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On Pulling Down Statues

Last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia shows once again how divided the world has become. It is much easier to contribute to this than to mend it, so I am unlikely to win too many friends with what follows.

I’ll start by admitting that I don’t think it is helpful to pull down statues of those we no longer admire or who represent attitudes we abhor. I should quickly make an exception for those of the gigantesque kind pioneered in the Soviet Union that over-dominate an area and render it impossible to think without wondering if some is looking over your shoulder.

But the statue of the ‘Wounded Leader’ is important to our Anglophone society because we have produced so many of them. We’d be better off using them to reflect on than pulling them off their pedestals, however great that feels.

In this case, America needs to remind herself that was founded on slavery and the genocide of its indigenous peoples – especially because America so much wants to delete this fact. Yes, it is something to be angry about, but in my profession we know that there is a more important emotion still – grief. Until the whole of the American people come out of denial and grieve this they will be unable to be properly united. So much is crystal clear when looking through the lens of psychohistory.

So I propose that such statues could serve as reminders, as focal points for communal grieving, while we commission other statues of the victims of or fighters against injustice and placing them in equally prominent positions. This is especially relevant in Britain, which is hardly beginning to come to terms with her Imperial legacy. The current media attention to Indian Partition is a start. But the parade of generals around Whitehall really needs some balancing out, and, compared to a city like Oslo, there is very little statutory in London, so it would good for artists too.

Monuments to re-membering (which means literally putting limbs back) must be visible and prominent. This is why the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is so powerful. There are no words accompanying it, as if the thought of it leaves one rightly speechless. It is simply a huge experiential space bravely situated yards from the Reichstag, so that current governments cannot delete former excesses. Imagine putting a monument to the Indian Mutiny or the Tonypandy miners in Parliament Square.

And there is another, trickier argument. In the American South, generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were local leaders who lost a civil war in which massive casualties occurred. Should we forget them? In New York and Washington there are statues of Ulysses S. Grant who led the North to victory, even though his presidency was the most corrupt on record and he both failed to properly reconstruct the nation or to honour promises made to Native Americans.

The ghastly Civil War was fought over slavery but it also had to do with local self-determination. The notion of the Confederacy has a local sentimentality, which is not only rooted in racism and has to be integrated or it will revert to the racism it has only very recently tried to abolish. Pulling bronze generals with their Victorian values off their horses won’t do it, any more than knocking Cecil Rhodes into the Oriel College quadrangle will make up for the excesses of the British Empire.

How to integrate such things is a huge question: how do we deal with our legacy, much of which is shameful, most of which is racist?

Here the Anglosphere is most indicted. Britain still has to deal with the legacy of her colonial project of which North America was the major part until we carelessly lost it by refusing the colonisers the most basic of democratic rights. Then the Raj took over. Nowadays you can be forgiven if you wished King George had been better advised and the colonists decided that tea was better in boiling than salty water. (Or in cans for that matter: will I forfeit any claim to objectivity if I say there may be no drink on the planet more restorative than a nice cup of tea and – I have to acknowledge my biased disgust – none worse than Liptons iced sugar?)

Once America broke free of Britain she set off on an unshaking journey of progress, into Modernism and eventually transforming colonial imperialism into the rule of globalising corporatocracy. The ordinary person and local sentiment got left behind. The rise of current populism may be as much a reaction to this as it is to globalised neo-liberalism itself. To me, current popular voting trends seem to have been rooted in the most fundamental of basic human emotions – disgust. And disgust has not been studied sufficiently by my profession, psychotherapy, in my view.

President Trump is a master of disgust. The question for those who want to move beyond the current regressive interlude is not whether Trump is going to make a congruent or valuable comment on racism, on statues, or any other subject. How can he? He has shown that disgust is the emotion he most knows how to spread. That is not an argument to say that as President he hasn’t a duty to utterly and speedily condemn racism and support the notions of freedom and equality that were built into the revolutionary American Constitution, inspired (some say) by the Iroquois system of governance, a hundred years before the indigenous population was systematically brutalised.

He has such a duty, and if he cannot do it he should move over.

But let’s not act out more disgust. Let’s practise grief and start trying to integrate the shadow of our civilisation.





  1. I share your hope that monuments such as these could become foci for communal grief.

    Whether or not they can be of this service, however, must at least partly depend on the motives for their erection.

