The past is all around us. It shapes the places we live and visit, the people we interact with on a daily basis, and how we personally view the world. The significance we give to places like “Alabama,” “Massachusetts,” “Ireland,” and “Russia” is partly shaped by our understanding of the history of those places and, in some cases, our own past experiences there. Sometimes we stay in and maintain toxic relationships for no other reason than the mental comfort we feel when reflecting on a past time when the relationship seemed perfect.
The past is a part of us, but we cannot live in the past. We can give new meaning to the past by reassessing commonly accepted narratives and adding new layers of history through our own words and actions in the present, but we cannot go back to the way things were in 1850. We are participants in the present and observers of the past, and our participation in the present does much to shape our understanding of the past, much as we’d like to understand the worlds of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, Jr, from their own vantage point.
As participants in the present who experience the world in ways that can be strikingly different from our ancestors, we run the risk of abusing the past by saying things about it that are more reflective of our own perspective than the way things may have actually been. On one side you have the perspective of someone like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who infamously equated the NFL’s labor practices to “modern-day slavery” in 2011. Peterson attempted to criticize the way he and other professional football players were being treated by NFL owners, and some may say that he has a valid complaint. But in finding a vocabulary to express his displeasure, Peterson relied on a poor comparison to chattel slavery that minimizes the actual horrors of slavery, both past and present. On the other side, the recent riots in Ferguson and Baltimore in response to the killing of unarmed black men by local police forces has elicited a wave of white racism that invokes the myth of “Irish slaves” in the New World to argue that chattel slavery–and more specifically the enslavement of millions of Africans in the Transatlantic world for hundreds of years–wasn’t so bad. And because chattel slavery wasn’t so bad, blacks should “get over” this history and stop using it “as [an] excuse for crap life.” (Liam Hogan of the University of Limerick has a paper on the myth of “Irish slaves” that can be viewed here).
One perspective argues that slavery exists all around us and limits our freedom to live the way we want to and earn a fair wage for our talents, even if we make millions of dollars. The other perspective argues that we must get over slavery (and, by extension, all oppression) because it is long gone and irrelevant to the present. Both perspectives reflect a shoddy understanding of history and a lazy attempt to make historical comparisons across time and space. And both perspectives rely on an irrational hierarchy of oppression that foolishly attempts to rank groups of people by how much they’ve suffered from hardship and oppression, whether that be Irish laborers, African slaves, or NFL players.
Lines like “my suffering is as bad as a slave’s” and “my ancestors were slaves before yours were and my life is great now. Get over it!” are tactically used by these people to shut down debate and invalidate the perspectives of others whose experiences differ from their own. I believe we can acknowledge the tragic victims of oppression–whether that be serfdom, chattel slavery, the Holocaust, or anything else–on their own merits without assessing who’s suffering was the worst. But such comparisons are made anyway because the one making those comparisons believes that he or she’s own suffering is unique and unacknowledged. And going beyond yourself to acknowledge others’ suffering means that one must come to terms with his or her own power and social status today. Not everyone is ready to reckon with that privilege and the implications of its potential loss.
Update, 4/27/16: Comments have been closed for this post. Too many people want to personally attack Liam Hogan rather than engage in the actual argument I’m trying to make here.