Shawn Maxam believes our obessesion with judging people of the past prevents us from creating a better present and thus a truly transformative future.
It’s easy to say you would have acted better than a slave master if you had lived in the antebellum South; or escaped poverty if you grew up in an inner city in more modern times. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t have, and then ask “Why?”
It is common for us to bemoan the atrocities of yesteryear. How could people a) stand by or b) participate in humanity’s worst acts. From the Holocaust to the Atlantic Slave trade we judge people with the fortune of hindsight. I’m not condoning the worst acts of our ancestors but I am flexing my ability to be compassionate. I am exercising sympathy and engaging in muscular empathy.
We often believe that in our own worst moments that we will be our best selves. So we create an infallible righteousness persona and time travel inside of our minds to a different era. We state hypotheticals: if I were a slave I would have killed my owners and escaped is a common refrain I hear.
It is easy to be an armchair revolutionary. We can all Monday-morning quarterback the past. I was often very guilty of this sentiment. How could anyone be a part of the Native America genocide or own a slave? These are difficult questions which require more nuanced answers. If I am such a progressive and forward thinking individual then why do I stand by and allow the poverty in New Orleans to continue or the genocide in Darfur or the civil war in Syria to happen?
I was constantly harrassed by the New York police department as a Black teenager (15 years ago) but I haven’t played an active role in the recent Stop and Frisk protests. Why? Honestly it is because life has gotten in the way. I literally don’t have the money to get on the NJ Transit train to travel into New York to engage in acts of civil disobedience. I am so busy trying to survive I have limited resources to participate in movements of change. Then I realize this is absolutely true of previous generations.
I have to also admit that I am afraid. I’m scared to be arrested or labeled a “trouble-maker”. I like my simple life of going to graduate school, writing and blogging and chilling with my wife. I don’t want to disrupt my life. Suppose I get arrested or something similar to that?
We forget that there are consequences to acts of dissent. Some worse than others. Could I have sat in a prison cell for twenty-seven years like Nelson Mandela did for protesting apartheid? The answer is I don’t know. Mandela lived that experience in the moment. Those years passed day by day…
We do a disservice to the people of the past when we look at acts with a cumulative lens or aggregate their total life experiences.
In the moment you aren’t enslaving a whole race or killing six million people. These acts are committed in small bits and pieces. Forgive me for the following crude analogy – when someone loses a lot of weight e.g. fifty pounds we marvel at their accomplishment. We reduce it to an impossible feat instead of the incremental process it truly was. They lost one ounce at a time. Some days a few ounces more and others a few ounces less.
In order for us to reach our goals as equitable society we have to remember that justice and injustice happen in the same manner. They occur in moments and via small choices and decisions by individuals who have the misfortune of being a piece of the puzzle and not the foresight of seeing the completed picture. I believe if we can remember that then we can forgive the people of the past for not being who we want to be in the present and hope to be in the future.
Please share this with friends, enemies and temporary allies alike.
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