I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our relationship to the past. History was one of the subjects I studied at University, so the past has always been of great interest to me. I also know that the past is not one and the same for everyone. History can be broken down into so many different areas and people from different countries, regions, economic, religious and political backgrounds etc. will each have unique stories to tell about the same period of history. There is no overarching grand narrative. History is more complex than that.
Which is why I am concerned by the political tendency nowadays to oversimplify the past and take a very negative view of it as racist, sexist and oppressive. Just to name a few examples: there is the recent Rhodes Must Fall movement which tried to topple statues of the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and Oxford University. (They were successful at UCT, but not at Oxford.) The British writer Afua Hirsch wrote a very controversial article last year in The Guardian calling for the removal of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. The reason: Nelson did not voice opposition to slavery whilst he was alive. There have also been attacks on 90s sitcoms such as Friends because some of the characters made un-PC jokes. A pre-Raphaelite painting by John William Waterhouse was taken down in February from a gallery in Manchester because it “sexualised” women.
…the tendency nowadays to oversimplify the past and take a very negative view of it as racist, sexist and oppressive..
Of course, it is absolutely fine to critique the ideas of the past, like colonialism, which was wrong and did a great deal of harm. But it is equally important to be empathetic (not sympathetic) and try and understand it in the context of its time; instead, history is now being subjected to harsh moral scrutiny by a new form of Puritanism, which the past will not stand up to because it was populated by flawed people, just like the present.
The past is not perfect and it is unreasonable to expect it to be. Our collective memory shifts over time and we see ourselves from all different angles. It is like looking at old pictures of yourself and not quite liking the person you see.
History is certainly not all about bigotry and oppression and it is unhealthy to obsess over the bad parts of history and ignore the good. In any other area of life in which people magnify flaws or imperfections to the exclusion of all else, we would regard that as dysfunctional. It should be the same for the study of the past when people negatively frame history for political reasons and ignore any positive aspects of it. This can very easily happen to academics, researchers and writers who focus on narrow subject areas. They can inflate the magnitude and importance of a topic and their interpretations of it.
Plus, we should always recognise the good intentions of others. No one could credibly say that any mainstream television show, book or film sets out to be deliberately bigoted. In fact, it is often quite clearly the opposite.
We are going to create a very cynical age if we’re not careful, full of paranoia and fear. How will that reflect upon us in the future?