The Culture War and the Loss of the Sense of the Past

Frank Furedi

It is difficult to develop a sturdy sense of collective identity without a shared memory and a common attachment to conventions or customs that are rooted in the past. Collective identities are intergenerational accomplishments that are cultivated through the absorption of a common cultural inheritance.

 

The term ‘sense of the past should not be confused with that of ‘nostalgia for the past. Nostalgia communicates a feeling of sentimentality towards a past that can never return. Its wistful affection for days gone by is often coupled with impulse to avoid the challenges of the here and now by retreating into an imagined and idealised world of a previous era. The possession of a sense of the past is following Nietzsche -according the literary critic Lionel Trilling, ‘actual faculty of the mind, “a sixth sense, through which we become conscious of history and our place in it.[i] This sensibility does not mean obsessively looking back towards a distant land but a form of consciousness that regards cultural continuity as relevant for illuminating human predicament. Though it provides a point reference for the present, collective memory is never so encompassing as to exclude innovation.

 

The past as the bad old days

 

At some point in the twentieth century, the western world became estranged from the authoritative status of the past and often adopted the attitude of rejecting it altogether.  Its obituary was captured by the title of the historian, J.H. Plumbs book, The Death Of The Past (1969).[ii] Though Plumb was sympathetic to the loss of authority of the past, he was sensitive to the fact that something important was lost. He observed that ‘whenever we look, in all areas of social and personal life, the hold of the past is weakening[iii].

 

For over a century modern, powerful voices and interests have sought to detach society from the past. On numerous occasions the past was declared to be irrelevant or an obstacle to change. Yet, despite so much energy devoted towards neutralising its influence particularly over the young- it continues to be perceived as a problem and ‘the bad old days are frequently denounced as exercising a malign influence on contemporary society. Paradoxically, references to the past and the demand to settle scores with it has acquired an unprecedented presence in public life in the western world.

 

There has never been a time in living memory when so much energy is devoted to attempt to readjust the past, to question and criticise historical figures and institutions. It is almost as if there is a cultural trend towards exacting revenge against the past and the misdeeds committed centuries ago. At times it seems as if the boundary between the present and the past has disappeared as sections of society casually cross over it and seek to fix contemporary problems through readjusting the past. This trend is particularly evident in museums, where many curators have adopted the habit of attaching ‘beware signs to old artefacts and works of art, that inform visitors of the cultural crimes and sins associated with them. It is as if these curators are putting the past in its place and ensuring that visitors are protected from its baneful influence. The adoption of trigger warnings and beware signs in museums highlights a condition best described as the paradox of the past. Whats paradoxical about western cultures relation to its past is that it is rejected as irrelevant and best left behind, while at the same it is often obsessively treated as if it is very much alive.

 

The impulse to exact revenge on the past as if it is a living phenomenon was strikingly illustrated during the protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter in 2020. Protestors have self-consciously targeted historic symbols of western culture as if these statutes constitute a clear and present danger to their wellbeing. They were denounced as if they are living figures responsible for the many ills inflicted on the world. On numerous occasions protestors were quoted as saying that the very sight of an offending statue constituted a threat to their mental health In Oxford, numerous ‘Rhodes Must Fall campaigners asserted that walking past Rhodes statue is traumatic[iv]. During the course of toppling statues many of the protestors acted as if they are striking a blow against a living person. The mentality of exacting revenge wat work during the course of pulling down the statue of Edward Colson in Bristol in June 2020. The protestors were not simply interested in toppling over the monument but also to humiliate it. The statue was dragged through some streets before being thrown in the river. It was almost as if what was being dragged was a corpse rather than a statue.[v]

In the current moment, the past has become an actual political issue. That is why demonstrators are able to claim that old statutes constitute a threat to their mental health. What is fascinating about this movement is that often its target is not simply a specific statue but any monument that is old. That why for example supporters of Black Lives Matter have vandalised statutes that have no direct link with racial oppression. The sin of such historical objects is that they symbolise the past.

 

The impulse to negate the past has helped transform hatred towards it into a cultural resource that can be used by movements who can claim to be its historic victims. As a result, hostility towards the past has acquired a quasi-ideological form. It is frequently blamed for many of the problems faced by people today. This weaponization of the idea of a malevolent past has led to the conflicts of the present being fought out through the prism of the past. Protest movements have targeted their anger at symbols of the past, such as statues and the reputation of historical figures who personify values to which they rake exception.

 

The paradox of the past its rejection and obsessive embrace is understandable since even with the best effort it is not possible to abolish it through the invention of a fictitious Year Zero. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm explained;

 

To be a member of any human community is to situate oneself with regard to one's (its) past, if only by rejecting it. The past is therefore a permanent dimension of the human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other patterns of human society[vi].

