Bust of Marx and Lenin submerged on the bottom of the sea
Bust of Marx and Lenin submerged on the bottom of the sea
(credit: Amusing Planet)

Facts don’t matter

…what matters is how much you care about them.

has not been a good month for statues. True, statues have been torn down before: you may remember the images of the Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in April 2003. Numerous statues of Lenin (and other communist grandees) were removed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Revolutions often mean a symbolic end for the effigies of the deposed rulers.

But the recent fate of some statues, of people as notorious as Belgian monarch Leopold II, and as obscure (for most non-Bristolians) Edward Colston is not quite comparable. What happened to them is not the result of a sudden, dramatic regime change, but of a full-on challenge to the reasoning behind their very existence in the first place.

The meaning of a statue

Perhaps, before we start wondering why there might be case for statues to be removed (quietly or more forcefully), it is worth asking why they are erected in the first place. We can be brief about self-commissioned sculptures of dictators and potentates: these symbolize only their vainglorious pomposity. But most other statues depicting a person are generally put up in their honour, or to recognize some admirable feat for which they are known. Whether something like this is a valuable use of resources can be questioned, but that is true for almost all symbols. Symbols generally do not represent any material value to anyone, but they embody ethereal, abstract values, and somehow our species seems to think such representations are important.

To deserve the honour of their own statue, a person would naturally need to be honourable. We don’t need to consider whether a statue in tribute of Adolf Hitler or of a serial killer like Jack the Ripper would be a good idea: it would be clearly absurd and in bad taste. The facts about these individuals would seem to be unequivocal.

Statue of Lenin being toppled
Statue of Lenin being toppled
It’s a thin line between revered and reviled (image: Volodymyr D-k CC BY)

But what if a person’s record contains both honourable and less honourable elements — someone like Oskar Schindler, perhaps? He was a member of the Nazi party, and a drinker and womanizer, as well as an opportunistic profiteer, who initially employed Jews in his factory because they were cheaper. But he was also responsible for saving the lives of 1,200 Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Does he deserve the statue devoted to him in the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow?

Or what about Harry Truman, the US president who authorized the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Is he deserving of the honour of a statue (and there are several), knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of many tens of thousands of Japanese citizens? Should he, despite this, nevertheless be recognized for a decision that may have been instrumental in bringing a swift end to one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history?

Perhaps the balance between honourable and dishonourable ends up unfavourable for Edward Colston, whose statue was famously toppled in a Black Lives Matters demonstration and tossed into the Bristol harbour on June 7th. He was a rich merchant and benefactor, funding almshouses, schools and hospitals, but also a leading member of a company active in the slave trade in the late 17th century, which is how he is said to have made most of his fortune.

Yet even when the facts regarding a historical figure who has been honoured with an effigy are well-known, how come there is controversy? If the judgement whether someone is worthy of a statue were based on facts, there would be no such controversy, because facts are facts, right?

Living statues in tribes

This is not a phenomenon limited to decisions that are, to most of us, somewhat arcane. We don’t typically spend much time thinking about bronze or granite statues. But we do have opinions about people of flesh and blood — some close to us, like colleagues, friends and even family members, and others more remote, like celebrities, or political or business leaders.

We may not know all the facts about them that might be relevant in judging them, as would be the case with historical figures, but we may find we are still a little selective in which of the known facts we take into account in forming (and maintaining) our opinion. We might, for example, at first look for clear tell-tale signs that make someone either favourable or unfavourable in our eyes. These could be as superficial as the football team they support or the car they drive, or more profound like their ideological position on matters like same sex marriage or immigration, and on that basis determine whether they are in or tribe or not.

Once we’ve established that we have a tribal connection, we will tend to amplify facts that put them in a good light, and overlook facts that don’t, or that put them in a bad light. Anything positive will reinforce our favourable inclination towards them — you probably recognize our old friend, confirmation bias. Negative facts might generate cognitive dissonance (surely a member of our tribe would not do anything like that!) and so we will tend to dismiss them, give them a spin (what they did is not quite so bad, or quite understandable in the circumstances) or deny them. (And it is the opposite for those who are not members of our tribe, where negative facts confirm our opinions, and positive facts are questioned or spurned.)

Living statue of a construction worker in shiny silver
Living statue of a construction worker in shiny silver
Real sculpture or real person? The facts don’t matter much anyway (Image: ArtTower via Pixabay)

So far, so good, we might think. If we compare how we evaluate people with how we evaluate, say, a house, what we do does not appear that unusual. If you love your house because of its splendid location or because of its fantastic kitchen, you may be quite tolerant of the fact that there is no garage, or that the stairs are very steep, and mention its qualities rather than its downsides when you describe it. If you love your spouse because of her/his generous nature and good humour, you may be quite tolerant of the fact that she/he leaves her/his dirty clothes on the floor, or always squeezes the toothpaste from the middle rather than — as it should be — from the end. And here too, the facts are what they are, and you focus on what you think is more important.

A difference

But there is a difference between deliberately determining that — on balance — positive qualities outweigh negative ones, and disregarding facts because they do not fit our favourite narrative. One is a reasoned position that acknowledges reality and reveals our relative preferences. The other is self-delusion: consciously failing to consider incontrovertible but inconvenient facts and cultivating a distorted image of the world.

There is a difference between saying “he is my friend, despite the fact that he is a cheat”, and turning a blind eye to your friend’s dishonesty and pretend he is a good guy. There is a difference between saying “we need to honour Leopold II because he was our second king, despite the fact that his personal rule was marked by severe atrocities, violence and mass scale deaths “, and shutting one’s eyes to the inhumanity he was responsible for.

I would like to propose a simple way to find out whether or not facts matter to us. Swap the person concerned for a member of the opposite tribe — Donald Trump for Nancy Pelosi, or Jeremy Corbyn for Boris Johnson. Then we ask ourselves whether we’d judge them both in the same way for the same facts. If so, then hurrah!, we can congratulate ourselves because facts actually do matter. (If not, then we know the score.)

I would also like to suggest a simple way to handle the problem of controversial statues. Any newly erected status can stay for, say, 50 years, after which the following criterion is used: would we actively commission this statue today? If the answer is no, it is removed to a resting place, which we might call something like the Museum of Unwanted Statues.

Somehow, I find it hard to decide which of these two simple approaches is the most unlikely to gain widespread adoption.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on June 26, 2020.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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