One of the most difficult issues for any history student is the problem of context. Should we judge historical actors according to our own values, or do we need to take the views of the time into account?
There are problems with both choices. If we decide who is a ‘good’ person in accordance with twenty-first-century values- then the vast majority of people who have ever existed should be considered monsters. This clearly won’t do; accepting that most people in history are evil as a starting position is a mistake.
Whereas approaching the past with an uncritical eye, willing to forgive all historical misdeeds because ‘it was normal at the time.’ Does not represent a better alternative.
History is complex. The countless people that have passed away since humans started writing were individuals. They possessed hopes, dreams and desires. They are not cosmic dust, helpless victims of circumstance for us to pour scorn on. How we judge them is something we must consider. We must think about it carefully.
Writing in The Guardian this week the columnist Afua Hirsch wrote an article about feminism. At the end of her article, Hirsch made a remark about Emeline Pankhurst:
“We are all quoting Emmeline Pankhurst. Mention the fact that Pankhurst was a staunch imperialist, blind to the colonial exploitation of African women, however, and you stray outside acceptable feminism. Such feminism is still seen as threatening – and it may well take another 100 years to change that.”
For this Guardianista, the comment was probably a throwaway line. Yet it encapsulates everything that is wrong with the modern social justice movement. It reminds me less of a ‘political project’ and more of a modern iconoclasm. A spasm of anger aimed at destroying all historical symbols of racism and sexism.
It turns out that Hirsh also called for the toppling of Nelson’s column last year. What the social justice movement doesn’t understand is that iconoclasms have tended to be temporary, and extremely violent.