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Values Preserved in Stone

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Confederate Memorials

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Jesus Nazario Photo cropped

Photo: Jesus Nazario

In the dead of night of August 20, 2018, the University of Texas removed four statues on the south mall of the campus. Three of these statues depicted the Confederate leaders: Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Reagan. The statues were removed in response to violent protests over Confederate monuments in Charlotte, Virginia. Two years before these statues were removed, the university took down a prominent statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. The University of Texas president, Gregory Fenves, stated that these statues were removed because they are depictions “that run counter to the university’s core values.” The men portrayed by the statues were important figures in the history of the Civil War and the United States, but many argue that they stood for a cause that is contrary to the values of our current society. Much debate has risen as to whether figures like these should be presented and honored in our public areas.

Some argue that these statues must remain to remind us of our nation’s history, whether that history is good or bad. They claim that these monuments do not have to represent a celebration of slavery or a commemoration to the Confederacy, but rather as a reminder of our past. For instance, Lawrence Kuznar of the Washington Post argues that “when racists revere these monuments, those of us who oppose racism should double our efforts to use these monuments as tools for education. Auschwitz and Dachau stand as mute testimonials to a past that Europeans would never want to forget or repeat. Why not our Confederate monuments?” In an attempt to shift the focus of these monuments to education, many local governments have chosen to supplement confederate monuments with additional context and information to increase its educational value. For example, a historical commission in Raleigh, North Carolina voted to supplement its confederate statues “with adjacent signs about ‘the consequences of slavery’ and the ‘subsequent oppressive subjugation of African American people.’” Supplemental information is provided to help to relieve the negative effect of the statues while maintaining or increasing their educational value.

To many other observers, however, these statues can only be perceived as a symbolic celebration of white power and racial inequality because of the people they depict. To some, the symbolic significance of the statues outweighs any historical significance. Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University, believes that “no one claims that we should erase the Confederacy and its leaders from the historical record. Far from it. We should certainly remember them and continue to study their history. We just should not honor them.” The men commemorated by the statues in discussion fought to defend slavery. Although the institution of slavery has been removed from the United States, racial divides still dominate much of the social and political discourse. For opponents of these statues on Texas’s campus, honoring these white men who risked their lives and the unity of their country to protect their right to enslave others does not present a positive image for furthering the contemporary cause of racial equality. The historical lesson depicted by these statues could, some argue, be preserved in a museum without the implications of placing a negative symbol in a public area.

empty statue

Photo: Colin Frick

Proponents of the removal of confederate statues often challenge the primary motivations for building these statues. Typically, the statues in question were not created during the Civil War or even during the reconstruction era. The four confederate statues at UT were placed in 1933, nearly 70 years after the end of the Civil War. Some argue that the decision to commemorate the Confederate leaders may reveal more about the statues’ builders’ desires to maintain segregation in the 1930s than the commemorated men’s fight to protect slavery in the late 1800s. The University of Texas president, Gregory Fenves, defended the University’s decision to remove the statues by referencing the historical context of when the statues were built. He argued that because the statues were “erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation” this implied that “the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans.” The statues were commissioned by George Littlefield, a man who supported segregation so strongly that “the inscription on his namesake fountain honors the South’s fight for secession.” Supporters of the removal of the statues contend that the statues do not create a welcoming educational environment for African American students, past or present.

Statues of notable figures as those that dot campuses such as the University of Texas at Austin provide a powerful way to integrate the history of regions and institutions into everyday spaces. But they also enshrine histories that are value-laden, and our moral values change over time. Who should be honored in our monuments, and when should we knock certain figures off their literal pedestals in our public spaces?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the various values in conflict when it comes to monuments honoring confederate leaders?
  2. What role to the motives or intentions of those who installed the statue play in the ethics of removing or leaving in place such statues? What role do our contemporary reactions to the memorialized figures play these disputes?
  3.  To what lengths can communities go in their quest to remove these statues? Is vandalism and destruction of these statues ethically problematic? Why or why not?
  4. Is there any hope for these statues being “reframed” in public spaces? Or is removal the only option?
  5. Are there any ethical issues or considerations that must be dealt with if the removed statues are displayed elsewhere, such as in a museum?

Further Information:

Nelson, Sophia. “Opinion: Don’t Take Down Confederate Monuments. Here’s Why.” NBC News, June 1, 2017. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/news/opinion-why-i-feel- confederate-monuments-should-stay-ncna767221

Kuznar, Lawrence. “I detest our Confederate monuments. But they should remain.” The Washington Post, August 18,  2017. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-detest-our-confederate-monuments-but-they-should-remain/2017/08/18/13d25fe8-843c-11e7-902a-2a9f2d808496_story.html

Watkins, Matthew. “UT-Austin removes Confederate statues in the middle of the night.” Texas Tribune, August 21, 2017. Available at: https://www.texastribune.org/2017/08/20/ut-austin-removing-confederate-statues-middle-night/

Somin, Ilya. “The case for taking down Confederate monuments.” The Washington Post, May 17, 2017. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/05/17/the-case-for-taking-down-confederate-monuments/

