Ambiguous Legacies

How should history remember those with morally ambiguous legacies? Should we honor their accomplishments, or admonish their injustices? To what extent do the faults of these figures discredit their merits? Is it our responsibility to remove statues that idolize those with morally ambiguous or objectively corrupt backgrounds? Or should we keep these statues as an opportunity to learn from our history and grow from our past?

Now more than ever, we must ask ourselves the question of how we chose to remember historical figures. Although it’s clear that no one is perfect, some prominent figures who have been immortalized in statues, titles, and textbooks have proven to have been on the wrong side of history more often than not. Similarly, others have histories who appear to have roughly equal parts good and bad, with significant positive contributions to our societies on one hand that are counterbalanced by morally deplorable opinions or actions on the other. Finally, at the end of the spectrum, we have individuals with overwhelmingly positive legacies, which have only recently been tainted by the uncovering of a few dark blemishes in their otherwise spotless careers. Should we treat these individuals with the same disaccreditation process as their more corrupt counterparts? If not, then how do we draw the lines in this revision of who we honor, who we admonish, and who we wish to forget?

One one end of the solution spectrum, some individuals have proposed that the statues and titles of morally corrupt figures be removed and destroyed in an effort to combat the injustices and atrocities committed by their namesakes. Some counter this destruction by simply asking that these artifacts be relocated to a sort of “museum of shame” to preserve their history while appreciating our growth as a society away from our shameful past. On the other end of the spectrum, some believe that because these individuals are a part of our history, for better or for worse, that they are intrinsically worthy of immortality in the form of statues or titles that honor their legacy. Finally, in a sort of middle-ground, some individuals propose that new statues or titles be constructed alongside their originals that also honor the victims affected by said historical figures, thus contrasting both sides of our story and painting a richer picture of our history and its people.

As we continue to progress towards a more equitable and inclusive society, we must be considerate of who we wish to immortalize through statues and titles. It is clear that even within a single society, one man’s hero can be another’s villain, and we must be aware of the consequences of who and what we wish to celebrate. Perhaps it’s time we stop presenting historical figures in terms of moral absolutes, and start to paint richer pictures of those that have gotten us to where we are today, with their highs, lows, and grey areas in full display.