The contemporary drive to reassess – and often replace – the traditional, Eurocentric, patriarchal versions of history and historic figures, however earnest, may carry unforeseen risks. Taking down statues, amending school curricula, and renaming buildings, streets, and sports teams in accordance with the latest political standards sounds like progress, until we begin to consider why the statues, curricula, and names were there to begin with. Let’s agree that Ludwig van Beethoven, for example, was too busy with his little songs in the early Nineteenth Century to meet his far weightier obligation of opposing American slavery. Let’s consider how abjectly Leo Tolstoy failed to include sufficient LGBTQ representation in his silly stories. Let’s recoil at the way Isaac Newton never once acknowledged the reality of sexual harassment in his inconsequential scholarship. Let’s lament how such criminals have been so wrongly celebrated over time, despite their not confronting the intolerance which is so obvious to us now. But why, exactly, should they have?
The problem with tracing the roots of prejudice is that, if you go back far enough, the original beliefs behind it may not seem quite so indefensible. The Europeans who enslaved Africans and decimated indigenous North and South Americans were struck by the relative ease with which they conquered entire continental populations; these people must truly be inferior, went the reasoning, if they succumb so readily to our technology and our social organization. The straight societies which disdained or criminalized same-sex desire through the centuries could scarcely imagine such impulses to be anything but unnatural; these people must truly be deviants, went the reasoning, if there are so few of them and male-female procreation is the default instinct of the animal kingdom. The males who denied or deprived females’ rights for millennia assumed that women’s smaller size, shorter term of fertility, and vulnerability in childbirth rendered them incapable of wielding any kind of political power; truly these people should not be granted authority they can never enforce, went the reasoning, in a world built with human strength and maintained by physical violence.
All of these attitudes may seem cruel or backward today, and they were much entrenched by religion and cultural codes. But the point is that they were not arbitrary constructs invented out of thin air by otherwise marginal groups who cynically plotted to gain from them. Based on the available evidence, most persons two thousand or two hundred years ago would have said that the prevailing order was the most obvious one to have. It’s taken epic campaigns of protest and persuasion, a civil war and several genocides to make us see differently. Note too that even those who suffered under one of these regimes likely participated in prolonging the others: slave communities that made women subservient to men; outlawed gay people who invoked racist stereotypes; disenfranchised females repulsed by the idea of lesbianism, and so on and so on. It’s easy to look back and judge how wrong everyone was a long time ago, but it’s more difficult, and perhaps more disturbing, to imagine the ways average decent people really lived and thought in circumstances much different from our own. Our benighted past was fairly enlightened, in fact, when it was their daily present.
None of this means the efforts to undo certain commemorations or take down certain reputations should be abandoned. But bear in mind that some of those efforts will meet resistance (or already have) from opponents who argue that the commemorations and the reputations are perfectly justified, and who are prepared to introduce the expert testimony of our ancestors. For those who would review the historical record to reflect current orthodoxies, a word of warning. If you examine history too closely, you may not like what you find.