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.

Koen Smets
6 min readJun 26, 2020


It 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
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…



Koen Smets

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