History: Romanticize, Judge, or Erase?

We judge the generations who lived before us based on the idealogies of our present era.

  • Some of us romanticize and hold onto the past as we have whitewashed it in our minds.
  • Some of us want to erase all references to the past that don’t match our present tenets.
  • Others believe that objects or places that commemorate our past help us to make better choices in the future because they remind us of the mistakes of our past.

Regardless of our views on this issue, history is rewritten all the time according to a December, 2017, Farnam Street blog.

“Countries rewrite their histories, from the textbook up, to support how they see themselves now. Instinctively we may recoil from this idea, believing that it’s better to turn over all the rocks and confront what is lurking underneath. However, as Margaret MacMillan writes [in Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History], , “It can be dangerous to question the stories people tell about themselves because so much of our identity is both shaped by and bound up with our history. That is why dealing with the past, in deciding on which version we want, or on what we want to remember and to forget, can become so politically charged.”

What we consider morally ambiguous now may not have existed in the arena of the past. This is dangerous because it doesn’t respect the complexity of human experiences. Our experiences give us different interpretations of the past both as individuals and as groups.

What happens individually or collectively when we pull history out of context? We try to make simple judgments in the face of complex realities,and this reduces our ability to learn the lessons from history.

Instead of seeking to erase history, let’s shine today’s moral light under the rocks of our past to see and listen to all sides of the equations.

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