Tag Archives: Heritage

The Inexcusable Appeal to Heritage

Celebrating a heritage is good and important.

However, celebrating a heritage in a way that is felt to be offensive to other sections of the very same society surely cannot be considered in the same light. Clearly, there is something not quite right about it.

It is undeniably true that some of our current social problems – particularly sectarian bigotry and racial hatred – have their historical roots in many of the shameful ethnic and religious conflicts that ultimately helped form the much vaunted, and highly esteemed, constitutional structure of this country today.

Yet many people still strongly believe in the right to celebrate historical occurrences of this nature, because of what they are assumed to represent, and regardless of the negative impact the style and location of their celebrations have been known to have on others.

And they tend to justify their commitment to this belief by claiming that the historical occurrences in question constitute ‘their heritage’, and therefore feel entitled to immerse themselves in the traditional behaviours that help preserve it.

In other words, the idea of ‘having the right to celebrate your heritage’, becomes a means of intellectually legitimising a lapse into what could otherwise be described as offensive, or at times irrational, behaviour; and arguably, we have all been guilty of misappropriating history in this way, at some point or other. No side is entirely innocent.

Whether you respect this way of thinking or not, and it can be found on every side of the debate, I think there is something unsettling in the fact that there are many individuals who feel more committed to keeping historical injustices and prejudices alive, than they do about addressing the problems in society today.

I think there is a level of emotional inauthenticity in some individuals that makes it much easier for them to react with passion, and a sense of triumph, to a romantic version of destructive historical occurrences, than make the effort to shape a more cohesive and peaceful society for the future.

This is particularly so when the history that is perpetuated through cleverly crafted stories, rousing tunes and colourful ritualistic behaviours, is often made to appear more glorious to the insular and bigoted mind than it ever was. Ethnic discrimination, religious persecution, murder, terrorism, theft, misery, displacement, starvation and intolerable hardship; these are hardly notions worth glorifying and celebrating.

Yet sadly, it is not too uncommon to find these occurrences interpreted in today’s terms in a manner that is believed to justify celebrating them still, usually as having been the only rightful means of ensuring the removal of the wrong type of religion, or the wrong type of ethnicity, as barriers to the monarchical and constitutional objectives that were pursued at the time.

But this is the crux of the problem: in thinking this way, we are guilty of distorting the importance that certain occurrences in history may have for the way we ought to understand the world today – despite the fact that, given the utterly different world view at the time, they may have been regarded as absolutely necessary measures and completely within the law.

In other words, we run the risk of burying ourselves deeper and deeper into an inescapably depressing and anachronistic rut, every time we refer to a version of history to support an agenda that is no longer commensurate with how the majority of people live their lives today.

There is no getting away from the fact that there are elements on every side of the debate who feel the urge, from time to time, to make the inexcusable appeal to heritage to justify their own descent into offensiveness, their own mode of defiance, or their own form of retaliation. And this, as history has repeatedly confirmed, gets us absolutely nowhere.

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Having a ‘heritage’ doesn’t necessarily confer the ‘right’ to celebrate it

Heritage is a complex notion. It comprises a wealth of inherited traditions, historical influences on our thoughts and beliefs, cultural tendencies, songs, stories, objects, artefacts, statues and monuments. Heritage shapes the way people think and behave in contemporary society. It is part of who we are and how we live our lives today. It is quite often used as a reason why certain patterns of behaviour have evolved the way they have, and why others have been diluted and disappeared over time.

Philosophers, historians, politicians and the man in the street will debate and evaluate the contribution of the past to our current sense of who we are and what we are worth. They may also debate why events that occurred in the distant past still impinge on our psychology at all. In some cases it may be that we unconsciously inherit and absorb our sense of heritage, and in other cases it may be that we consciously choose, or opt into, a particular heritage because of the people we come to associate with. And this makes the link very tenuous indeed.   

Now, in a rational and sober moment, and with a clear sighted perspective, it would not be too difficult to imagine that there would be a certain amount of common ground among different people on aspects of our shared heritage that are definitely worth saving and celebrating, whilst there are aspects that we would agree should be regretted, learned from, and then confined to the past.

When heritage becomes an excuse to glorify behaviour of the past, that we would deem barbaric and illegal in today’s terms, something has gone awry. To make the decision to celebrate historical wrong doings, particularly when doing so offends those people whose forefathers were manipulated, mistreated or murdered, is unacceptable.

To believe you are entitled to behave this way, that it is your ‘right’ to celebrate your heritage as you see fit, is morally wrong. Having a heritage does not necessarily confer the right to uphold it in a style that pleases you, particularly when, or because, it offends other people. In fact, having a heritage sometimes imposes the obligation on us not to do this.   

What may be deemed acceptable at one time in history, from one particular frame of reference, is not necessarily so at another point, and from another frame. Believing that you have the ‘right’ to rehearse, re-enact or re-live, certain strands of your heritage that clearly do not fit with today’s political, legal and sociological landscape, is misguided.

And subsequently believing that you have the ‘right’ to discriminate against another person simply because they do not share these strands in your heritage, or because your heritage usurped and damaged theirs at a regrettable period of history, quite often gives rise to irrational, offensive and illegal, behaviour. Yet these are, unfortunately, commonly held beliefs, passed down from father to son, spread from neighbour to neighbour, lived out from year to year, and are in no danger of disappearing any time soon.

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