As a nation, we continue to wrestle with the symbols of the Civil War. The contest most recently has been about monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and those who fought for it. As we saw in Charlottesville, these objects can be exploited by various interests for purposes no one might have imagined when they were erected.
One solution for public leaders confronted with such controversy is to play by the numbers. Assess the will of the majority of our constituents and vote accordingly. We’re just “doing the will of the people.”
While this is not an unreasonable approach, it is not always a commendable one.
The reason: a majority can and sometimes will abuse a minority. To protect minorities, majorities must be constrained, both by law and by leadership. The task of public leaders is to maintain, by word and action, the appropriate balance between majority rule and minority rights.
The current debate over the status of monuments to the Confederacy and those who defended it challenges us to find that balance. And, for the sake of finding that balance, it is imperative that we achieve clarity about the nature of the controversy.
The controversy is not about freedom of speech. The question is not whether monuments to the Confederacy or to those who fought for it can exist in this country. They can . . . on private property, regardless of whether they appear in public spaces.
Nor is it about eradicating or rewriting history. Many movements, events and individuals of historic significance are not memorialized in the public square.
The question is whether tributes to the Confederacy and those who fought for it should be publicly sanctioned speech, whether the government, on behalf of the people of a city, state or the nation, should give prominence and permanence to such tributes by granting space in the public square.
Monuments and memorials on public lands must be regulated, for practical as well as philosophical reasons. Practically, there simply isn’t enough public space for every cause and significant figure to be permanently and prominently memorialized.
Philosophically, the public has the right to decide what speech will be given prominence and permanence in its name. To use an absurd example, surely the public would have the right to reject the placement of a statue of C3PO in the town square, even if a group of Star Wars fans were willing to pay for it (the public also could accept such a tribute, of course).
The choice presented by Confederate memorials and monuments is a complex one. One might speak of sacrifice and heroism, inspiring many in the public to endorse these objects as expressions of their collective speech. One might also speak of the defense of slavery and an act of rebellion against the lawful government, prompting public rejection of these tributes.
There are two critical questions each public official, and each citizen, must answer when considering the fate of Confederate tributes, as with any monument, on public lands:
What are we saying by this tribute?
And following immediately upon the heels of that question:
Can we and ought we say that, as a community, in the name of the whole community?
If the answer to the second question is “no,” then the monument or memorial should come down.