How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Last week vandals smeared the Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia with the phrase “racist + rapist,” reports WVIR-TV. Friday marked Founder’s Day, which celebrated Jefferson’s 275th birthday.

The University of Virginia released a statement, saying, “The university is disappointed that individuals vandalized the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the Lawn on the day that we honor his contributions to our University and to our democracy.”

The UVa administration is “disappointed.” Not “indignant” about vandalism to the founder of the university and a founding father of the nation. Not “shocked.” Not “outraged.” Just “disappointed.”

The latest vandalism follows an incident last September in which someone draped the statue with a sheet that read, “Black Lives Matter. Fuck White Supremacy.”

Vandals, let me tell you what university administrators can’t bring themselves to say. If you’re trying to change things for the better, you’re not helping. If you want to convert people to your cause, you don’t get it by desecrating the revered symbols of the people you’re trying to convert. In fact, you do the opposite. Want more rednecks flying big-ass Confederate battle flags just off the Interstate? This is how you get more rednecks flying big-ass Confederate battle flags just off the Interstate.

I could say something similar to the rednecks. Want more defilement of Thomas Jefferson statues? This is how you get more defilement of Thomas Jefferson statues. Here’s the difference. You are University of Virginia students — you’re attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country. You’re supposed to be well-informed and articulate. The rednecks are just… rednecks.

Go back and study your history. See how Frederick Douglas acquitted himself. See how Harriet Tubman acquitted herself. See how Booker T. Washington acquitted himself. See how Thurgood Marshall acquitted himself. See how Martin Luther King acquitted himself. They didn’t use vulgar profanity. They didn’t desecrate the founding fathers. They appealed to peoples’ better nature. And they made a difference.

If you want to discuss Jefferson’s historical legacy — his role in articulating and advancing human freedoms, his sins as a slave holder, his views towards race, his role in abolishing the international slave trade — by all means, let’s have that discussion. The man was not a saint. It is reasonable for every generation to reinterpret his contributions for good and for ill in this country. But vandalizing his statue doesn’t contribute to the conversation — it shuts the conversation down.