By Destroying History, Liberals Make an Example of Themselves
The current mania for pulling down statues of so-called morally corrupt historical figures is a classic case of presentism: "reading modern notions of morality" onto the past. It seems that those driven to do so may be honestly trying to rectify the "sins" of the past — whether it be colonial conquest, slavery, genocide, or whatever else. How corrupt were these historical figures? Were they indeed much more reprehensible than anyone in the present day? What did these people actually think in the awful before times when our Western European ancestors discovered the "New World" and practiced conquest and slavery? We are not able to read their minds — only to speculate upon their intent by examining historical documents: the writings, recollections, and stories of those who experienced those days. Indeed, how many of these activists so intent on destroying these representations of the past are fully knowledgeable of these documents that underpin the respect once given to these historical figures resulting in their statuary honors?
David Wootton, in his book The Invention of Science, explores the development of modern thinking through the investigation of historical artifacts such as writings, literature, and recollections. He notes that in the 1600s, even the notion of history itself did not exist as we understand it today. Wootton describes the intellectual culture of a typical well educated European in the 1600s. Such a person believed that witches could turn people into pigs, for instance, and that magic could be used to retrieve stolen goods. Alchemists could turn base metal into gold, and murdered bodies would bleed in the presence of the murderer. Slavery was understood to be just one way of the world. Europeans at that time were familiar with the writings of the Romans and the Greeks and how they lived. They had no notion of progress as such — to be able to reflect on their own technologies and compare them to the capabilities of others — so the classical civilizations of Rome and Greece were seen as contemporaries rather than as ancients. We today can marvel at their ignorance, even as we take for granted the modern world that exists as a result of their imagination and curiosity.
How these Europeans of the 15th and 16th centuries, few of whom managed to cross the oceans to discover the North American continent and return to tell the tale, viewed the non-literate stone-age peoples they encountered there may not be acceptable to our modern notions of cultural respect and "cultural equivalency." We may say the European explorers and settlers exhibited hubris, "an overestimation of one's own competence, accomplishments or capabilities," in their dealings with the indigenous populations when humility would have served them better. And although any rationale for why they responded the way they did toward these peoples does not excuse the violence they perpetrated, their accomplishments, and those of their contemporaries, drove the growth of science, technology, philosophy, and the evolution of the modern world that we enjoy today.
Throughout history, there is much can be learned from both the accomplishments and the mistakes made by those that came before us. Erasing history serves only to throw the baby out with the bath water.
We are supposedly morally evolved for the better now — against slavery, racism and bigotry, conquest and war — yet one open-eyed observation across our planet today would reveal that human beings are practicing these "awful" behaviors almost everywhere in some form or another.
The statue-destroying activists are unwittingly displaying themselves as arrogant in the highest degree, for instead of acknowledging history and the lessons that could be learned therefrom to build a more compassionate and understanding present and future, they practice the same destructive behaviors that they are purportedly erasing from the past. Actually, it is the worst best case of hubris, for the activists claim to stand on the highest moral ground to support their judgments and display no self-reflective understanding of the past, themselves, or their current behavior. Most of the recent cases of destruction, if not all, demonstrate a woeful ignorance of history by the perpetrators. So although presentism may have launched this destruction, the lack of historical understanding and self-reflection renders the movement hollow, corrupt, and devoid of any humility and compassion. Instead of being able to say "we've come a long way, chaps," it appears that human behavior has not evolved one bit for the better in the centuries that have passed. How dare we disparage our historical forebears?
It raises the question — is the current violence and outrage simply a case of hubris and ignorance, or is there another purpose driving this need to erase the past? Should our historical figures be seen not as good examples at all, but as horrible warnings? Even if so, we are still charged to learn from the past to both appreciate the benefits that have sprung from their effort and forge a better future by avoiding their mistakes.
In any case, the destructive so-called activists — i.e., vandals — definitely fall into the category of being not good examples, but horrible warnings to a civil society. Woe to a human experience with no history, no memory of either joy or pain. Without memory, we have no understanding. It is better to add to the history we think we know — to unveil the hidden, to recognize and honor the forgotten, in order to make the record more honest and complete. Doing so can inform our work to build a better future's past. History demands our humble understanding, not our hubristic outrage.
Rosamina Lowi is an e-learning developer, writer, and editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.