Throughout my history blog, I’e reiterated time and time again many points when it comes to the study of history, but I wanted to put some of the most important ones in a list that have been touched upon in History is Interesting.
Value Judgments From the Present Have no Place in the Past
I’ve said it until my face turns blue: It’s not scholarly to decide who’s good or bad by our modern day standards and cultural norms! Judging a historical figure and saying they’re this label or that label that hasn’t even come into existence in their time period is ludicrous. All this hysteria around trying to dismantle historical figures over contemporary attitudes of the period that don’t line up with ours only succeeds in a witch hunt for who’s not in line with modern social justice attitudes! However, while politically correct today to think one way, in past eras, the opposite attitude would be the PC way to go! Even so, many historical figures we honor today are honored for achievements completely unrelated to some unsavory opinion they held. Yes, that person might have been a slave owner, or racist, or sexist, or a host of other things we have decided not to be anymore, but were those attitudes racist, sexist etc… at the time? And do their personal opinions on such matters have anything to do with what we honor them for? Maybe they do, but maybe not. Of course, the issue of value judgements is not just having to do with individuals, but also cultural practices and general attitudes of the times. For example, gender roles. Men and women’s roles were more separate throughout history, and it was the norm for thousands of years. We may have decided differently in this era, but in past eras, it was the norm, and strange to think otherwise. Or consider social class. Our egalitarian attitude and social mobility was quite alien to many in the past! What would be considered classist today would simply be a factual opinion. The “wrongs” of our ancestors back in their day and within their cultural matrix were no more wrong than we feel our opinions are! To judge them by standards they haven’t even dreamed of is unfair and unscholarly. Who are we to be so arrogant as to say “We’re on the moral pinnacle, and everyone else was WRONG!”? Studying history in a scholarly light means learning about the culture for what it was, not what we wish it were. After all, what will people be saying a century or more from now about us? ;)
Different Time, Different Circumstances
On a relate note, perhaps some of the reasons for different attitudes were because of different circumstances. For example, the staunch abolitionist we all love and admire today was seen as outlandish by many more moderates and slave owners. Not only because, perhaps, of the differentiating attitudes about race and such, but also the fact much of the economy, especially in the South was based on slave labor. Even if they were to agree slavery was somehow unjust, complete and sudden abolition would have overturned the economy! To suddenly free all the slaves, it would mean economic ruin, and many most likely thought it was a “necessary evil”. Even if they wanted to free their slaves, many couldn’t since the slaves were part of the estate, and had to be passed down to an heir unless there were none. For many, it could have been out of their control! Without concepts of “racism” in the modern sense, or a sense of it being as unjust as we feel today, it’s easy to believe that many who were not pro-slavery would be hesitant to take the radical stance of complete abolition. Or another example, slavery in antiquity also helped the economy as well as almost every household in many civilizations! Aside from no racial component unlike American slavery, it was also just seen as the norm if you were born into that class, or captured in war for instance. Anyone could possible become a slave through poverty or war. Abolishing slavery in that system would have been seen as seen more ludicrous. While today slavery is not justified by any means, it deserves an honest look at the past circumstances to see why others back then had a different view.
Another heated example also is conquest. The fact European conquerors came to the New World and did horrible genocides and pillaging while today is appalling, back then was the norm. The expansionist attitude was the usual order of the day for many nations, and let’s not forget all the in-fighting within Europe and the Old World! In fact, the attitude of conquest has been around since humanity began, and there’s not one group who can honestly say they haven’t tried! The indigenous peoples over in the New World did it amongst each other too just as brutally with tribes wiping out tribes, enslaving their enemies and taking their land by force. Europeans just did more devastation since they had more technology, and diseases (Which they can’t be faulted for since Germ theory was not around! And don’t think they were the first ones to do biological warfare!) Luckily, the imperialist attitude of yesterday is not as accepted today, but throughout most of history, conquest was the norm, and we wouldn’t be here today without it, as unflattering as it is.
People in different time periods operated and made their choices and had their opinions shaped by the cultural matrix they lived in. No man is an island, and the outside world and what it thinks, influences what you think, even today! Our culture influences how we perceive the world and what we think is justified. Just look at what we criticize today from only a few years ago in hindsight, yet we fail to remember what it was like to be in the heat of the moment, not knowing the actual outcome to criticize based off of! You don’t have to agree in order to be impartial to why they felt as they did.
