Democratic ‘Sacred Spaces’: Public Architecture and Transitional Justice

Chapter 12
Democratic ‘Sacred Spaces’: Public Architecture and Transitional Justice

Mihaela Mihai

‘Transitional Justice’ (TJ) covers the institutional mechanisms a society employs in order to deal with a past of violence and injustice. Truth commissions, criminal trials, restitution, compensation, and lustration are frequently used to address the legacies of authoritarianism or civil war. While a large literature examines these mechanisms,1 less attention has been paid to the symbolic facet of the past.2 This chapter seeks to explore the architectural dimension of TJ. More precisely, it asks what aspiring democracies should do with public constructions glorifying an undemocratic, i.e. racist, authoritarian or totalitarian, past.

Public constructions attest to political regimes’ desire to imprint their version of history on the country’s landscape and, more importantly, on the memory of citizens. Statues, memorials and monuments set in stone a certain view of the past, usually in glorious and heroic terms. Hierarchies of all kinds (political, social, racial, gendered) are reflected in – and reproduced through – public art, one of the many ‘voices’ through which the state speaks. What is celebrated or commemorated is as significant as what is forgotten: defeats, reprehensible deeds by the nation, as well as marginalized groups are usually omitted from the material representation of the official story.

This chapter starts with the assumption that it is liberal democracies, or societies aspiring to become liberal democracies, that invest in TJ. Far from being a universal phenomenon, TJ is normatively and politically linked with a certain kind of regime: one committed to human rights, based on the idea of equal respect and concern for all members of the polity. The main argument advanced here is that condoning public monuments that symbolically humiliate certain groups is normatively inconsistent for a liberal democracy. In other words, the public funding of state-commissioned monuments occupying a society’s ‘sacred space’ is problematic to the extent that it violates the egalitarian and inclusive theory of moral worth that liberal democracy presupposes. In talking about ‘sacred space’ I follow Sanford Levinson, who defines it as ‘public cemeteries, state and national capitol grounds, and other ground that is invested with special meaning within the structure of the civil religion that helps to constitute a given social order’ (Levinson 1998: 36–7).

This contribution proceeds in several steps. The first section offers a schematic account of liberal democracy and of what could count as symbolic humiliation in such a regime. I then move on to a critical examination of Sanford Levinson’s take on what to do with humiliating monuments. I assess his seminal work on democracy and public monuments and argue that, while liberal democracies can choose from a variety of possible avenues of disavowal, certain ways of dealing with objectionable public constructions are normatively problematic. The third section offers two examples, one of a racist, the other of a totalitarian construction. While this chapter is an exercise in normative theory, I use cases to illustrate my theoretical analysis and show the salience of the issues addressed here. The conclusion deals with some potential criticisms.

Liberal Democracy: Institutional Order, Normative Regime, and Ethos

As mentioned before, this chapter departs from the assumption that TJ is typical of liberal democracies or societies aspiring to become liberal democracies. Liberal democracy is conceptualized here as an institutional order and an ethos guided by a number of normative principles. As a normative regime, liberal democracy presupposes an egalitarian theory of human worth,3 which determines the limits of state powers, as well as the rights and duties that citizens enjoy. Democratic institutions are supposed to approximate in practice the value of equal respect and concern that moral egalitarianism presupposes. At the same time, institutions need to encourage their citizens to internalize these principles: like any other political regime, liberal democracy depends for its reproduction on the robustness of an ethos of mutual respect and concern.

Given that liberal democracy is the goal of transitional processes, the values it presupposes set the objectives of, as well as the constraints on, TJ projects. In other words, the public affirmation and institutionalization of the value of respect and concern for all requires that certain TJ measures be taken, and that they be taken in certain ways. The commitment to equality demands that institutional steps be taken to address the violations of the past and the concerns of the victims in a way that does not scapegoat the victimizers. While a massive literature has been dedicated to the needs of the victims within the typical TJ processes (Hayner 2001, Stover and Weinstein 2004, Philpott 2006, Torpey 2006, Urban Walker 2006, Verdeja 2009, Leebaw 2011), less has been written on the symbolic humiliation that certain public constructions inherited from a previous regime can inflict on previously oppressed groups (Levinson 1998; Coombes 2003; Bell 2008). This is rather surprising given that statues, flags and portraits are often revolutionaries’ first victims. In what follows, I will introduce Christian Neuhäuser’s (2011) account of collective symbolic humiliation as a useful tool for understanding what is at stake in doing monumental justice in the aftermath of democratic change.

In Neuhäuser’s view, humiliations ‘attempt to lower someone below the status of a human being as a person with dignity through an improper attitude or treatment’ (2011: 22). While it is undisputable today that individuals have dignity and can be humiliated, it is more controversial to argue that groups can suffer demeaning treatment. Neuhäuser thinks that, by outlining a typology of group humiliations, it will become clear to what extent one can meaningfully talk of group humiliation.

The first form of group humiliation he discusses is direct: it targets all the members of the group precisely because they are the members of the group. It is only because they belong to this group that a certain set of characteristics is ascribed to these individuals, characteristics that, in the eyes of the humiliating agent, justify the demeaning treatment. The example the author gives is of imagined – yet not too implausible – police filters being established on airports to exclusively check those who appear to be Muslims. I would add the more mundane examples that could be derived from the historical – and continued – marginalization of women and homosexuals, racial profiling or the ‘stop-and-frisk’ policies in operation in some parts of the US. Certain groups’ exclusion from the protective scope of liberal democratic rights amounts to direct humiliation.

