Regardless of our aptitude or affinity for history, we must acknowledge one indisputable theme: historical narratives are dominated by evil people and bad events. It’s been famine, war, genocide, occupation, slavery. Debates rage about how history should be taught – debates over the lens of Critical Race Theory, for example – but it stands that even the most generous or ‘patriotic’ retelling of history should at bare minimum recount the horrors the powerful inflicted on the powerless. If present day reflects the most peaceful time in humankind, it’s only because of the carnage that’s preceded us.
Bookshelves carry the occasional biography of a hero – a sound political leader, an abolitionist, a medic, a peace advocate. Consider, though, the circumstances that warrant heroic actions; often, protagonists rise the highest in periods of abject immorality. It was during slavery, apartheid, genocide, and terror that the names of Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer rose to prominence. And in most cases, these individuals were not warmly embraced in their time; many were polarizing figures – reviled even – until scholars and the public gave them a fair assessment.
What I think helps sensationalize these stories and people is history’s prevailing culture of apathy. If history is marked by domination, exploitation, and slaughter, it’s also marked by the disinterest of the comfortable masses. We often ask how the Nazis were able to carry out the Holocaust while Germany (and most of the world) looked on, or how a human rights tragedy like enslavement could exist in the United States almost untested. Many of us look back at the non-actors in history and ask, why? Why did a majority fail to stand up to the Third Reich, to Jim Crow laws, to Apartheid South Africa, religious extremism or nations committing genocide? Overwhelming disinterest has typically dominated pockets of resistance. Apartheid, the Holocaust, legal enslavement all ended, but not before leaving millions of innocent dead bodies, broken families, and immeasurable emotional trauma. It seems that the further these events in the rearview, the easier it is to be critical of the indifferent – and rightfully so.
I can’t stop asking myself, “How will our generation be judged in history?” To which causes and injustices are we indifferent, and how will that reflect when, say, a history class two hundred years from now examines our generation?
We might be living in the most peaceful time in humankind, where famine and war are abating (though far from extinct), but it’s hard to imagine that a history class in the next century wouldn’t look back on this generation with some disdain for our apathy. Indifference has been the only constant throughout history, and we would be foolish to think that suddenly, in 2022, we’ve achieved nirvana and haven’t any need to protest, demonstrate, advocate, truly change anything.
The question that follows is, inevitably, “Where is our apathy blinding us, and what should we do?” This is where I am not entirely sure. And I will speculate, because there are issues important to me, but I cannot say definitively the degree to which these will appear in future history books.
There is a substantial case to be made for global indifference to human rights abuses of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China. The United States has slightly protested the Olympic Games, but most of our population, and our government’s policy, has seemed not to intervene in the ongoing genocide. Despite several unknowns, there’s enough evidence and testimony that should at least spark more action.
Perhaps racial justice, as it has for the past four hundred years, will shape the future’s look back at the early 21st Century. While we’ve advanced beyond chattel slavery and Jim Crow laws, there are still disparate impacts from our past that continues to harm Black Americans, from economic injustice to police brutality. Despite the uptick in advocacy during the Black Lives Matter movement, very little has tangibly changed; might this come back to haunt us?
There is also the ongoing threat of climate change, which will likely worsen in the coming generations. Scientific consensus maintains that we must take drastic action, but much of the nation refuses to even acknowledge this, let alone act to reverse the course of climate change. And we know that climate change is mostly influenced by the upper class, but disproportionately affects the lower classes, so growing inequities as a result feels inevitable.
Because history exists for us to learn, I find it crucial that we examine these questions against the backdrop of our past. It’s very possible that, 50 years from now, Colin Kaepernick or Enes Kanter Freedom or Greta Thunberg or X Gonzalez (formerly Emma Gonzalez) morph into universally beloved individuals. You might think this outlandish but bear in mind the distinctly polarizing nature of the likes of Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, or abolitionists in the era of enslavement. Humankind is typically dismissive of, if not vehemently opposed to, activists, progressives, and those willing to challenge power structures. It’s very possible that a 22nd Century History class, facing an irreversible climate crisis, admires the activism of a teenage Swedish girl and laments the bystanders and critics. This isn’t to say everyone must reach these levels of activism, but we should consider the implications of our action or inaction. History hasn’t been kind to the apathetic – and justifiably so. We should have no reason to think our generation will be spared a similar fate.