Waggoner, Martha & Robertson, Gary. “North Carolina will keep 3 Confederate monuments at Capitol.” Associated Press, August 22, 2018. Available at https://apnews.com/c0cb1c1ed22a4302bb638748a4e62217

Fenves, Gregory (2017). Confederate Statues on Campus [transcript]. Retrieved from https://president.utexas.edu/messages/confederate-statues-on-campus

McCann, Mac. “Written in Stone: History of racism lives on in UT monuments” Austin Chronicle, May 29, 2015. Available at https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2015-05-29/written-in-stone/

Authors:

Colin Frick & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 31, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Dying to Be Online

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Digital Death on Social Media

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Social media has become a feature of the daily lives of many people. How will it feature in the time after their daily lives end? Most people don’t stop think about what happens to their online selves after they pass away. Who has the rights to the digital image or record of a person after they are dead? Social media platforms have been adapting to a growing presence of the online dead. When Facebook is alerted of a user death, they can freeze or “memorialize” the account. This serves two functions: first, it prevents anyone from hacking the account or gaining access to it. Second, it turns the profile into a memorial space which allows friends and family to publicly post their memories about the deceased individual.

fbdeath

Screencaptures from Facebook.com

Such memorialization prevents embarrassing “normal” online interactions with the account of the deceased such as the sending of friend requests or invitations to shared events. But are these online memorials without controversy? David Myles and Florence Millerand point out that norms have yet to be established when it comes to online mourning, which leads to controversy “regarding what constitute acceptable ways of using SNS [social network sites] when performing mourning activities online.” For example, many people may view the act of posting on a deceased person’s Facebook page as immoral or as disrespectful for close family and friends trying to privately grieve. At the same time, this digital realm of mourning could provide closure for a geographically-dispersed group of acquaintances and allow people to continue talking to their loved ones by honoring their legacy. As the Huffington Post notes, death surrounds us online, as “increasingly the announcements and subsequent mourning occur on social media.”

Facebook’s memorialization policy can be seen as a way to protect the privacy and dignity of the deceased. But the initiation of the memorialization process does not have to come from special agents such as one’s lawyers, parents, or relational partners. This feature of Facebook’s memorialization process came into focus in the aftermath of the tragic death of a 15-year-old German girl in 2015. The girl died when a train struck her at a Berlin railway station and a loyal friend quickly reported her death to Facebook, initiating the memorialization process. Only at a later point did the deceased girl’s parents wonder if her Facebook messages could answer questions about her death being a suicide spurred on by online bullying. The girl’s mother reported having her daughter’s login information, but she could not access the account because of its “memorialized” status. Facebook refused to budge from its policy governing locked memorial accounts, since the conversations people have on Facebook messenger are considered private and often involve third parties. Facebook stated that they were “making every effort to find a solution which helps the family at the same time as protecting the privacy of third parties who are also affected by this.” Revealing the daughter’s messages may prove the existence of online bullying, but it would surely reveal conversations between the girl and various parties—bullies and non-bullies—that all or some of the participants thought were private. The German court system eventually agreed that this concern for privacy was paramount, ruling that the parents “had no claim to access her details or chat history,” and that this decision was “based on weighing up inheritance laws drawn up almost 120 years ago.” The parent’s need to know (and to respond to any bullying) was judged as less important than upholding a predictable and general principle of privacy governing the exchange of messages between third parties that affected a vast majority of social media users.

Even though this tragic case is unusual, it highlights the challenges Facebook and its users are navigating as more and more Facebook users wind up dead. How do we deal with the fact that social media is, in some ways, quickly becoming a virtual graveyard? How do we deal with the digital remains of friends, loved ones, and strangers in a way that respects the living and the dead?


Discussion Questions: 

  1. What is the best way to treat the digital remains of those who have died? How is this optimal for the deceased—and those still living on social media?
  2. Do you agree with Facebook’s policy on not allowing access to messages of the deceased? If you disagree, how would you protect the privacy interests of third parties who corresponded with the deceased individual?
  3. If the parents of the deceased girl wanted access to her emails for a less pressing matter—perhaps to gather more material to remember her by—would this alter your stance on the strong privacy stance taken by Facebook concerning memorialized accounts?
  4. What do you want done to your social media accounts, if any, after you die? What ethical values do your choices emphasize?

Further Information:

Kate Connolly, “Parents lose Appeal over Access to Dead Girl’s Facebook Account.” The Guardian, May 31, 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/31/parents-lose-appeal-access-dead-girl-facebook-account-berlin

David Myles & Florence Millerand. “Mourning in a ‘Sociotechnically’ Acceptable Manner: A Facebook Case Study.” In: A. Hajek, C. Lohmeier, & C. Pentzold (eds) Memory in a Mediated World. 2016. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137470126_14

Jaweed Kaleem, “Death on Facebook Now Common As ‘Dead Profiles’ create vast Virtual Cemetery.” The Huffington Post, December 6, 2017. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/07/death-facebook-dead-profiles_n_2245397.html

Authors:

Anna Rose Isbell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 12, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

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