Alterity, or Why The Past Isn’t Comfortable

December 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

One of the biggest challenges that faces historians is fully recognizing and appreciating our distance from the past’s people.  This is difficult precisely because the past touches us so closely.  The past is where our culture, customs, institutions and social structures emerged.  It has left us plenty of words and tangible objects.  This is true even of the very distant past: we can still read Cicero’s speeches, or go to a museum and see still-bright gold from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, already ancient when Cicero walked the Earth.


Because of the past’s tangible presence in our present, the assumption that past people’s thoughts, worldviews, and experiences must line up with our own can always seduce us.  Giving into its charms is almost always a mistake.


Past people knew different things than we did, and came to know about them in different ways.  Their philosophies of knowledge and their media were radically different from our own.  The scientific method, the development of political theory and social science, the printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television and the internet all marked dramatic breaks.


The material conditions of their lives also drastically differed from our own.  Rapid transportation, instant communications, mechanized agriculture, mass production, massive centralized government bureaucracies, corporations, and modern medicine all emerged within the past two hundred and fifty years.  Even the most imaginative observers of those revolutions couldn’t quite predict their course.  In Jules Verne and even in Isaac Asimov, there is much that seems quaint.


Unsurprisingly, past people, whose experiences and epistemologies so sharply diverge from our own, also had radically different ethics, values, and politics.  Most historians have experienced the jolt of reading through a piece of writing by a past author who seems humane, kind, and sympathetic and then stumbling upon a sentiment that would mark that person as a monster if they lived today.


Failure to appreciate alterity, which is what historians call this radical difference, leads many of us into historical nonsense.  American readers will probably be familiar with the “Lost Cause” argument that the South fought the Civil War to preserve local culture and states’ rights, not to preserve and extend slavery.  This argument is appealing because most present-day Americans find slavery abhorrent, and we have trouble understanding people who would take up arms to defend it.  But Southern writers at the time saw slavery as a natural order, and Southern state legislators, arguing for secession, railed against Lincoln’s proposed plan to stop slavery from expanding into new territories.  To understand their choice to fight the federal government, we need to recognize and accept that their epistemology, ethics, and politics were radically different from our own.


A similar group of misunderstandings clusters around the US Constitution.  The document is a fetish for a lot of Americans, who praise its authors as visionaries who created a wise, timeless document that speaks clearly and directly to the problems of our age.  Again, this is a view that collapses the vast gulf that separates us from the past.  There’s no way that the framers could possibly know about today’s problems.  They were even unaware of developments that would take place within the next fifty years, like the Louisiana purchase, the invention of the steamship, and the coming of the railroads.  They weren’t framing a document for governing a sprawling country with vast cities, enormous factories, and fast transportation because that country didn’t exist yet. Their own lives predated an unprecedented technological explosion which they couldn’t possibly have foreseen.


If we really want to understand the Constitution, we need to appreciate that it was a response to problems that a particular group of American statesmen saw in their own time.  The framers were trying to provide some sort of basically functional central government for their squabbling, dysfunctional country while providing enough concessions to enough different interest groups to get broad support for that government.  It’s sort of like Lebanon’s National Pact– an expedient document which created a bunch of unrepresentative institutions and mires its state in gridlock.


Alterity can be hard to wrap your head around completely, but it will help you get a grip on how the world actually was, and protect you from the political misuse of history.  If you feel completely at ease in the past, you’re probably missing something important.


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