Sunday, February 20, 2011

No More Apologies and Presentism

Let us end the currently popular need for apology. Dredging up real or imagined historical grievances fosters a mentality of victimization, a hope of compensation, possibly a monument which would serve only to perpetuate feelings of entitlement.

In her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan asks, "Is it healthy for societies to apologize for things that were done in different centuries and under different sets of beliefs?"

The former University of Toronto history professor and now at Oxford adds, "It is all too easy to rummage through the past and find nothing but a list of grievances, and many countries and peoples have done it."

"Politicians and others have been quick to make all sorts of apologies, even when it is difficult to see why they need feel any responsibility -- or what good an apology would do," Professor MacMillian wrote in The National Post.

In her book, she states, "The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present ... If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility, skepticism and awareness of ourselves, then it has done something useful."

She concludes, "We should be wary of grand claims in history's name, or those who claim to have uncovered the truth once and for all. In the end, my only advice is to use it, enjoy it, but always handle history with care."

Add to this the opinion of Andrew Wheatcroft, Director of the Centre for Publishing Studies, University of Stirling. In a private e-mail he states, "I believe the whole notion of 'apologies' is ludicrous, and demeaning to those at whom the apology is directed. 'Apologies' also deny the whole notion of the past and simply extend the present backwards."

Roland N. Stromberg cautions that one should not demand that past epochs conform to current prejudices, and thus commit the sin of  excessive" present-mindedness" -- the distortion of the past by forcing it into a mold of recent construction. European Intellectual History since 1789, p.83.

This is also called the error of "presentism", that is, the judging of past events by current standards.

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