I recently had a chance to listen to a question and answer session posted on the What Sorts blog. This Q&A session followed a lecture by Martin Tweedale about the removal of John MacEachran’s portrait from the conference room in the Department of Psychology. MacEachran was the first head of what was then the Department of Philosophy and Psychology and was later Provost of the University of Alberta. He was also a major proponent of sexual sterilization and was the Chairman of the Alberta Eugenics Board from the Board’s inception in 1928 up until he resigned in 1965. In the late 1990s, a portrait of MacEachran in the Department of Psychology conference room at the U of A was removed. In the words of Douglas Wahlsten, a psychology professor who instigated the motion to remove the portrait, “We decided to remove MacEachran’s name from our conference room because we felt that the questions raised about his conduct were inconsistent with the honours the university had previously bestowed on him.”
After listening to the exchange between Professor Griener and Professor Tweedale, I started thinking more closely about how we ought to address issues of historical injustice. I think one of the more challenging aspects of the debate is the idea that by removing the name of an important figure in history from an award we are guilty of a kind of moral self-righteousness. As William Graham wrote in a letter to the Folio in 1997, “Although most in society today would consider compulsory sterilization abhorrent, the view was apparently different a couple of generations ago.” By wiping away MacEachran’s name, we have bowed to current ideas of acceptability (or so the argument goes). What guarantees do we have that our own actions will not be viewed by future generations as morally reprehensible? If we expunge the names of predecessors who we feel have been complicit in injustice, then we have effectively tried to mount a moral high horse that we really have no right to ride.
There are two separate issues here. One is that of the writing of history, and one is the issue of justice. From a historiographical point of view, I think it is important that we withhold judgment when analyzing the actions taken by people in the past. As Herbert Butterfield writes sarcastically in The Whig Interpretation of History, “It has been said that the historian is the avenger…and by his moral indignation can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.” By passing judgment on the past, we reduce the past into a flat picture that ignores the complexity of historical actors. John MacEachran, for example, was not a eugenic monster or sociopath. As Thomas Nelson writes, “Dr. MacEachran was a man of great personal generosity. In all of our many exchanges, I never heard him openly critical of another.”
However, we do have a responsibility to right past wrongs to the extent that people are still suffering from past injustices. For people like Leilani Muir, who was wrongly sterilized under the Sexual Sterilization Act, it is important that we recognize their suffering. By continuing to have an award named after MacEachran, we maintain him in the position of authority that allowed him to push for eugenics in the first place. By allowing the portrait of MacEachran to hang in the psychology conference room, we subtly condone his actions by allowing the picture to dominate an important intellectual space. To say that an action is acceptable by virtue of the social and historical context in which it was committed smacks of moral relativism, and really prevents victims from ever receiving the redress they deserve. We are not trying to occupy a position of moral superiority by removing MacEachran’s name, but rather distancing ourselves from a movement that caused real pain and suffering to thousands of people.
Having said that, I’m still not sure about what should have been done with the portrait. I like the idea of having not just a plaque, but a counter-portrait: another painting in the conference room that directly or indirectly addresses MacEachran’s involvement with the eugenic movement.
I invite your thoughts about this issue. How should we address historical injustices when they have been carried out by individuals with particular historical or intellectual importance?
(This issue still has particular relevance for the U of A. The Glyde Mural in the Reading Room in Rutherford South is an example of imperialism and racism towards our First Nations peoples. What ought to be done about it? An article published in the Gateway talks more about the Glyde Mural. A slightly different example of the issues that U of A still faces is the Louise McKinney scholarship. Louise McKinney was undoubtedly an important figure for woman suffrage in Alberta, but was also a supporter of eugenics.)