A statue in the middle of the campus of Saint Louis University, a private Jesuit institution, depicted famous Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet S.J. praying over two Native Americans dressed in traditional clothing. There had been increasingly intense demands from some faculty and student activists to remove the statue. Summarizing the objections, a student editorial recently argued that the statue sent an unacceptable message to Native Americans and others that
“You do not belong here if you do not submit to our culture and our religion…The statue of De Smet depicts a history of colonialism, imperialism, racism and of Christian and white supremacy.”
[ The editorial also said that “As the protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner have shown us, just because racist policies are off the books doesn’t mean that racism is no longer practiced.” I am trying not to allow that fatuous, counter-factual and ignorant statement cause me to regard the writer and his piece as unworthy of serious consideration.]
Naturally, as is almost always the case, the spineless, path-of-least-resistance driven administrators at the university capitulated, and moved the statue into some museum. Note that this is a Jesuit university, and teaching is one of the primary things that the Jesuit order does.
De Smet was a remarkable individual who, far from imposing his beliefs on Native Americans, began his obsession with starting far West missions for the native tribes in the U.S. after the Salish and the neighboring Nez Perce sent four delegations to St. Louis, where he was stationed, to find a “black robe” to live among them. They specifically sought a priest to teach them Christianity, which the Iroquois, who had been introduced to it much earlier, had told the other tribes was an inspiring religion. Eventually De Smet would travel over 180,000 miles throughout the Rocky Mountains and parts of the Pacific Northwest, interrupting his teaching to make an amazing 19 Atlantic crossings to raise money for the establishment of missions. He was respected and trusted by all the tribes that he worked with, so much so that in 1868 the U.S. government asked him to go into hostile Sioux territory to petition the Sioux to negotiate a peace treaty. He visited a camp of 5,000 warriors and met with Chief Sitting Bull, persuading the chief to agree to negotiations that did produce a treaty. In 1870, three years before he died, De Smet established his first Sioux mission.
Wow. Sounds like a heartless racist, doesn’t he? Why would a Jesuit college in St. Louis ever want to honor a guy like him?
Ethics Alarms has two Niggardly Principles. The first declares that it is unethical to force a retraction of a statement or action because someone is offended due to their own bias or ignorance:
“No one should be criticized or penalized because someone takes racial, ethnic, religious or other offense at their conduct or speech due to the ignorance, bias or misunderstanding by the offended party.”
The second holds that no one should intentionally offend someone, even if the offense is unjustified, if it is not necessary to do so:
“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…
Which Niggardly Principle applies to the St. Louis University statue controversy?
My view: easy call. It’s the First Niggardly Principle. The complaints about the statue have no merit, and are political correctness at its worst:
1. This is a Jesuit school, and the statute honors a great Jesuit, doing the Order’s work, who was a friend and supporter of Native Americans. If current Native Americans, or their knee-jerk progressive allies, don’t know or understand that, a college’s duty is to educate them, not cater to their ignorance.
2. De Smet taught Indians, and the statue shows him teaching Indians. It makes him the center of the scene? Why yes, because it’s a Jesuit institution, he was an important Jesuit, and the statue honors him, not his students. The author of the student editorial darkly hints that De Smet may have been “a willing cog sent to convince the Lakota to sign the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty, a treaty which the U.S. government had no intention of fulfilling.” There is no evidence that the government had no intention of keeping the treaty agreements, just as there is no evidence that the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner were motivated by racism. Why are teachers allowing the bias and ignorance of students to make them reject one of their Order’s hero’s legacy?
3. The men who tried to educate the Native Americans and help them transition from a doomed primitive culture to an unavoidable dominant one were far-sighted and compassionate, and the tragedy is that there were not enough of them, nor enough Native American leaders with the wisdom to realize this was the tribes’ only chance. What happened to the stone age North American native culture was inevitable, and it’s time to stop indulging the fantastic victim-mongering about it. What was the alternative, for Native Americans to enjoy a property free, non-technological, “natural” existence in happy ignorance of the scientific, industrial and other advances in Europe until Hitler or someone as bad arrived and slaughtered them?
I know this is really unpalatable to diversity fanatics, but some cultures are inferior, and thus doomed to fail unless they can adapt. De Smet devoted his life to trying to help Native Americans adapt, and his reward is to have his statue insulted.
4. Is the style of the statue a bit triumphal by modern sensibilities? Sure. That was how statues were designed then. It’s art, and banning a statue because it displays the artistic sensibilities of a different time is a rejection of what art is about: the time, the subject, the artist, and a thought. I’d think a respectable university would want to teach that, too.
In fact, it is obligated to.