February 9, 2007
How do you want to be viewed by history?
It may not feel like it, but every day, you make history. Many people think that only extraordinary people make history, but that's simply not true. History is the study of massive trends and patterns in the behavior of ordinary human beings like you and I. All of our actions, in some small way change the world whether we want them to or not, and so, we are involved in the creation of history every time we act.
Future generations will study and judge our actions, just as we study and judge the actions of previous generations. The question that you have to ask yourself is "How do I want to be viewed by history, by future generations, by my descendants?"
Imagine, for a moment, that you were somehow transported back into time, into the Southern United States in the 1950s, knowing everything that you know about how history has turned out. You have to decide whether to support the civil rights movement-at great personal risk, discomfort, and inconvenience-or to live complacently and indifferently, indirectly supporting segregation. What would you do?
Of course you would support the civil rights movement, even if it meant enduring incarceration, harassment, and brutality, even if it meant damaging your relationships with friends and family! Why? Because today, we all know how horrible and despicable racism is.
In hindsight, it is difficult to see how any decent person could have tolerated segregation.
But many decent people did tolerate segregation. There were millions of decent people who opposed violence, who would never have personally harmed a black person, who may have even been black themselves, who nonetheless did absolutely nothing at all to stop a massive campaign of systematic violence and oppression directed at African-Americans. How could this have happened?
The truth is, good people can tolerate very bad things if they're born into bad societies. Even if you know that something isn't right, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to take action against it if most people in your society support it. If you do take action for what is truly just in an unjust society, chances are that you'll be threatened and viciously attacked, that you'll lose friends and alienate family, and that you'll become an outcast. This is the reason why so few people-even good people-are willing to confront injustice. They don't lack a sense of morality. They just lack courage.
And yet, amazingly, in every generation there are heroic people who are courageous enough to stand up against evil, at great personal cost. Many of these people can be found in our history books: Thomas Paine, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela... the list goes on.
After they succeeded in their campaigns against injustice, these people were revered as heroes and glorified by history, and rightfully so.
We would all like to enter the history books alongside these moral visionaries, and not alongside the decent people who weren't brave enough to fight injustice. We would all like our children and grandchildren to be proud of what we did with our lives. We don't want them to be ashamed of us; we don't want them to think that we were too provincial, conformist, or weak to do the right thing.
We want them to know that we made informed moral decisions, that we were able to free ourselves from the prejudices and mythologies of our time to see the truth. And so, we need to think about how people in the future will judge our actions.
Imagine that, somehow, you are transported forward in time. You find yourself in a history classroom; the year is 2107. What sort of things do you think the teacher will be saying about our time? Personally, I think that if society has undergone any sort of ethical progress by then, the teacher will probably be saying things like this:
"In 2003, the United States government invaded Iraq in order to advance the political and economic goals of its ruling class, massacring thousands of civilians in the process. Historians estimate that the invasion caused 655,000 excess civilian deaths between 2003 and 2006 alone. This was one of worst cases of mass-murder of that era, and yet, few Americans took action to stop it."
I can imagine the children being horrified and perplexed by the fact that anyone ever tolerated such atrocities. I can imagine them identifying with the anti-war protesters, as students now identify with the anti-fascist movement in Europe when they study the Second World War.
I can imagine the teacher saying: "In the early part of the 21st Century, the United States had the largest prison population in the world, even greater than the prison population of totalitarian states such as China. Over 2 million people were incarcerated, mostly for nonviolent and victimless offenses, and were forced to live in extremely degrading conditions.
The government would also execute some of its prisoners. Sometimes, they would execute completely innocent people by accident." Again, children would be horrified, and wonder how decent people could have tolerated such abuses of human dignity.
I can imagine the teacher saying: "In the early part of the 21st Century, almost everyone ate meat, eggs, and dairy and supported vivisection and fur farming. Billions upon billions of animals were forced to live lives of unceasing torture in factory farms and fur farms to produce nonessential consumer products such as meat, dairy, eggs, leather, and fur.
In these farms, animals spent their entire lives in cages so overcrowded that they couldn't even turn around, and endured disease, injury, and infection, extreme temperatures, violence with their cellmates, stress, and boredom before they were brutally slaughtered, often while still conscious.
In laboratories, animals were electrocuted, mutilated, tortured, doused in toxic chemicals, and frequently killed.
All of these animals were prevented from doing things that they would naturally have done for pleasure. They were separated from family members, often at birth, and were unable to move freely, unable eat, sleep, or mate as they chose to."
I can imagine children feeling disgusted, indignant, and aghast upon learning that, in the past, people routinely supported the torture of beings that obviously had the capacity to feel pain. I can imagine the history class celebrating the animal rights movement, perhaps even glorifying the Animal Liberation Front and other militant groups as freedom fighters.
If you really could visit a history classroom of the future, if you were really forced to think rationally about the injustices of our time in a place where the mythology that justifies them no longer exists, how would you live your life differently? Would you still be complacent? Would you still be indifferent to the atrocities that are occurring all around you?
Or would you find the courage to stand up for what is right, even in the face of adversity?
The choice is yours. Do you want to go down in the history books next to Thomas Paine, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, or next to the millions of decent people who were complicit in horrible atrocities?