 

The past is not a phenomenon that is external to individuals or to the community they inhabit. From the point that children become humanised and socialised they become aware of the fact that what preceded them has an important bearing on who they are. The past is an integral element of human consciousness and societys reaction to it are communicated through the way it ascribes meaning to experience.

 

As the American social psychologist, Kenneth Gergen outlined, peoples ‘capacity to achieve moral identity is intimately linked to their ‘relationship with the narratives of the past[vii]. As a social constructionist, Gergen understands that narratives of the past are not the products of nature but are forged through cultural conflicts and engagements about them. But no matter how people in society engages with these narratives the achievement of individual identity is underwritten by a narrative that locates it in relation to a past. Gergen explained;

 

‘At the same time, because individual identity is configured or implicated in historical narratives, so is the achievement of moral being sustained (or impeded) by historical accounts. For good or ill, we each live within and are constructed by particular historical narratives - of our people, culture, nation, region, family, and so on. These historical narratives serve as a foreground for achieving moral identity within relevant communities[viii].

 

Focus on historical narratives of the self, have if anything become more pervasive as the past becomes a site for identity experimentation of conflict. The British genealogy television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are? which has been licensed to countries throughout the world turns the demand for the construction of a historical narrative of the self into an entertainment format.

 

Today, even advocates of the politicisation of identity, who explicitly reject the dominant narrative of the past of their society are often busy constructing an alternative narrative. The recent proliferation of feminist, black, gay, transgender historical narratives or counter-narratives serves as testimony of its importance for the construction of identity. It is likely that it is precisely because of the disruption of cultural continuity and the modernist trend towards disowning the past, that the quest for identity has intensified and helped establish a terrain or its politicisation.

 

It is when peoples sense of identity is dispossessed of the clarity gained through a narrative of the past that the question of Who Do You Think You Are assumes significance for people. The current tendency to reposition ones identity through adjusting the past demonstrates that the loss of the sense of the past coincides with the demand to rediscover it through forging a new sensibility towards it.

 

The willingness to change, adapt and embrace uncertainty are some of the important and positive attributes of the modern era. However, these attributes become a caricature of themselves when they acquire the character of a dogmatic rejection of everything that precedes the present. Hannah Arendt was right, when she warned against the tendency of modern man to rebel ‘against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere and ‘which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.[ix]


Bio

Dr. Frank Furedi, author and social commentator is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, Senior Research Fellow at XXIst Century Institute, Budapest.

Author of more than 25 books, Furedis studies have been devoted to an exploration of the cultural developments In western societies. His research has been oriented towards the way that risk and uncertainty is managed by contemporary culture. His two influential books, The Culture of Fear and Paranoid Parenting, investigated the interaction between risk consciousness and perceptions of fear, trust relations and social capital in contemporary society. His book; How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century (2018) explored the distinct features of contemporary fear culture.

Furedis studies on the problem of fear has run in parallel with his exploration the challenges faced by the ideals of liberty and tolerance in the contemporary world. His On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence (2011), What Happened To the University (2017) and Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must relearn The Art Of Drawing Boundaries (2020) explore the main cultural drivers that call into question the moral status of liberty and freedom in western societies. His study of the History of the Culture Wars will be published in September 2021.

In recent  years, Furedi has written major articles for The Australian, New Scientist, The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Express, The Daily Mail, The Wall Street Journal, The Independent on Sunday, India Today, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Sunday Telegraph, Toronto Globe and Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, The Times Higher Education Supplement, Spiked-online, The Times Literary Supplement, Harvard Business Review, Die Welt and Die Zeit amongst others. He regularly comments on radio and television and the global media.

[1] L. Trilling, The Sense of the Past [Poczucie przeszłości], w: The Liberal Imagination, New York 1957, p.189.

[2] J.H. Plumb, The Death Of The Past, London 1969.

[3] Ibidem, s. 66.

[4] J. Williams, Oxford Is Tying Itself in Knots over Racism [Oksford wpakowuje się w kabałę w kwestii rasizmu], The Times, 18 czerwca 2020; https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/oxford-is-tying-itself-in-knots-over-racism-85lm7ztq7.

[5] F. Furedi, Why Did the Protests over George Floyd Turn into Mass Hysteria? [Dlaczego protesty wywołane przez śmierć Georgea Floyda zamieniły się w masową histerię?], Spiked, 9 czerwca 2020, https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/06/09/why-did-the-protests-over-george-floyd-turn-into-mass-hysteria.

[6] E.J. Hobsbawm, The Social Function of the Past: Some Questions [Społeczna funkcja przeszłość kilka pytań], Past & Present nr 55, 1972, s. 3.

[7] K. Gergen, Narrative, moral identity, and historical consciousness: A social constructionist account [Narracja, tożsamość moralna i świadomość historyczna według społecznego konstrukcjonisty], 2005, s. 17, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298103687.

[8] K. Gergen, op. cit., s. 16.

[9] H. Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago 1998, s. 2-3.