There’s Never Just One Side
Which leads to this point! We like to think we would know what choices we would have made. We would have been on this side, not that! We would have been the rebels or followers. Freed more slaves, or hid them. Hidden people in our attics. Fought or objected. Voted this way, not that. Pressed the button, or not. But we can’t know, now can we? We have the bias, and luxury of looking at history after the fact. After it’s all been done and over with and we know the outcome. But isn’t it pretty shortsighted and arrogant to proclaim they did wrong, from our pedestal of knowledge? We cling to one side, the side we were taught as “right”, yet not truly look into the circumstances that motivated the other side. Very few are brave enough to challenge what we’ve been taught was the right thing to do, and only decry our ancestors as misguided, stupid and wrong. But for example, did you ever stop to think of the fear it took our country to go to the lengh to intern Japanese Americans in WWII? We can say from our pedestals of knowledge, it was unfounded and unjust, but could they, in the thick of it all? Why take the risk to national security? Imagine yourself as a leader in a high stakes situation! Would YOU know what you would have done in someone’s place without knowing what we know the outcome was now? Maybe the threat wasn’t founded in the end, or the war could have been prevented. But without knowledge in hindsight, a decision must be made NOW! Maybe you end up right, maybe you end up wrong, but is it fair to condemn someone for what they could not have known??? Imagine you want to help oppressed people, or join the rebellion, but you also know if caught, will be the end for you! It’s easy to say you’d take the risk, but without being in the situation, you can’t truly ever know. Each side acts as they do judging from what they know. After all, future generations will criticize what we decided was the right thing to do!
Re-Writing History to Further Our Agenda is Not Studying History!
Propagandizing history has been done for millennia, it’s not new, but that doesn’t mean it’s right! To honestly study history, one needs to seek out what actually happened, not what we wish happened! Oversimplifying, omitting, even outright lying, is NOT being scholarly! Trying to twist the truth of history to suit some contemporary agenda is not scholarship, or legitimate history, just propaganda! History can be unflattering, even appalling, yet downplayed to minimize damage to a modern image. Conversely, it can be over-glorified, overblown, and the negatives downplayed to heighten someone’s image. In both cases, the nuances get lost in the propaganda that makes it black and white, either or. Either way, sanitizing history to make it what we want it to be rather than what it is is a misuse of history!
You Don’t Have To Agree, to Be Impartial
It’s okay to have a personal opinion though about history! I am not pro-slavery, pro-conquest, racist, sexist or think one must stick to their “place” and never be allowed to better themselves! Many people and cultures I study are, but that doesn’t mean my opinions in the present, must be dictated by what was in the past! I don’t hold with bringing back Greek pederasty into contemporary American society, even though I won’t judge it in the context of 5th century BC Greece. As a scholar, my scholarly study and judgement is kept separate from my personal opinion of the matter at hand. Deciding who was right and wrong is not the purpose of studying history, nor scholarship of any kind. Attempts to do such are propaganda and making false comparisons to modern day circumstances and standards. However, one’s personal opinion is free to be whatever you choose. You can draw impartial conclusions, while also forming your own opinions as to whether it was ethical today.
We Can’t Change The Past, But We Can Change The Future
On a last note, I’m not saying using history to motivate us to make change is bad or biased. We have many times before, all for the better. If we don’t like our past, we can make changes to improve our present and future. The past is past, and is a done deal. However, we can change our future the way we want it to be in the image of our ideals. My issue here I want to speak out on though is when we decide to whine and moan and feel that we’re bogged down by our past, and can’t make changes due to our past weighing us down. Yes, history influenced where we are today, but I can’t fully agree with the saying “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”. We don’t have to be in constant mourning of an unflattering past, to feel we need a change in the present. Can’t we say something needs change in of itself, not just because of a past injustice? For those who feel they are still bogged down by their past, why can’t they change their future still? You can’t change the injustices that happened in the past, or the fact they may have affected how the present is at the moment. However, you CAN change the future to make it the way you want it if you work hard enough to make the change. The past doesn’t come into play, just a present that needs some change. What can be done to change an undesirable present are things that are in the here and now, not way back when! History is important to study and be aware of, but you are not chained as slaves to your past, and you can make the future what you want it to be.
I love studying history, but there are so many things bogging it down I had to speak out!