No action or event ever happens in a vacuum. There are always multiple contributing factors which influence our choices at any given moment, a great many of which are shaped by the world around us and beyond our direct control. Decisions and actions which make perfect sense in one context can seem drastically different in another. One of the side effects of having access to everything at the same time is that it tends to strip away the context which is critical to genuine understanding.
An online post by Andrew J. Street mentioning an interview he did with Brian Eno has been circulating a fair bit as of late. Within Street’s reflections on the interview there is a key piece to understanding the complicated and confusing debates around how to handle things of the past during times of progressive social change.
The interview happened several years ago but a comment Eno made has stayed with him. Eno spoke about how his daughters listened to music from all sorts of eras without any timeline or context because everything was equally available to them. In Eno’s words, ‘Everything was present’ as far as they were concerned.
Street now sees in the remarks an insight into all of the contention and confusion around how to address materials and events from the past which are now viewed, or in many important cases ‘properly recognized’, as unacceptable. Just because we can sign into our favorite streaming service and watch something created in the last year followed by something created twenty years ago does not mean we can, or should, approach them the same way. Engaging with the past here and now does not erase the context of its time and place in history.
The value of context is not a new idea. What have recognized and treasured its power from the moment we as a society began pulling away from the feudal rule of the dark ages wherein any declaration of someone in a position of power held unassailable control over life and death simply by virtue of their supposedly divine power. If the monarch said you were guilty no evidence or corroboration was necessary. They had spoken and you were guilty.
Though the term ‘Rule of Law’ wasn’t coined until the 16th century in Britain the concept and ideal of society being governed by laws instead of by the decrees of individuals dates as far back as the ancient Greeks and Aristotle who wrote: “It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens.”
The core principle of governance through ratified law is to protect people from having their very lives held at mercy to the whims of any form of ‘divine ruler’. And intrinsic to governance by law is the principle of accountability being proportionate to circumstance. To prevent laws from being arbitrary and bodiless substitutes for imperial decrees requires the acknowledgement and incorporation of context. Even ‘eye for an eye’ speaks to consequences being balanced against the offence.
Context is a vital and necessary component of understanding. We cannot genuinely understand a person, place, thing, or event without including and acknowledging the context of their place and time and cultural surroundings.
We can know the Great Depression happened in the 1920’s but we cannot understand how and why it happened without first understanding the events and circumstances which preceded it.
We can know Hitler lead Germany to start the Second World War but we cannot understand how or why without first understanding the societal circumstances which enabled him to rise to power and the personal experiences and prejudices which shaped his genocidal world view.
We can know that people of color are currently raising their voices and commanding attention in unprecedented ways but we cannot understand the justifiable anger which fuels them without first understanding the both overt and implicit forms of oppression they have been subjected to for centuries.
The nearly instant access to virtually limitless amounts of information afforded to us by internet and digital technologies has had, and continues to have, countless cultural and societal impacts. Some of them good, some of them very much not so. Less restricted access to information can be immensely empowering. The rush of instant access, of instant gratification, can be seductive and can inspire entitlement.
One of the less obvious or anticipated side-effects of all this instant access has been what Andrew Street heard resonating in Eno’s words, that ‘everything being current’ strips things of their context. And without context when comparing apples to apples we won’t know whether we are dealing with Red Delicious, Courtland, or McIntosh.
The two most prominent current examples of where context is desperately needed but is having a difficult time attaining inclusion and consideration are the reactionary impulses to retroactively indict public figures for comments and actions in their past and with battles over how to handle currently existing historical materials and references to things which are now, justifiably, deemed unacceptable.
To be clear a not insignificant portion of the tension and animosity around these debates stems from the attitudes of people who would rather see cultural standards revert to times when expressing and acting upon certain prejudices they hold were not just permitted but were widely unfettered and institutionally endorsed.
These contributions are easy to spot because they take the form of something along the lines of: “In my day you could say whatever you wanted and people weren’t so fragile and overly sensitive.” That such things were culturally permitted did not erase the harm they inflicted and the fact that there was no public outcry was not evidence of lack of harm but rather a lack of voice for those being harmed.
Attempting to confront prejudice and illustrate the harms it causes is a whole other subject. Plainly put, prejudice is the act of adopting a world view in which there are right people and wrong people. Once that harmfully narrow paradigm is in place something only constitutes ‘a harm’ if it negatively impacts the right people. Any attempts to brand such impacts on the wrong people as ‘a harm’ get dismissed as either what they deserve for being wrong or as some form of invasive assault aimed at stripping the right people of their rightful power and position.
