Monday, August 12, 2013

If we don't like our family's history, let's rewrite it!

Note: This is another of my posts that may offend the sensitive reader. Be advised.

DearMyrtle once again raises the old conundrum in her post entitled, "Being Politically Correct: What should we do as historians." Put simply, the issue is do we rewrite history to suit our own preconceived and/or politically correct notions?

I am particularly sensitive to this issue because during the past few weeks I spent some time in various National Parks and last week, listened to a Park Ranger give a talk at Mesa Verde National Park, wherein the Ranger proceeded to "educate" us that we were no longer looking at an "Indian Ruins" because both those terms were now politically unacceptable. In addition, we learned that the term "Anasazi" has passed into the imaginary world of political incorrectness and has been transformed into "Ancient Pueblo Peoples." Think of the thousands of signs, textbooks and other publications that will have to be changed to accommodate this latest shift in micro-sensitivity.

It has always seemed strange to me that I can document my ancestry in America back almost 400 years and yet I am not a native. We want to excoriate an immigrant who came here yesterday as an "outsider" and as unwelcome, but we perpetuate the same attitude by immigrants who came before us. By this, I am not excusing the unacceptable actions of my ancestors, I am merely pointing out that ultimately we are all immigrants. We attach undue significance to the time period when our ancestors arrived.

But the real issue, today, is whether or not this wave of political correctness should give us license to re-write history? In DearMyrtle's case, the issue is raised in the context of transcribing a historical document. She asks whether she should alter the text to accommodate present-day sensibilities because her literal transcription may offend someone? The number and variety of the comments show the depth to which political correctness has taken hold in the world.

If a government or dictator rewrites history, we view that as propaganda. If those same entities use that propaganda to attack a minority we end up with genocide. There are those who would like to point the finger at me and categorize me as a member of the "oppressive majority." But, I would remind them that I am descended from a vilified and persecuted ancestry. Members of my own ancestral family were mobbed and thrown in jail for their beliefs. Nearly all of my ancestors traveled across the entire continent to avoid persecution that included an order of extermination from the governor of a U.S. State. I personally have been persecuted for my beliefs.

So, do we use all this as an excuse to rewrite history? I have quoted George Santayana before when he said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If we "sanitize" our past to accommodate the vagaries of our politics, don't we risk losing that same history and run the risk of repeating it? We recognize that many ethnic groups were tagged and vilified by the dominant group at the time, do we ignore that fact and try to obscure what happened by sanitizing the facts? Aren't we perpetuating and excusing that same prejudice by rewriting history to eliminate its excesses?

I grew up in a segregated community and wasn't even aware of the segregation. As I read the history and did my genealogy, I became painfully aware of the my lack of awareness of the prejudice of those around me. I had to work to eliminate that same prejudice from my own thoughts and actions. If those earlier incidents had been written out of the history to suit some idea of political correctness, then how would I have learned of the earlier prejudice and segregation? How could I change the way I felt if I did not have the historical perspective?

We can certainly be sensitive to the feelings of those around us, without re-writing our history and thereby perpetrating the very acts that we are so careful to avoid today. The simple answer is history is history and should be as accurately recorded as is possible. Do we really want to allow genealogists to choose their ancestors? Doesn't it work the other way around?


  1. James, you are absolutely correct, we cannot and should not change history just to be more sympathetic to modern times. Our jobs, as historians, is to explain, interpret, and write history within the context of the era we are writing about. If we change a word because it is not politically correct today, then we are changing history and we have failed to do our job - worse yet, we have failed our audience.
    However, we also must ensure that our audience knows that we are writing within the context of the era and not from our own modern beliefs or morals - this can be done in an introductory paragraph or in footnotes/endnotes depending on the type of work.

  2. Using modern placenames and jurisdictions is also changing history. It promotes corrupted knowledge of when a country was formed or when a border was moved.

  3. I'm shocked that anyone should even consider political correctness to be relevant when documenting history. It goes against everything set out in the formal training. Evidence is evidence, and must be transcribed verbatim (or even literatim). If someone cannot accept the terms, concepts, and lifestyles of a time-gone-by then historical research isn't going to be a good fit for them.

    It's fine to add annotation giving a modern equivalent but only in the interests of clarity, not for political correctness.

    I, too, wanted to mention place names but user bgwiehle beat me to it. I have seen many conversations where people have struggled where a modern name/spelling is different to the recorded one, or where the boundary of the parent region (e.g. a county) has changed. This is significant to this issue because the same rules apply. Record what was written, and annotate it if you must. I will be writing about this particular subject myself soon.