Rewriting the present in anticipation of the future

There’s been a lot of brouhaha in recent years about how history is told and what words may or may not be used. I was just listening to John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia (if you don’t know him look him up) on a Twitter Live interview expressing discontent with the transposition of an individual ‘being the victim’ of an event in lieu of ‘being a survivor’ of an event. The framing, he said, settles a lingering tragedy around a fellow.

In addition to voicing the negative rather than the positive, there have been demands to take the lives and accounts from many generations ago, and rework the fruits of their labor into a present-day-acceptable version. David Livingston was Scottish adventurer from the first half of the nineteenth century. He spent his life exploring Africa and reporting back on what he had found. He was awarded the gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society in London and kept an association with the group for the rest of his life.

On Twitter today (yes it was only 37 degrees here) I saw this post celebrating the rewording of Livingston’s work. It extinguishes any credit to a man who spent a life exploring, documenting and passing along details on a large swath of a continent.

In fact the Livingston accounts couldn’t have been written in any other way. There were no maps of the area in and around Lake Victoria, by British, Arab or African geographers. So it would have been odd to write an account in an off hand, I’m just a tourist seeing things that everyone else has seen, type of way.

How exactly are historic figures from our past supposed to have predicted the future dynamics of civilizations and write their work to the correctness demanded in generations to come? Or is it up to us to take their work in the context of their time?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s