One of the most alarming features of the social justice movement, broadly conceived, is its war on history. We see this war all around us, most prominently in the repeated attacks on Confederate monuments across the American South, but this iconoclasm finds expression against less obvious subjects, as the recent decision by Yale University to suspend its survey course of Western art shows. Whether historical events and figures are condemned for being insufficiently diverse by modern standards, or are deemed insensitive to modern sensibilities, the war on history seeks to subvert them in the belief that in so doing the present will be made better.
In addition to being a blatant example of C. S. Lewis’s “chronological snobbery,” these attempts, if successful, would have the exact opposite result of that intended. History is not simply a series of events that happened in the past to people who lived there. History is the story of how we got here, both in the meta sense of humanity and the particular sense of our particular cultures. Because of this, history cannot simply be dispensed with when we don’t like it, or when its protagonists seem unlikable to us. Historical figures, in fact, are exactly like us – imperfect people living in sinful times, some attempting to find the truth, others attempting to suppress it, none holding to ideals of virtue perfectly.
The social justice method of historical analysis, of judging every person and event in the past by modern standards, and of seeking the most uncharitable explanations of their actions, is wrong, dangerous, and ultimately denies the goodness and grace of God. It is wrong because it adopts the errors of the Whig theory of history – that all that is present is necessarily an improvement over the past, simply because it is of the present. Such a view cannot begin to consider the possibility that history is not linear, but multifaceted and multidirectional. It is dangerous because a people cannot be divided from their past without risking rootlessness, a condition that fosters social disruption, discord, and even revolution. And it denies the goodness of God because it looks for perfection in man, instead of in God, and seeks to contradict the biblical truth that God can use the broken, imperfect vessels of mankind to advance His purposes in history, to His glory, and to the ultimate arrival of His Kingdom. Indeed, what other kinds of vessels does He have on this earth?
The issue of history, then, is not some merely academic question. For those who desire both social harmony and an accurate, Godly perspective on human nature; history – its good and bad sides both – presents a tapestry of lessons from which to learn, not a litany of figures to condemn.
Those who would deny a people its history have historically tended to be those who wished to foist some innovative system upon them (and it almost goes without saying that these systems rarely conform to Biblical precepts). There is every reason to believe that, for many in the social justice movement, this is the ultimate goal of the attacks on history. Even those who do not have a fully developed philosophy of justice seem to carry a vague excitement at the prospect of overcoming past evils with novel virtues. But whether the social justice view of history is ill- or well-intentioned, it is far from innocuous. It is much easier to tear down than build up, and the advocates of social justice risk bringing the historical superstructure of civilization down in the unwarranted confidence in their ability to build better from the wreckage.
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The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.