Even those who have adopted such a paradigm but may be willing to view things more openly will also then struggle with the preservation-of-self-perception reflex we all have wired into us at the instinctive level. We don’t all go to the extremes of branding ourselves as the right people but we all see ourselves as the hero of our personal story and as such don’t want to feel accused of doing harm we don’t see ourselves as having intend.
The self-protective reaction is natural and reflexive but that does not mean it is accurate or correct for the moment. That the cultural attitudes and societal systems we grew up in had, and continue to have, specific harmful biases enmeshed within them may not have been anything we would have intended if we had a choice. And that we have been fortunate enough to benefit from those attitudes and systems does not make us guilty of their creation. But if we are unwilling to acknowledge the imbalances and biases, to learn from them, and to engender genuine change we are then endorsing those attitudes and systems as well as the harms they cause.
Which brings us back to our two prominent examples of struggles over context. That someone’s comments or actions occurred in a time and place when societal attitudes condoned them does not erase their harm. That materials or monuments were socially accepted, embraced, or even celebrated at the time of their creation does not erase their harm or enmeshed prejudices.
It is important to note that expunging and erasing things does not erase their harm either. Banning the words, symbols, and institutions can prevent those very specific harms but holds no guarantee of any significant impact on the attitudes and biases behind them. Denied of their words, symbols, and institutions those with entrenched prejudices will simply find other avenues to exercise them.
It is not the actual word which is harmful but the intentions and attitudes it is being used to express and when the slur is viewed as socially acceptable it implies the victim has no right to be upset by their injury.
There are certainly valid arguments to be made with regards to the potential ongoing harms caused by leaving prominently displayed public installations, such as monuments and named public buildings, in place. Even if widespread genuine understanding of the full and true context of such symbols was achieved the question would then become one of why that context merited being displayed in an honorific fashion.
Understanding that a historical figure was an abusive slave owner should not reinforce or increase our desire to see them celebrated in statue form. And with regard to those particular type of monuments the context of who put them up and when is almost as important as the context of who the figure is.
Words, symbols, and monuments are unchanging entities in and of themselves. It is the context around them which changes, sometimes drastically. They are expressions of their context and if we wish to generate genuine and lasting change of any kind it is the context we need to first understand and then seek to affect.
Some of that is happening currently though it can all too easily get lost amidst the frustrated protests born of fully justified anger and exhaustion, the counter-reactions and backlash, and well intentioned grasping for falsely simple solutions. The urge to banish an object which has caused pain or injury is natural but it does not do as much to prevent possible future injuries as it might seductively seem.
Unless the intention to cause the harm, either deliberate or apathetic, is changed depriving them of a particular medium will only result in them seeking out a new medium to use. We can ban certain modes and methods of expressing or inflicting prejudice, and in some cases we most certainly should, but we cannot ban prejudice. The only way to defeat prejudice is to expand the mind and perspective of those who have surrendered to the falsely simple right people versus wrong people paradigm.
Doing everything we can to prevent further harm is vital and important but if we don’t challenge and change the underlying sources we are dooming ourselves to a never ending fate of ceaselessly bailing water out of the same leaky boat. We cannot defeat ignorance and prejudice by simply banishing them and punishing them.
Attempts at enforcing acceptance can get us part of the way, they can spark a potential for consideration of consequences by pointing out there is something be aware of, but we only achieve genuine and lasting effect when those attempts are accompanied by information which explains and generates understanding. When they include clear illustrations of context.
It is in this crucible between the rock and hard place where the venerated quote of Alan Dershowitz, ‘The best answer to bad speech is good speech’, gets somewhat warped albeit sometimes unintentionally.
Good speech is not merely free of errors, it is speech which is effective in seeking growth and preventing harm. It is all too tempting to fall into the trap of conflating good with correct, due in no small part to the fact it is far easier to correct something than to make it effective. The trap uses the flush of instant gratification to convince us that eliminating the symptom is the same as curing the disease.
Which returns us to Street’s reflections on Eno’s comments about the dangers of lost context. Street points to the advisories and content warnings being attached to movies, books, and various other materials indicating the inclusion of outdated and now recognizably harmful attitudes and depictions as not being evidence of people being too fragile but as being an act of providing that potentially missing but essential context.
If we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it and we can only learn from it by engaging with it, by being exposed to it along with clear and openly honest context enabling us to understand it. There will be times when we do not feel ready to grapple with things which have caused us harm but true healing and genuine growth, genuine learning, will require us to engage with the problems. Avoiding or preventing mistakes is not the same as learning the lesson.