About those statues coming down: Iconoclasm in the age of “Reconciliation”
- Audrey Dreaver | September 27, 2021
Language politics is an interesting area of study. I’ve heard many stories about how the old people were careful with words. As powerful as words were for nurturing and supporting each other, our ancestors knew they could also be very damaging. Language could simultaneously raise and lower, place and displace, empower and oppress. Language politics direct us on how to look at history and ourselves. Language politics are vital in the development of a country’s narratives – its stories about itself.
Iconoclasm, loosely defined is the deliberate destruction of icons and other representations of beliefs. For some, iconoclasm is only connected to religious persecution because we associate “icon” with representations of religious figures. Most often though, it has been used to mean a political and social justice reaction to oppression that is government sanctioned and controlled.
The earliest examples of iconoclasm are found in the ancient Assyrian cultures of Mesopotamia. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and others have histories of iconoclasm. Here in North America, iconoclasm has resulted in the removal of statues that glorify Canadian and American “founding fathers.” These statues placed across each country’s landscapes is a mnemonic reminder of settler achievement. It promotes settler culture and their versions of history as being the only version of history.
Iconoclasm is often referred to as vandalism which is understandable because the object of iconoclastic action is damage, destruction or removal of the religious or political representations. The difference lies in iconoclasm’s purpose and intent – to remove the representation of oppression.
Toppling statues is a symbolic removal of oppression. It brings attention to the hidden, buried, and ignored true histories of what those revered icons did in their quest to achieve their goals. In this regard, the defacing and toppling of statues like MacDonald, Ryerson and others is a reaction to events and policies that Canadian history has implemented, ignored and buried.
What is not iconoclasm is vandalizing Indigenous artworks in retaliation for statues being toppled. Remember in this case, the small innocent victims of those oppressive Canadian policies that the statues represent.
The assumption that the iconoclasm is one-sided, and that it is only being done by Indigenous peoples is exactly that – an assumption. The indisputable evidence of the thousands of unmarked children’s graves at government and church-run residential schools has shaken and destroyed the faith of many settler Canadians. It has caused a crisis of faith in their belief of their country’s history, religious leadership, and their own education.
We live in a world of many generations of inherited knowledge – knowledge we received from our parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, religious leaders and political authorities. We have been systematically indoctrinated by a long line of people in authority with underlying agendas and biases including: 53 Popes who have ruled over the Vatican and maintained Christian/Catholic faith and obedience to the ten commandments (which includes ‘thou shalt not kill); at least 32 monarchs (between French and English claims to the land); 23 Canadian Prime Ministers; a myriad of representatives sent from Europe to oversee the new lands; and generations of settler descendants who work for national and provincial governments that continue the legacy of colonization into today.
Remember again, the small innocent children. Understanding the true history of our country’s systemic oppressive policies helps to understand the significance of iconoclasm in this current time of Canadian reconciliation.