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EIS Fellow Chong-Ming Lim: A Qualified Defense of Vandalizing Tainted Commemorations

The Confederate Memorial is a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia.
Photo by Tim Evanson, Creative Commons.
Nov 5 2020
Diana Aguilera

From murals to monuments and statues to flags, Confederate commemorations of all types are being removed across the United States. As controversial symbols of America’s past are toppled, the Center’s new postdoctoral fellow Chong-Ming Lim offers a surprising defense of vandalizing memorials in certain circumstances.

Lim’s research focuses on issues in moral and political philosophy and has published papers on political resistance, disability, justice, political liberalism, and effective altruism. In his recent paper, “Vandalizing Tainted Commemorations,” published in Philosophy & Public Affairs, Lim addresses the ethics and politics of vandalizing tainted commemorations.

The Center for Ethics in Society asked Lim about his recent work on contentious memorials.

First of all, can you explain what “tainted” commemorations are?

Commemorations are often used to acknowledge the importance of certain people and the values that purportedly undergirded their actions, or of crucial events in the community’s history. Commemorations also feature in the stories that a community tells about its past and how that past relates to its present concerns or values.

Some of these commemorations, however, are of historical figures associated with racist or unjust actions and views. We can regard these commemorations as “tainted”. In these cases, tainted commemorations introduce uncertainties about whether the community genuinely and fully respects and regards members of a certain minority group as equals within the community. At worst, tainted commemorations may also be part of a systemic effort to intimidate members of a certain minority group, and to undermine or attack their status as equals within the community. Insofar as we claim to be committed to the idea that all members of our community are equals, we should think seriously about how we should deal with tainted commemorations. 

How should we deal with tainted commemorations?

I think that a case could certainly be made that removing many tainted commemorations is the way to go. However, this conclusion is often resisted by those who seek to preserve tainted commemorations. In arguing their case, preservationists often appeal to the importance of history or of remembering our past. According to those who seek to remove tainted commemorations, preservationists’ real motivations lie elsewhere – in their endorsement of, and wish to defend, the racist or unjust actions and views. While this may very well be the case, many historians have stressed the importance of preserving tainted commemorations, in order that they may serve as constant reminders of our past mistakes.

Public discourse is dominated by these two views – to remove or to preserve tainted commemorations. Proponents of either view take the considerations supporting their view as conclusively defeating the considerations raised by their opponents. Yet there remains a serious and under-explored question about whether and how we can adjudicate the opposing views and the values underlying them. One central idea of my article is that we can, and should, take these two opposing views seriously. When charitably interpreted, the views are not as naïve as people assume. We should not – as is often the case in public discourse – dismiss them as simply the result, respectively, of activists’ oversensitivity or preservationists’ bad faith.

Indeed, I argue that there is one way of dealing with tainted commemorations that could in principle respect both of these apparently opposing concerns – surprisingly, by vandalizing them.

Under what circumstances would vandalism constitute an appropriate response?

Vandalism indicates clearly and prominently that some people within the community think that the target of commemoration is an inappropriate recipient of honor. For instance, activists often splash red paint (signifying blood) on tainted commemorations to convey – typically effectively – that the target of commemoration was responsible for, or involved in, injustice. The possibility of viewing the commemoration in isolation from the vandalism is ruled out. Most important, in many cases, vandalism can transform a tainted commemoration from a public honoring of an inappropriate target, into a public repudiation of its being an appropriate recipient of honor. It may even turn the tainted commemoration into a public humiliation of the target. If vandalism successfully does these things, it could be an appropriate response to tainted commemorations which respects the concerns of the two opposing views. Here we appear to have a response which may very well mitigate or eliminate the uncertainties about whether a community genuinely and fully respects members of a certain minority group as equals. A prominently vandalized commemoration may even better stress the importance of remembering our past in order that we do not repeat past mistakes.

Of course, this does not mean that everyone should start vandalizing every statue or monument they do not like. Vandalism is generally regarded poorly, and some care should be made to distinguish principled vandalism from wanton vandalism. Critics of vandalism often claim that vandals and their views are not representative of the community. While the claim is overused, there is a genuine worry underlying it. That is, a singular act by a non-representative individual may not mitigate or eliminate the uncertainties faced by members of minority group about whether the community genuinely respects them as equals. One way this worry may be addressed, is if the vandals receive support from other activists and organizations, as well as from other individual community members. This may be in the form of public statements released before or after the fact of vandalism, in support of the message that the act of vandalism conveys.

Many people, especially state officials, often decry the illegality of vandalism. Here, my take is that the vandalism of tainted commemorations need not be illegal. In fact, if the state and its agencies are serious about mitigating or eliminating the uncertainties faced by members of minority groups, as well as to ensure that members of the community remember their past, they can invite vandalism or modifications of tainted commemorations (by representative members of minority or formerly oppressed groups), and take steps to ensure that the commemorations remain defaced or modified. Doing so could also be part of a broader project of rectifying the mistakes of the past and undoing their lingering effects, and even as a way of owning up to the state’s complicitous participation in some of those mistakes.

You argue that commemorations can be tainted in more ways than is commonly assumed. Can you elaborate?

In public discourse, there is a common assumption that the problem with tainted commemorations is that the people or events being honored are inappropriate recipients of honor. To this, we should add that commemorations may also be tainted if the commemoration doesn’t include all members of the historical event. Consider, for instance, a war memorial that honors the soldiers who died in service. Even if we suppose that these soldiers are appropriate recipients of such honor, the memorial may nonetheless be tainted if it leaves out those who played other crucial roles during the war – such as doctors or nurses on the frontline, or even allied soldiers who also died in support of the war effort. Neglecting to honor these people sends a certain message about what kinds of work the community values and may fail to express the appropriate attitude toward the contribution and sacrifice of some members of the community. For instance, the addition of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is an especially illuminating example of this point.

Commemorations may also be tainted when the process of their establishment is improper. For example, this can occur if the commemorations are established without fair consultation with all relevant stakeholders in the community, or without fair deliberation. Situations in which the views of some members of a community are neglected, dismissed, or suppressed during the process of determining who or what to commemorate are clear cases of such unfairness. In such cases, these individuals are not treated as equal members of the community who have the standing to participate in the collective narration of their community’s past. There may also be further problems if the commemorations of people from a certain group are established in prominent or prestigious locations, while commemorations of people from other groups are established in less prominent or prestigious locations. When we think about the process of establishing commemorations, we see that it is possible for a commemoration to be tainted even if it honors appropriate recipients.

Did anything surprise you during your research?

One thing that surprised me was the fact that disagreements about what to do with the relics or icons of an unpalatable past have arisen in different times and contexts. These disagreements are often similarly configured – between those who seek to remove those relics and those who seek to preserve them. This lends some credibility to the suspicion that the two dominant yet opposing positions about our treatment of tainted commemorations are tracking some kind of stable divide in people’s general attitudes and priorities, and that the disagreements arising from that may not go away anytime soon.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I want to stress that my discussion of vandalism is fairly limited. In my recent paper, I only considered two reasons when vandalism might be appropriate – to send a clear signal that the community thinks that the target of commemoration is an inappropriate recipient of the honor; and if it allows the community to remember and learn from the past. There are potentially other considerations and reasons that come into play when considering if vandalism is an appropriate response to tainted commemorations, or tainted objects more generally. My hope is to work through these additional considerations and the complications accompanying them in subsequent work.

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