“I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.”
If we want to, we can find fault with Mother Teresa, as a Hindu right wing group in India recently did. I have no doubt that she made mistakes, misspoke, and if we scrutinise every moment of her life we also will find numerous events and instances where there is cause to be critical of her actions and possibly even some of her deeply held beliefs. This is because even a saint is human, and therefore beautifully flawed like the rest of us.
There is a very dangerous movement underway in America, one that feels like an attempt to re-write history to make it more sanitised and politically correct, and therefore less offensive to people today. What is most frightening about this is that it is being done in a way that completely disregards the historical time and context. It is taking an irrational and one-sided view of history by trying to apply a modern day lens to it.
A few years ago a Mark Twain scholar and his publisher New South Books decided to release versions of the classic novels ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ deleting the word “Nigger” and replacing it with the word "slave" (Source: Publishers Weekly article). That is akin to painting clothes onto a Picasso’s Blue Nude painting because women today find it offensive.
This movement is threatening to spread beyond desecrating works of art and of literature, setting its sights historical figures by attempting to re-evaluate their contributions to society, but evaluating from inside a blind and alarmingly inane fog of political correctness.
The irony is that this is happening under the guise of promoting inclusiveness and greater tolerance. The people championing this cause do not seem to realise that shutting down all alternate viewpoints and censoring historical facts (to fit their worldview) is the very definition of intolerance.
At Princeton University, a protest led by the Black Justice League is demanding that the college “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” America’s 28th President, and take steps to rename the public policy school and residential college” and remove his visage from every corner of the campus. (Source: NYTimes article).
Wilson grew up in the land of the KKK, the Deep South, and clearly held pro-segregationist views, as demonstrated by his efforts when US president to remove black officials and administrators from government. He also stood steadfast in refusing to admit black students during his tenure as president of Princeton College. Yet, he is also the same man who “oversaw the passage of a range of progressive legislation previously unparalleled in American history. Samuel Gompers, the most visible labour leader of the time, described Wilson's achievements as a "Magna Carta" for the rights of the workingman” and Wilson was one of the leading supporters of the League of Nations. (Source: Huffington Post article). There is no question that Wilson’s legacy is a complex one and that he held some detestable views, if we are to judge him with today’s cultural lens. But he did not live in the 21st century and that is precisely the issue.
Wilson, like most men (unlike a Hitler or Idi Amin) and like the vast majority of human beings, is a multi-faceted and complex person. So, before we attempt to erase from history books the likes of Winston Churchill or Woodrow Wilson, we need to stop and ask ourselves a few serious questions. Were the behaviour and views of these men a symptom of the time in which they lived and of their upbringing? Did these men devote their lives to spreading hate, akin to a Klansman or Hitler? Are we looking at the sum of their parts, over the period of their lives and not just one aspect of what made them complex beings? And most importantly, will doing this not just simply tilt the pendulum of history in the other direction and once again fail to present the full picture?
Would it not be better for us to use this moment of greater awareness as an opportunity to ensure that we can start to provide a more complete picture of these men, and therefore our history, rather than attempt to scrub or rectify it?
Also, if we go down this path, then we must think about how and where we would draw the line. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson were all slave owners. Abraham Lincoln famously said in a debate, in 1958, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…” (Source: Bartleby.com). We all know what Lincoln went on to do; so how should we now allow people to judge him – racist or reformer?
Nobody is suggesting we sit back and accept a one-sided view of history or accept a view that might justifiably have been ‘white-washed,’ but eradicating every flawed figure within it is not the solution. Human beings are complex, multi-faceted, ambiguous, emotionally charged and irrational beings. Our greatest strength is not in learning how to never say, do, think or believe things that may be inherently wrong, but in our ability to change. Greatness comes not from being perfect, but from the ability to learn from our mistakes and change even our most deeply held beliefs, as Abraham Lincoln showed us.
We will do future generations a great disservice, hurting the cause of tolerance and equality greatly if we attempt to take the opposite but still one-sided view of these men. So instead of expending our effort to erase murals and tear down busts and change names of buildings, let us re-examine history in an effort to add colour, to present the full and complex picture of the people they were.
Tolerance can only be promoted through a deeper understanding of the flaws and complexities that make us all unique and human, not by pretending we can ever be perfect.