Rewriting the past

July 5, 2020

Will gestures like tearing down icons of the past lead to change in the true sense?

Protesters pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston during a protest last month in Bristol, England.

Amidst the frenzy these days about tearing down icons of the past in the West, one wonders whether similar steps should be taken in our land by analyzing the role of race in our literature and music.

Why even stop at race? The review could also examine other divisions that have scarred human kind since its inception.

There has been talk of such appropriation in the past few decades. However, the argument has now taken a more strident tone. Any objection to it is now seen as some kind of an outrageous error or racial prejudice.

A classic episode of the British comedy Fawlty Towers was removed from the UKTV streaming service last month over its use of racial slurs. However, plans are in place to bring it back with a warning about “offensive content and language”.

The 1939 film, Gone with the Wind set during and after the American Civil War, was removed by a streaming site earlier this month. HBO Max said at the time it showed “ethnic and racial prejudices” that “were wrong then and are wrong today”. It has since been reinstated, but with a disclaimer, stating it “denies the horrors of slavery”. It is also accompanied by two videos discussing the film’s historical context.

Frozen star Kristen Bell has revealed that she will no longer be lending her voice to a non-white character in TV comedy Central Park, stating that her playing Molly, a mixed-race character, “shows a lack of awareness of my pervasive [white] privilege”.

“Casting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience. It was wrong and we, on the Central Park team, are pledging to make it right,” she wrote.

But given our understanding, especially in the arts, the main or one of the main assets was the ability in the artist to rise above himself or herself and to get into the skin of another character and to help view the world from there.

It has been considered one of the major strengths of the arts. It is supposed to be different from the other one-dimensional views, usually expressed in politics and propaganda. And to restrict it to the person, his race, his ethnicity, gender and the time that he lives in, is going against the very rationale of the arts.

Why can’t a writer from the sub-continent create characters from Britain and why can’t an African create Chinese characters? Why is it so critical to even block this attempt and call it as being prejudicial or some kind of an appropriation or a knowing device to undermine the other race, ethnicity, gender or even the past?

Many 20th Century revolutions failed to achieve the intended ends. It was as if they had ended up giving birth to a new kind of discrimination instead of rectifying the previous ones.

It is very easy to be taken in by the apparent soundness of one’s own point of view which might be based entirely on some sense of superiority. It blinds us to reality if seen in a more objective light. These divisions can be of caste, ethnicity, religion, gender, language, sect and an imagined past.

But are not all these variables the building blocks of our understanding of ourselves and of our identity? They offer the firmness of ground on which we stand and provide us our vantage points - or justifications for being ‘above the rest’.

It could be that in the rush to do things or cast the past in a clearer light, this overzealous effort proves more destructive than affirmative. We have seen many efforts made with noble intentions degenerate - at great human and civilizational cost.

Many revolutions in the twentieth century did not achieve the ends that were intended. It was as if they ended up giving birth to a new kind of discrimination instead of rectifying the previous ones.

An anthropologist or a historian may be better qualified than an art or literary critic to examine such movements. These days it is almost perilous to be critical of the rush to demolish all symbols of slavery. Those wanting a more disinterested view risk being seen as an apologist for evil. The hazard of such people or groups being driven under the table is immense because the atmosphere is filled with rage and the glow of righteousness as many see this as the moment to rectify the ills or limitations of the past.

But we who live in societies that are embedded in history, both of varying shades, have to be more careful in negotiating with the past and the divisions because it is more likely that we may have benefited from it. Gestures like tearing down a statue might have a symbolic significance but they do not really alter anything else. The campaign may provide cathartic relief and some sense of having done our part for a noble cause. In the end, it is like being relieved of the rage that may have been rooted in some righteous cause. Does it lead to anything more substantial and change in the true sense? Is change dependent on such dramatic gestures or can it be achieved through more measured steps?

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

Rewriting the past: Will tearing down icons of past lead to change in true sense?