    Many who would bring down statues of Confederate leaders argue that it is not their mere existence that offends, but that they were raised deliberately to assert the dominance of white social rule in the Southern states and to intimidate, if not terrorize, the black population. Living memory, and observations such as those in this article go some way to supporting their argument.

    Comment by Robin Betts on 22/08/2017 at 5:16 pm
  2. Yes, it is a tricky one, Robin, as you say, and no doubt they were put up as an attempt to reassert ‘white supremacy’, but it interests me that we might be able to reframe them.

    Comment by Nick Duffell on 22/08/2017 at 9:00 pm
  3. Thought provoking piece Nick. You’re right, it will certainly take more than pulling down a few statues to heal the profound divisions you pinpoint, which in certain situations, yes, may be exacerbated.

    Yet I wonder whether the “grief” you mention [Bowlby and Murray Parkes thought anger was also an integral part of the grieving process] doesn’t owe a bit too much to the white middle-class psychotherapy consulting room rather the harsh realities of the socio-historical legacy? It seems that the grief of the “colonised” cannot be the equivalent of the grief of the “coloniser”, because the latter has been the initiator of “historical trauma”, often on a horrendous scale as in the slave trade and the genocides associated with imperialism. Before we can arrive at some process of reconciliation and repair, which may well involve raising new statues as well removing [by consent] some old ones, doesn’t the white colonial world have to acknowledge the profound harm and damage which it has done to the non-European world it colonised – a process which as you say has hardly begun for white Brits [I exclude the Republic of Ireland – agree the programmes on partition, which seem made by Brit South Asians, are a start]? The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin you mention stands I presume because the German people confronted [no doubt with some outside pressure] their Nazi and genocidal past: a truth and reconciliation process took place. It was partly helped by psychotherapists working with and on the traumatic consequences of the Holocaust stretching across the generations.

    I have been reading an informative and moving paper about similar work among the First Nations of Canada “Disrupted Attachments: A Social Context Complex Trauma Framework and the Lives of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada” [Lorrie Haskell & Melanie Randall, 2009] – – which calls, among other things, for the recognition of “historical trauma” as a “collective emotional and psychological injury over the lifespan and across generations”. As we know from our work with ex-boarders and our personal experience of boarding, this affects the powerful as well as the powerless. To resolve this situation there needs to be a rebalancing of power as well as acknowledgement of the damage to body and psyche. That means psychotherapeutics entering the world of class/ethnic difference and politics, which as you have pointed out it has traditionally been reluctant to do. Psychotherapy is still largely a white middle-class profession so I think it’s quite a challenge.

    Comment by Simon Partridge on 24/08/2017 at 2:35 pm
  4. Thanks for this Simon. RE the necessary emotions, anger or grief? I don’t agree that – existentially – there are necessarily polarised sides to this. However there is an order: Kübler-Ross suggests Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Grief precede (in that order) Acceptance. The first three kind cycle round; only grief gets you to a new level.

    Comment by Nick Duffell on 24/08/2017 at 8:32 pm
  5. Agree that as regards anger and grief it’s not either/or. I see that Kübler-Ross drew on the “stages of grief” pioneered by Bowlby and Parkes, and though her 5 stages were somewhat different there is considerable overlap. As I understand it “grief” is not a stage in the cycle but is the name given to the whole process following the death of a partner or close companion or friend [and by extension to other situations involving deep and rapid change – as you so do]. In the Kübler-Ross schema it seems to be final “acceptance” that gets you to a new level; Bowlby and Parkes called it “reorganisation”.

    However, I think we should bear in mind that the process of disruptive psycho-social change is not completely analogous to that of bereavement, though “loss”, and the possibility of a new start, is certainly a common factor. What perhaps we should be mindful of is that the “anger” [rage may sometimes be a more appropriate word] component of the grief/change cycle for the “powerless” is likely to be greater and more intense than for the “powerful” – the powerless have been in a greater state of loss due to the powerful [often defined along class and ethnic lines]. My own feeling is that this is insufficiently recognised by white professionals in the welfare/caring professions, and too easily glossed over. The recently released film “Detroit”, based around the violence which rocked that city in the summer of ’67, from the reviews I’ve read seems to focus on the causes of such rage and their ramifications. The violence accompanying the conviction of guru Ram Rahim Singh seems of the same order. Mediating this will be no easy task, but let’s hope some of the insights of attachment/trauma/grief-informed psychotherapy can assist. It seems we are reaching a moment of reckoning.

    Comment by Simon Partridge on 26/08/2017 at 10:35 am

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