In recent years, the removal of monuments which glorify historical figures associated with racism and colonialism has become one of the most visible and contested forms of decolonisation. Yet many have objected that there is educational value in leaving such monuments standing. In this paper, I argue that public monuments can be understood as speech acts which communicate messages to those who live among them. Some of those speech acts derogate particular social groups, contributing to their marginalisation in much the way that slurs do. Comparing derogating monuments to slurs is also productive in suggesting morally appropriate responses to their harms. I explore the limits of the use-mention distinction in relation to the harmfulness of slurs and apply this to show that attempting to recontextualise harmful monuments in situ—by, for example, changing the text on an accompanying plaque in order to retain the monument for its educational value—will not solve the problem in most cases. I conclude that the removal of slurring monuments, or their relocation to museum exhibitions dedicated to presenting a more critical view of history, is a more robust and reliable way of protecting against harm, and that this consideration outweighs any purported educational value in leaving monuments in place.
Comment (from this Blueprint): Speech act theory is a very good way to understand why problematic monuments are problematic. It also has some important implications concerning what we ought to do with these monuments and whether they have good educational value. Especially regarding the second thing, the analogy with slurs is an illuminating one. There are better ways to teach the objectionableness of slurs than mentioning them constantly. Similarly, there are better ways to teach historical lessons than preserving problematic monuments.