Neuhäuser then turns to representative group humiliation, which he describes as the humiliation of a whole group through the humiliation of one of its members. For representative group humiliation to obtain, three conditions must be fulfilled: ‘(I) the humiliation is directed against a collectively shared part of identity; (II) this shared part of identity is constitutive for the self-respect of the members of this group; (III) the humiliation is sanctioned on a social level and/or no appropriate measures against it are taken’ (Neuhäuser 2011: 30). Clear examples are Rodney King’s beating or the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In all these cases, individuals were singled out for their identity and debased by virtue of possessing that identity.

The third type of group humiliation – and the one that is of most importance for this chapter – is symbolic group humiliation. In this case, a symbol of the group is defiled and the defiling ‘is connected to past humiliations or the threat of present humiliations’ (Neuhäuser 2011: 32). Destroying Jewish cemeteries and showing abasing portraits of gays on TV are the two examples Neuhäuser offers for this category. In order to understand the humiliating dimension of these acts it is necessary to examine the intention behind them. If the symbolic act expresses an exclusionary attitude, if it shows that less respect and concern is owed to individuals, if there is a possibility that the members of the group will face threats by virtue of belonging to that group, then we are witnessing symbolic group humiliation.

As will become clear later on, this chapter argues that symbolic humiliation is perpetuated if successor states leave unaddressed – or continue to sponsor – monuments, memorials and other public buildings that populate a polity’s ‘sacred space’ and transmit a message about (some) citizens’ inferiority. Public constructions that contradict moral egalitarianism endanger the normative integrity of a liberal democracy and can, under certain circumstances, negatively impact the institutions’ legitimacy. Representing certain groups as less than human, glorifying former victimizers, or excluding the members of marginalized groups from monuments are just three of the ways in which public constructions can symbolically humiliate citizens.

The second section will employ the idea of symbolic humiliation to critically engage Sanford Levinson’s path-breaking book on the ways in which a democracy can deal with its undemocratic monuments. While Levinson’s recommendations constitute a good starting point for reflection on monumental transitional justice, I argue that his preference for a policy of monumental inclusion needs to be tempered by a concern with moral egalitarianism and what it implies for the state as the main memory entrepreneur.4

The Limits of Democratic Monumental Inclusion

Levinson’s Written in Stone (2011) is one of the few works that tries to examine the normative connection between democratic ideals and the public art occupying a country’s ‘sacred space’. While his book explores a multitude of cases from all over the world in order to highlight the vulnerability of public art to political change, his main focus lies with the South of the United States and the challenges that monuments dedicated to the confederate cause pose for democracy. This section seeks to recuperate the theoretical tools Levinson offers us, while at the same time critically engaging with his account of democratic monumental inclusion.

Levinson’s starting point is that ‘sacred grounds’ serve as the space for public art, art that is never innocent or neutral. He quickly – and correctly, I think – dismisses the idea that the state should remain neutral with regard to the figures and events it celebrates or commemorates. Public constructions constitute the means through which the state seeks to inculcate certain attitudes in the citizens: attitudes favourable to the normative, political, and cultural order the state embodies (2011: 38–9). The problem is that the public is often divided over who their heroes are. For example, in the case of the United States, many racist monuments punctuate the Southern states, sitting uneasily with the principles the American society currently embraces, at least at the declarative level. The Liberty Monument in New Orleans or the statues of the generals who led the Confederate army in Richmond constitute such examples. The question then is, how should a democratic state deal with racist monuments that can still resonate with a large part of the American citizenry?

In trying to answer this question democratically, Levinson proposes a number of suggestions (2011: 114–23). First, the state can leave the problematic monument as it is, as a testimony of the past and as representative of certain views entertained by sectors of the American public. Since democracy is a regime of inclusiveness, leaving the monument untouched gives voice to the groups who identify with that version of history glorified by the construction. Second, he suggests placing a plaque stating that the state does not identify with the ideas depicted in the monument – a symbolic distanciation from a past of violence. Third, the authorities could install a sign affirming the state’s indifference to the message the monument transmits to the public. In this sense, the state would adopt a neutral position towards the various (material) visions of history. Fourth, Levinson proposes that the state explicitly disavow the ideas the construction materializes. A clear-cut discontinuity would thus be marked between the times of inequality and victimization, and the new era of democratic inclusiveness. Fifth, a monument celebrating those who resisted the ancien régime could be erected as a counterweight, with or without an explanatory plaque. This would amount to a recalibrating of the balance of symbolic power in the ‘sacred space’. Similarly, the sixth idea is to build a multitude of monuments dedicated to the various groups of victims who suffered under the previous regime. Seventh, Levinson recommends the historicization of the monument by means of its museumification. Moving the monument within the precinct of a museum relegates it to the past, at a distance from the present and the values society currently celebrates. Eighth, one could sandblast the text inscribed on the monument and either replace it with a more appropriate one or leave it blank for the viewer’s interpretation. Ninth, the most radical solution: destroy the monument.

Levinson’s nine recommendations have great potential in terms of formulating a democratically appropriate policy of dealing with democratically inappropriate monuments. Armed with the theoretical tools developed in the previous section, let us now examine them one by one.