by Sam Naylor
Content warning: this article mentions homophobia and racism
“In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us, to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people.” That was Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, describing Britain’s à la carte style of remembering at an exhibition opening in Berlin last month. This selective remembering is dangerous in itself, and when this approach is combined with current post-truth narratives Britain’s attitude to its past becomes very chaotic. Tracey Brown has argued that “the idea of a ‘post-truth society’ is elitist and obnoxious”, with good reason. But we need not apply this notion as all-or-nothing, without subtlety. Instead, we can understand a post-truth society as one that occasionally believes in emotive language and bombastic phrases over bland yet factual statements, rather than one which has ‘had enough of experts’ entirely.
This omission of historical facts that Moni Mohsin talks about in his recent article – addressing the lack of British colonial teachings in our history books – has also played out in my own education in England. Take the continent of Africa, for example. I ask myself; how is it possible that I could reach the age of 18, having been in education for 15 years of my life, and know nothing about an entire continent, other than its place on a map? The omission of entire continents from my formal education helped to cement dominant single narratives that were propagated around me outside of school, in the stereotypes of popular culture and in political prejudice. History lessons were filled with British history – but only the triumphant parts – or the ‘discovery’ of America, whilst English Literature classes featured Marlowe, Bronte, Shelley – authors almost always white and dead. Languages were European, the sciences were Western, expressive arts were white. I was shaped in the comfort of a bubble, filled to bursting point by a protective fog of ignorance. It wasn’t that I had no understanding about the African continent. Instead I had a preconceived picture, distorted and by no means fully formed, that positioned me to view an entire continent with a piteous sympathy.
If as a nation we refuse to address our past, our history, then how do we expect these damaging attitudes to be tackled?
Two factors are working in tandem to shape our attitude to our national past: post-truth narratives, which dominate debates with populist rhetoric and falsities (not a new phenomenon, it should be noted); and the omission of certain facts from our historical education. As Mohsin highlights, we are a nation stuck looking backwards, seeing good in terrible acts and ignoring our imperial heritage. Much of this stems from Britain usually being a ‘victor’ nation and therefore not being forced to recognise and atone for its past acts. In German there is a word for ‘monuments to national shame’: Mahnmale. Yet Britain refuses to acknowledge the millions of deaths associated with its colonial legacy. As Paul Gilroy put it, “rather than work through those feelings [of national shame, loss of imperial prestige], that unsettling history was diminished, denied, and then, if possible, actively forgotten.”1 Rather than accepting past injustices we are living through a period where intolerance is growing. Post-Brexit Britain has seen a rise of reported racist altercations and an increase in homophobic attacks. If as a nation we refuse to address our past, our history, then how do we expect these damaging attitudes to be tackled?
Not all children in Britain will be taught about Britain’s past in as little detail as I was. There will always be those teachers that choose to educate their students on matters which are not cemented in the national curriculum, and they should be applauded. But until a full picture of Britain’s exploitative past is embedded into the curriculum, we will continue to have a problem with how we view ourselves, those around us and the country that we live in. Ignoring the damaging impact of Britain’s former empire in a time flush with post-truth rhetoric about how, for example, immigration needs to be controlled at all costs, will only propagate bigoted behaviours and racist views. Learning from Britain’s history and atoning for parts of it, rather than covering it up or ignoring it, is the way for the country to progress and break the cycle of rose tinted nostalgia. The past is only useful if we learn from it, not if we repeat the same mistakes.
1 Gilroy, Paul. After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture, 2004.
Featured image via: Nancy DiMauro