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September 11, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Alicke in Psychology Today | Heroes, Statues, and Moral Standards

DR. Mark Alicke, seated in his office

Dr, Mark Alicke

Dr. Mark Alicke, Professor of Psychology, authored a column on “Heroes, Statues, and Moral Standards: Judging people by the norms of their time is more complicated than it may seem” Aug. 22 in Psychology Today.

His blog posts to Psychology Today are headed “Why We Blame.”

I received my Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and walked by the Silent Sam statue hundreds of times. I am embarrassed to say that I never gave it much thought at the time—I don’t think I even read the inscription. But in later visits to the university, I did begin to wonder why so little fuss was made about this statue that commemorates Confederate soldiers on the campus of a leading center of learning. Now that the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has anteceded a deadly riot instigated by white supremacists, and protesters have toppled a statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers at the Durham County courthouse in Durham, North Carolina, the question about the propriety of statues commemorating the Confederacy has reignited a national debate.

Silent Sam is purportedly an homage to the 321 UNC alumni who died during the Civil War. By itself, this might be less objectionable than some other Civil War statues in that it does not honor a specific “hero.” But the fact that the statue was donated by the Daughters of the Confederacy, who many view as a white supremacist group, muddies the waters and leads one reasonably to suggest that the statue, dedicated in 1915, was erected in support of Jim Crow laws rather than to honor duty as “the sublimest word in the English language.” As psychologists have recognized at least harking back to Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience to authority studies, duty and obligation can also be the ugliest words in the English language.

From a psychological standpoint, an important aspect of the debate concerns the moral standards that we believe should be imposed on the Confederacy and its military leaders, which is part of a larger question regarding the moral standards we choose to impose on anyone, including ourselves. Present controversies center predominantly on military figures involved in America’s Civil War. But the war was a culmination, and certainly not the beginning, of America’s abominable racial history. At its outset in 1861, even Russia—not usually thought of as the vanguard in human rights—had just freed its serfs, and England had abolished slavery much earlier with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. By contrast, slavery had been a staple of the southern American economy since the first colonists arrived, and by the time of the Civil War, most southern political leaders and planters had dug in their heels and extolled it as a virtue for the people who were enslaved….

Read the rest of his column in Psychology Today.


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