Much has been said and written, but the relevance of the subject is still unclear. We are still waiting for a serious debate on statues, coats of arms, and toponymy. This becomes clear when the subject is ticked with “Does it make sense to remove statues?” or “History doesn’t change.” These are wrong starting points.
The debate is complex. It is not common to suggest, let alone request, demolition of all statues, but it is important to understand why someone would want to do this, be it in relation to one, a dozen, or a hundred. It also happens that this debate affects those who have no visibility more than those who sit comfortably in the studio to comment on what has not lived or is not alive. For this reason too, this debate has not yet taken place in earnest.
Before proceeding, it is important to understand two relevant premises:
1) A statue in public space is different from a statue in a museum or on private land.
2) The rejection or admiration of a statue in public space is never based solely on repulsion or aesthetic appreciation, since a statue in public space is never separated from the person to whom it stands and also from the person who erected it.
For this reason, dropping or removing a statue does not mean destroying the material it was made of, but rather removing from the public space the imaginary it carries.
Rather than ideologically arming the debate, it may be more advantageous for the discussion to look at it from a different angle: that of individual freedoms; In addition, there is the premise that we value so much in democracy: our freedom ends where that of others begins.
With a simple and more distant example, this leads to the following:
A statue of Stalin, as beautiful as it may be, will always be a statue of a dictator. Publicly discussing the meaning of a statue for Stalin in the yard of the neighboring house makes no sense – whoever decided to raise it will be the one to think about it; However, discussing the same statue in public space makes perfect sense since the depiction of a dictator enters a public landscape.
In the example above, there could be Mussolini, Hitler, Salazar. The argument is not the comparison between dictators, but the example that people who have committed atrocities don’t have statues in public spaces – it’s just not in line with democracy.
These personalities are consensual because it is part of the collective memory that they terrified people and leaders whose nefarious actions influenced, conditioned or ruined the lives of the majority of a particular nation or even several.
There’s a lot more to be said about the importance of collective memory, but it’s important to remember that it is not waterproof and is largely based on a nation’s choices by adopting certain symbols, references, and artifacts. The first contacts with collective memory are made at school, and therefore the way history is taught is closely linked to this debate. But what to do if the representations do not refer to the collective memory but to part of the population?
Since minorities are part of society, their demands are legitimate and must be part of the decision about what is in public space – the space also belongs to them.
This is exactly what happens with the representations of the statue recently erected for Father António Vieira, the coat of arms of the Praça do Império (which empire, by the way?) And the Padrão dos Descobrimentos – someone, not the majority, is protesting. It is important to emphasize that a minority is not necessarily the smallest number, but because of their common characteristics, communities are far removed from places of speech and decision.
In order to understand the location of this minority protest, we must internalize that while I value this personality or have no great affective feelings at all, someone for some reason absolutely opposes his solemn presentation. To do this, it is necessary to understand the reasons for rejecting a symbol in public space, that is, not wanting to be subject to its presence. Most likely, those who do not want to confront certain symbols are people who have suffered or whose ancestors have suffered from practices related to the images that support the symbol. And they continue to suffer.
With the argument that memory would then be erased: If historical memory were to depend on statues, no one would certainly remember the above-mentioned dictators. It is not because we were a colonizing country that we need to establish or maintain a statute to elevate it. Then have statues built for those who (always) fought against slavery, who (always) were against dictatorship, who (always) fought for human rights. This is always important for the reasons already mentioned. Ultimately, it concludes that there are few people who meet the criteria and this only shows that there are few people who deserve such a building.
Taking the Monument to the Discoveries as an example, people don’t want it in public space because it doesn’t just create maritime expansion. The sea was not made of roses for everyone, and everything that was negative is also included in the idea of this pattern – the barbaric practices of slavery and all the consequences it has had and has to this day. Nor is it possible to tell someone highlighting the images of oppression to look at the standard with the ideal of technological progress or geographical knowledge: that would mean erasing history.
Since minorities are part of society, their demands are legitimate and must be part of the decision about what is in public space – the space also belongs to them. Hence, anyone who values a particular statue or symbol must be subjected to a debate about the future of a symbol, be it contextualization, removal, or destruction. Public space does not exist to serve the tastes or ideals of part of the population, but on the contrary: for the entire population to use it.
The solution to this problem is no small matter. An egalitarian society builds on the demands of its minorities and does not always serve the majority. It’s not that the majority aren’t interested, but from there emerged the various restricted groups with access to decision-making, who year after year thought unilaterally about which statues should be built – so whoever sees himself sees himself Away and even unconsciously, there are no major reasons for a complaint in these groups.
What the ordinary heterosexual “cis” white sees as a problem – and thus resistance to change – is the danger of being deprived of power; It’s not about surviving in acceptable conditions for a dignified life, it’s not about being able to marry someone, it’s not about what to do with your body, and it’s definitely not about the colonizing past in which Millions of racialized people have been treated as goods and exchanged for your pleasure.
And so it will be nonsense for the ordinary heterosexual “cis” white man to overthrow the Padrão dos Descobrimentos – the fact is that the maritime expansion has done him no harm, on the contrary, has even enriched him. The time for this heterosexual “cis” white man to believe he lived alone is over, only he has not yet realized it. And since this happens repeatedly, others need to be here to revive his memory.
Finally, if you have to go monument by monument, street by street, statue by statue, so be it. The symbols of pride that we want for Portugal must be unmistakable. And not heroes on Saturdays and Sundays and war criminals on Mondays and Tuesdays.