- Jo Grey
State of the World: Freaked Out and Fragile
Society, especially western society, is paralyzed by its fear of the future.
I know, sounds way out there, but hear me out.
Today’s news and social media are littered with stories about how some famous historical figure is being accused of abhorrent behavior – enslaving others, misogynism, racism, and other sins too numerous and/or heinous to mention – which conclude with a call to action, be it defacing or pulling down statues once erected in their honor, or deleting their names from streets signs, schools, or from history altogether!
The hip term for this is Presentism: a revisionist perspective on history and historical figures by interpreting past events through the lens of present-day knowledge and morality.
For those of us with any interest in history, it’s guaranteed to trigger headshaking disbelief: how do these intellectual lemmings manage to tie their own shoelaces with that kind of self-centered worldview?
Have you ever had a particularly passionate debate with friends that starts off as an eye-rolling sarcastic rant on a topic but it sparks a number of insights that eventually lead to a deep, mind-boggling revelation? That’s how this one went.
I’m sure you all know of recent examples of presentism, but here are a few that come to mind: Princeton eradicating Woodrow Wilson’s name due to accusations of racism; Canada’s widespread removal of tributes to John A. MacDonald, its first Prime Minister for his role in implementing Residential schools; Oxford students’ petitioning for the removal of Cecil Rhodes name given his role in the colonization of South Africa; and so on.
For most of humanity’s civilized era, the past was our historical focus, an idyllic time, a high point that we might never again achieve: the Garden of Eden, legends of Atlantis, the empires of China and Rome. One might see this as charmingly romantic in its naivite, but at least there was an awareness of “what came before” and its relevance to events of the current era.
Then, roughly around the time of the Industrial Revolution, our historical focus pivoted to the future. Belief grew, then flourished in the twentieth century that humanity crafts its own destiny, that the future was a better place that we were all travelling toward. Human creativity could solve all problems; science and technology would cure all ills.
In retrospect, that optimism was just as naive as the romantization of pre- and early recorded history. But the futuristic bent of that era also saw the progression of history as being connected, albeit in this case to the “better future” as opposed to the idyllic past.
Today, our focus is overwhelming the present – facilitated by the deluge of information generated by digital media and its ability to spin if not completely re-write history. Events of the last few decades – climate change, global pollution, resource scarcity, etc – have sapped the spirit of both the religious right and the technocratic left, leaving the majority of our populace mired in pessimism about the future and disillusioned by the recent past.
A singular focus on the present serves the needs of our consumption culture, denying the very existance of past traditions and rituals, and in so doing eroding the complex fabric of past societies and cultures with their unique raisons d'être, making it that much easier to grind them down under the weight of modern-day arrogance and deluded moral superiority.
And so we come to the issue of Presentism. How better to blissfully forget, at least for a moment, about the truly fundamental issues we imminently face as a species, than by immersing ourselves in a passionate advocacy for simplistic “justice” based on today’s rules? Why consider context? Just make it simple, like the movies – it's either right or wrong. After all, the hero always does the “right thing”, even if it’s not popular...so any historical figure worthy of statuary should have done the same! And if they didn’t, ergo, they were never a hero and in fact are villainous.
Presentism isn’t the problem – it's a symptom. It is escapism in its most self-serving form, feeding delusions not only of moral grandeur but of signficant accomplishments in the form of righting long-standing historical wrongs.
Sadly, it is nothing more or less than a symptom of humanity’s lack of faith, lack of hope, and its infantile head-in-the-sand response to a terrifying future.