and exclusion long after Emancipation. Nevertheless, a large number of schools around the world are named after the people who built Atlantic world slavery. In Africa, the Americas and Britain there are schools named after people who wrote slavery into law, enforced it, coordinated it and became wealthy from it. Is there a moral duty to rename such schools, as an expression of acknowledgement, remorse and repudiation of slavery and racist ideologies? Or would renaming be unfair to the namesakes, for instance by unfairly judging the past by contemporary standards, and scapegoating individuals for structural injustices? Moreover, would renaming backfire by generating resentment and confirming white supremacist fears that the presence of racialized minorities will lead to the loss of white heritage? Do we instead have a duty to retain these historical names, in order to preserve heritage and help students learn the lessons of history? I examine these concerns, and argue that the friction generated by these debates is not surprising, because having problematic namesakes makes it difficult for schools to balance their moral duties, even if all participants are reasoning sincerely. I show that schools facing this question are struggling to manage an inherent tension between the duty to a) build a positive school identity, b) tell the truth about the namesake’s legacies, and c) send positive messages that empower students in their identities. It is possible for schools to balance these duties, but doing so requires a significant level of learning and will from the school community. I discuss positive examples that schools can follow, and I argue that the case for renaming becomes strongest in schools which have a history of failing to address other forms of racism.
Admiring Witnesses: Positive Emotions in Response to Refugees’ Testimony
André Grahle (LMU Munich)
Refugees arrive as witnesses of severe injustices experienced in their country of origin, and some of them are actively seeking to give testimony. I begin by elaborating on these observations and explain their moral significance in the context of recent refugee arrival to Europe. I focus less on the act of bearing witness in the course of relevant legal procedures, and instead on the city’s public spaces where witnesses create social memory and work towards the expansion of their moral community in ways that extend over (selected elements of) the receiving society. I argue that responsible listening to witnesses and their testimony involves emotional responses that go beyond sympathy and a number of other, distinctively “negative” emotions, such as grief and anger, that we typically experience in response to stories of radical suffering. Witnesses are often just as much deserving of a number of “positive” emotional responses, one of which is admiration. I defend this view by elaborating on three interrelated considerations: first, the agency involved in acquiring and organizing one’s testimony is an achievement; second, some virtues are manifested in the activity of giving testimony, such as the courage it takes to speak publicly despite persisting risks; and third, the witnesses’ firm commitment to overcoming the injustice (not only the passivity of her suffering from the injustices) tends to be reflected in her testimony as well. I argue that by including admiration in our emotional responses, we can forestall the dangerous tendency of further victimizing witnesses. As a counter-weight to sympathy, admiration for the witness can even have dignifying effects. This said, admiration must, where possible, be followed by an offer of practical support for the witness and their persisting struggle for justice. If no such support is offered, the cultivation of admiration risks turning into moral voyeurism.
Blossoming Ambiguity; Public Commemoration as Meaning-full Speech Act
In this paper I examine the ambiguities present in symbols and acts of remembrance; asking whether it is possible to resolve questions of what are, and are not, appropriate public acts of commemoration. I argue that many public acts of commemoration are attempted speech acts, that may fail to be meaningful, due to the many potential meanings they may hold for both ‘speakers’ and for audiences. We sometimes disambiguate what it is we do when we commemorate through our choice of words. We also express ourselves in the selection of those we are remembering. We remember ‘our’ dead, and leave it to others to commemorate ‘theirs’, or we remember ‘all those who fell in x action’, or perhaps ‘all those victims of war’. These expressions make clear(er) at least the intentions of those who made them, though these meanings and senses may shift over time, and new meanings may over-write the old (literally and figuratively), contesting or replacing these under the public gaze. Some acts of public commemoration may, by comparison, be relatively ‘mute’. These may be taken to hold multiple, and sometimes contradictory, meanings. Public acts of commemoration of war may, for example, be taken to honour our glorious dead, or to honour (or simply to recognise) the innocent victims of state-sanctioned slaughter, whilst expressing neither of these sentiments in their stonework, banners, symbols, or speeches. We are well used to taking facts about context and speakers into account when assessing the content of any speech act. Public acts of commemoration may both benefit and suffer from the complexity of disambiguation. I suggest that this ambiguity, though troublesome, is valuable because disambiguation allows us to engage in valuable dialogues about our individual and group commitments to certain moral and political ideas.
Zofia Stemplowska (Oxford University)
When have we done enough remembering and commemorating of a given group of people? Consider the public and active remembrance and commemoration of the victims of atrocities. It is a scarce resource. We can distribute it, for example, to maximise the number of distinct groups of victims we commemorate, offering each a statue, museum and a memorial day to each. But we can also, for instance, make our machinery of remembrance closely track our judgements about the relative importance of commemorating the victims of the atrocity. Doing the latter would require us to decide whether our judgement of the relative importance should track the magnitude of the harms and wrongs suffered by any individual, or whether it should be sensitive to the number of the victims. Drawing on arguments about aggregation of harm in the literature on harming, I develop deontological principles of the distribution of remembrance and argue that the public remembering (and relative forgetting) should track the magnitude of the suffering of the victims of atrocities.