Human Rights and Statues

Recently there has been much argument over statues of historical figures that owned slaves or carried out other such injustice. People argue that honoring these figures is to condone or overlook their crimes, minimizing the gravity of what they did and the harm they caused.

Of course, statues don’t have rights and there is no reason why we can’t do away with ones that are offensive. But there is also another way for us to look at this. We can reflect on how in many cases these statues are of people who lived not that long ago, and marvel about how quickly change has taken place.

The institution of slavery, referenced commonly in the Bible, has been firmly entrenched for thousands of years. The 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery except in prisons, was only passed in 1865, less than two centuries ago. Of course that did not result in the end of racism or create instant equality, and economic and sociological affects of slavery still linger today. But let’s not lose sight of our dramatic progress. Two hundred years ago a large segment of the population accepted that people could be bought and sold at auction. Today the very idea of it seems outrageous.

Christopher Columbus has also become a negatively viewed historical figure. He arrogantly assumed that newly discovered Americas could be claimed by European royalty, with indigenous people of no consequence whatsoever in these plans.

Such conduct was actually common, as colonial powers bought and sold tracks of land and transferred the people living on that land from one ruler’s dominion to the next along with the trees and grass. In 1867, coincidentally just around the time of the 13th amendment, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.3 million dollars. This deal was motivated by Russia’s need for money and the geopolitical goals of both Russia and the United States. The native population of Alaskans was of course not consulted at all.

Just last year President Trump floated the idea of purchasing Greenland from Denmark. Not only was this laughed off as useless and impractical, but the very idea of a country buying inhabited territory from another against the will of the residents was considered outrageous. About 50,000 people live in Greenland, and Denmark’s political leaders made clear that the days of a country dealing its citizens to another like chattel are long gone.

While of course there have always been attempts to reign in warfare, the first truly Global treaty codifying war crimes, the first Geneva Convention, was only signed in 1864. The Geneva Conventions were then expanded throughout the 20th century to become the absolute prohibition of targeting civilians that they’ve grown into today. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark product of the human rights movement, was signed in 1948. The International Criminal Court, the first attempt in human history to hold individuals accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity in a universal fashion, was just created in 1998. When viewed through the lens of history, the pace of progress in the last centuries has been extraordinary.

I wonder what in the not so distant future people will think of us today. How will we look back on a society in which people commonly eat the flesh of livestock raised in pens so small they can barely move, are given antibiotics in a way that may give rise to resistant bacteria that will set back medicine, and are fed a vast proportion of the world’s crops while people go hungry? Or on people who fly around in private airplanes, drive giant cars, or live in enormous houses that have massive carbon footprints and contribute so significantly to climate change? This is just to name a few.

Many statues depict leaders who had values that seem repugnant to use now. But rather than tear them down, we can use them to reflect on the pace of progress. If what was fairly recently perfectly acceptable is already now beyond the pale, that means with some patience and persuasion change truly can happen. And let’s not delude ourselves that we are the final judges or morality or values. I hope that the rate of progress continues to increase, and our children look back and shake their heads in wonder about the horrible things that still somehow seem normal in our times.

Photo by Blaz Erzetic on Unsplash

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