Do we learn from our past?

Do we learn from our past

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

Since the beginning of recorded civilisation, we have documented the key moments from our collective existence and defined it as “our history”.  This history has shown us where we came from, and with some analysis and understanding, serves to provide insight into our current permutations of situations and habitations.  We carry our history around with us, it’s our collective baggage.  It provides the reference points for navigating what we call our reality.  It suggests why certain groups have privilege and why others are oppressed.  I say that it “suggests”, rather than “explains”, because our reality is subjective and defined by the observer.  As such, one history can create many conclusions.

When a certain behaviour causes you pain, you attempt to avoid that behaviour to attempt to avoid the pain.  Once bitten, twice shy.  As individuals we draw from our experiences to minimise the pain and sorrow in our lives.  As a collective, we have our history from which to learn from.  Yet in the same way which we, as individuals, repeat our mistakes, as a collective we are no different.  Is simply remembering the past enough to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes which have afflicted humankind since our documented inception?  These atrocities and injustices include war, racism, genocide, to name but a few, yet time after time, we repeat our collective mistakes without realising we have once again fallen into a trap we laid for ourselves.

As we study the history of humankind’s greatest sorrows, the inevitable question arise: “How could they let it happen?”.  The shame of ancestral inaction lingers for generations.  “How could the Germans have let the genocide happen?”, “How could the Americans have let the lynchings happen?”, “How could the world have let the war happen?”.  How could they not see what was happening in their time?  Why do we not learnt from our mistakes?

We assume that our generation is immune to such lapses in societal judgement. We have studied the history and we will never let genocide, racism or war happen again in our lifetime.  Are we complacent to the point of thinking “our” society is any more advanced than “their” societies in the past?  Are we oblivious to what happens in the world around us?  Let there be no doubt about my point here, future generations will ask of us, “How did they let it happen?”.

“How did we let what happen?” –  The exact line every other person from generations before us would say if confronted with a time traveller asking them that question.  The exact same line every generation will say until we understand that remembering our history is not enough.  The malaise which has afflicted us over eons is not indifference, greed or hate.  It’s blindness, as in not seeing that which is right before us.  This blindness is caused by a combination of two main factors: ignorance and fear.  Ignorance meaning the lack of knowledge or insight, that which we do not know. And fear, a belief that something will cause us pain.

The rise of the Fascists in Germany or Greece went and goes unchecked in countries blighted by austerity measures.  The plundering of nation’s wealth into the pockets of a few in the name of empire and colonialism happened 200 years ago and in the name of globalisation and capitalism today.  The division of black/white, north/south, east/west, Christian/Muslim, Catholic/Protestant, continues to separate us from our brothers and sisters, yet when we cut each other’s throats, we bleed the same blood.

If we want to learn from the past, we must do more than remember it.  If we believe there is nothing wrong, we are ignorant.  If we know there is something wrong but do nothing, we are fearful.  Our ignorance can be addressed by adopting new ways of looking at the world… critical thinking.  Assess the evidence, formulate hypotheses, draw conclusions.

Our fear can be addressed by acknowledging our mortality.  Some day, we will all die.  As individuals, in our lifetime, and as a collective, when our environment can no longer sustain us.  Do we want to die knowing that we let it happen? Again?