Here’s What To Say To People Who Think Confederate Monuments Aren’t About Our Racist, Hateful History

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For over a century, the South in particular has been littered with memorials to a hotly contested historical moment — specifically, to the Confederacy and to the politicians and generals who supported and fought for it. Now that some of them are coming down, you may find yourself needing ways to respond to people who don't want to remove Confederate monuments.

It's tricky business, because you'll likely be up against an emotion-fueled argument. The reasons to keep Confederate monuments up are largely based on the emotions of people who feel that their status in the country is threatened by other people gaining equal status. But you don't want to dive into an emotional argument, because that won't accomplish anything. There are a lot of logical reasons to remove Confederate monuments, logical reasons why removing the monuments won't "erase history," and logical reasons why the country only stands to benefit from the drive to remove the monuments for a bygone era that, for so many people, only represents a time of suppression and terrible inequality.

There are over 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the country, and that's not counting the hundreds of public parks, schools, and other things named to honor people associated with the Confederacy. It goes without saying that this fight will continue for a while — so you need ways to effectively take part in the discussion.

Explain The History Behind The Monuments

Contrary to popular belief, most of the Confederate statues weren't built directly after the war. Instead, many were put up only in the 1920s, and their purpose was to symbolize white supremacy. They were a nostalgic throwback to a time when the South was more prosperous — prosperity built, of course, on the backs of slaves — and the people putting up the statues wanted to memorialize a time when they had the definitive upper hand. They're not really memorials to the Confederacy; they're visual symbols of the Jim Crow laws meant to suppress black people. When someone's standing up for them, make sure they know what they actually represent.

Use Robert E. Lee's Thoughts On The Matter

Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue in Charlottesville was the lightning rod around which all of the events of the weekend converged, was against having monuments to the Confederacy. “I think it wiser … not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered," Lee once wrote about a proposed Confederate monument.

Cite Other Examples Of Removing Monuments

You don't have to dig too deep to find other examples of countries removing monuments to a moment in history that was painful for at least some of their inhabitants. Take the formerly communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, most of which have removed or re-purposed their statues of Stalin and Lenin, despite the discussion still swirling around some of the remaining Soviet monuments. Some people undoubtedly benefited from communism — but the governments that replaced their communist predecessors decided that feeding these people's nostalgia was not worth the pain that they caused other people.

Show The Responses From Confederate Descendants

People who want to keep up the Confederate monuments don't have the ghost of Robert E. Lee on their side, and they also don't have the living descendants of other Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson. Two of Jackson's great-great-grandsons wrote an open letter that read, "[The statues] are overt symbols of racism and white supremacy, and the time is long overdue for them to depart from public display."

Point Out The Purpose Of Museums And Books

Museums and books take elements of history and give them the additional context needed to interpret them. Putting a Confederate memorial into a museum allows it to open a discussion of what the Confederacy was, why the statue was erected, and what it meant for people on both sides of the argument. When they're sequestered away and not out in front of government buildings and in the middle of public parks, it allows everyone to remember to take note of the history but doesn't force anyone to see a painful reminders of a worse time.

Confront The "Erasing History" Argument

Stalin and Lenin haven't been erased from history. Hitler is still very much present in history, despite the fact that you won't find any Germans still defending statues of him. Robert E. Lee and the rogue country that he fought for will remain an important part of American history to be studied in school, discussed in the public discourse, and observed in museums, whether or not there are public memorials to him.

Introduce Another Perspective

What people fighting for these statues don't get is that it's not about them — it's about the people for whom these statues are a painful reminder of centuries of oppression. If your grandfather labored in one of Stalin's gulags, seeing a statue of Stalin is going to be more painful to you that it would be for an American tourist who has no connection to that element of history. And if your great-great-grandfather was a slave who Stonewall Jackson was fighting to keep enslaved, that statue of Jackson is going to cause you more pain than it would cause pleasure to a person fighting to keep it around.

Explain The Difficulty Presented By Contested History

There are, as Trump said, "many sides" to all contested moments in history. What this means, though, isn't that both sides always need to be commemorated in public. It means that the discussion about that particular moment in history should be ongoing, and both sides should endeavor to understand where the other is coming from. And given that the groups of people demonstrating to keep the Confederate memorials up included literal neo-Nazis, it's also worth mentioning that in mainstream discourse, Nazi Germany is not a contested moment in history. The fact that those who claim they just want to protect the nation's history aren't doing enough to condemn the literal Nazis in their ranks isn't doing anything to help their case.

Point Out That Confederates Were Not Patriots

Let's remember for a moment that the reason the Confederacy existed is that several states actually seceded from the United States. They broke away from the country, because preserving the institution of slavery was more important that preserving the union. Could anything be less patriotic?

Ask How It Would Change Their Lives

Make the person you're arguing with think for a second — how would it change their life if the statue wasn't there? Would it have any appreciable effect? Is there any specific way they could point to their lives being changed, either for better or for worse? Doubtful.

Above All, Remain Calm

If you want to make any progress in an argument like this — and there's no way to guarantee that you will, even if you're a champion debater — you absolutely can't give in to your emotions. Stick to the logic, regardless of what the other person does. Remember, the logic is on your side. Rely on that, and don't resort to yelling or letting the situation get heated.

Now, good luck. To all of us.