This is ultimately an expression of iconoclasm — the tendency in moments of transition, unrest, or revolution to tear down and smash symbols of the old order. It began in religious contexts (where iconoclasm played a significant role in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and then migrated over to politics in modern times, as disputes among far-left and far-right factions have come to resemble the sectarian conflicts of earlier eras. Conquering armies also delight in symbolic displays of iconoclasm, as the U.S. military showed in its televised toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

What protesters are demanding when they clamor for the removal of statues and other symbols is that they be denied a place of public honor. But what about when the object of scorn is a person and a body of work instead of a symbol? When that happens, things become more troubling.