Dr. Q, I would never have been able to articulate this so eloquently had it not been for your course on Empires. So, as (somewhat humorously) promised: here’s one last short write.
What is the purpose of learning? Why bother taking in mountains of information about American Imperialism? Why read the long, long list of books which cover the depressing things that happened to different brown people?
Well, why do we read the Instructables.com page about “how to tie a sheep’s knot?” Why do we read “Fitness For Dummies?” Why take a late-night dance class? The answer here is easier–we want to learn to do something, or to do something better. To plug this answer right in to the original question: Why do we expose ourselves to the horrors of the past? So we can learn to do something.
Why do we learn statistics? So we can be better academics, able to produce and decipher statistical analyses. So why do we study imperialism, oppression, militarism, neocolonialism? So we can be better people, able to understand and explain systems of oppression.
Cynicism cannot be the answer. If you turn away in cynical despair when faced with the knowledge of a new tragedy–if your reaction to Bad Things In The World is just “Of course. Why do I bother asking? Of course bad things happened,” then the knowledge is wasted. Knowledge is power–the power for change. To make use of that power–the knowledge we have come to possess–we must also embrace the moral imperative that comes with it. To respond to inhumanity with resignation and cynicism is to allow the world to stagnate. With learning and optimism come the single most dangerous thought in the world, the beginning of any quest for change:
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
For me, that is the essence of the activist’s passion. That is why I learn. The more I learn about the bad things in the world, the more I understand their subtleties, the more I can see what can change, what could be different, what could be better. And with the knowledge of bad things past, I can see bad things in the present, experience wholly new things, and see how they could be different as well–because with an awareness of history and a cross-cultural education comes, once again, the idea that I always return to in the course of any social activism, the thing that runs first through my head when I see something wrong, something morally outrageous–because this is why it is morally outrageous, that is why it is wrong, because the status quo is not as fixed as cynics think, and because no tragedy is inevitable, because, in short:
Things don’t have to be this way.