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Playing history with modern tools

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Divyam Mishra
Student of History trapped in the University of Delhi.

Barring the pandemic, the most discussed topic around the globe is the protests of Black Lives Matter. One of the most basic tenets of the movement is to delegitimise any historical figure who seems to be racist. And for that their statues are being toppled, and some are even thrown into the waters. Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, Cecil Rhodes, and Mahatma Gandhi – all of them are accused of being racist. Desecration of statues, though, may appear emotional and appealing to admirers of the protests, imparts nothing significant, but an untenable attempt of cancelling and over correcting the history.

Judging historical figures using modern standards not only insinuate injustice to the figure but also gives an impression of a society that fails to understand the complexities and historicities of the past and the present. Adhesion to presentism is a naive and precarious view of history, which has now become the masthead philosophy of the BLM movement.

Aristotle wrote in his work Politics, “As regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” Albert Einstein wrote in his travel diary about Chinese for being “filth” and “obtuse”. Thomas Addison was an unbridled animal persecutor for his experiments. John Stuart Mill, if he were to be judged for his views about India and colonialisation, the world would have lost some of his great liberal thinking. If historical figures are to be judged through these aberrations in their characters, many reformists to Nobel prize winners will be remembered not for their contribution for society, but for being misogynists, xenophobics, animal abusers, and racists.

Rulers in the ancient and medieval world, who functioned in the autocratic and hierarchial system, now, cannot be vilified for being undemocratic. The figures, who are now demeaned as racists, were born in the time when slavery was legally permissible, morally accepted and widely practiced (even by African slave owners). The one who lived in an environment when a practice was considered to be a norm cannot be compared to a person who is born in the post – slavery world. This does not translate into the fact that people should accept every social structures of their times, and there should not be any futuristic progress. But only a few are ingenious and far – sighted enough to point out wrongs of their times, and demand for its eradication. Mahatma Gandhi who made a racist comment in his early life, later when got enlightened, became the global figure of anti-racist, anti-religion and anti-caste movements.

Statues, with some exceptions, in general, were erected by people who revered the individual’s contribution towards society. It does not reflect that these figures were the epitomes of idealism and utopia. People may not endorse everything what these figures believed, but people idolize their ideas, works, and contribution that transformed their lives, which loosely connotes the old cliche of “separation of art from the artist”. When someone’s beliefs becomes ancient and irrelevant, the person should not be obliterated. History is not about relevancy or irrelevancy, but about factuality and eventuality of what has happened. Past should be preserved and catalogued into different phases of time, as each phase represents distinguishing structures and establishments. Statues are an instrument of that very same preservation. Taking each patch of history individually, fosters an understanding that when the society and system had imperfections, then people who were the finest and most visionary in their fields, also possessed many flaws in their characters and were the prisoners of their times.

The most misused and overused word in English language is irony. Still, I am here at it again. The irony is that the western civilisation, which were once the masters of the world, for last three centuries, astutely looked ahead of its time, now, indulge in judging its past irrationally, and playing the history with modern tools, then this corroborates that the malaise lies and pierces deep into the existing education system.

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Divyam Mishra
Student of History trapped in the University of Delhi.

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