“Safe History” does a disservice to history

I had an interesting chat with an editor of an African-American Web site about a tweet I shared last night. The tweet focused on just how racist Trump’s supporters really are.

In this case, the Trump supporter posted a presumably archival image of an African-American man hanging from a noose with a sign around his neck that said “this n*gger voted.” The Trump supporter’s next tweet was about a “N*gger Tote” — a travel bag that was actually an African-American slave on all fours.

You get the idea.

I heard from one woman who understood the point in tweeting the image, but who still thought it was too extreme. I told her I respected her view and would think about it. Several others agreed with my decision to retweet the original tweet. Then I heard from the editor. The editor said that he felt the image inflicted violence on African-Americans and that there should have been a warning before tweeting it.

I told him that I had in fact considered a warning, but then wasn’t sure how to do it. If the warning is in the same tweet, you’ll see the picture before the tweet anyway. And if it’s in a separate tweet, that’s even worse — you won’t even see the warning at all before you see the image. And simply tweeting a link to the image on the troll’s Twitter feed risked people not clicking at all, but also it risked either the troll deleting the image or Twitter deleting his account (though the latter is unlikely, as Twitter rarely enforces its terms of service against hate).

I gave it some long thought before posting the image, and here’s why I ended up deciding to post it. I worry that by creating “safe spaces” in history, we change history and lessen its horrors. History isn’t meant to be glossed over. It isn’t meant to be made more palatable for the more sensitive among us. And the worst horrors of history can only be fully appreciated when people see just how horrible it was.

Even though I know about the history of lynchings in the South, that troll’s image shocked me. It educated me about just what kind of vile hate Donald Trump is tapping into. And it did it in a way far more effective than mere words.

I’ve been worrying of late about history, after seeing so many millennials who don’t even know recent history. There was an article in the paper the other day about students who didn’t even realize that Osama bin Laden was dead (President Obama had special forces kill him in 20011) and were shocked to hear the news.

Or there’s some millennials’ impression of Hillary Clinton. Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton was such a renowned Democrat, and friend to the LGBT community, to African- Americans, and so many more, that she was considered a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Today, I’m constantly dealing with millennials who have no idea of Hillary’s pro-LGBT history, and who actually think she’s been anti-LGBT her entire career. When nothing could be farther from the truth.

There is a difference between experiencing history, and reading about history that happened before you were politically sentient. And whether the Internet makes matters worse or not, many of today’s youth seem to have a fascinating, and disturbing, misunderstanding of things that were accepted historical fact just eight years ago.

Sometimes our interpretation and understanding of history changes, and that can be a good thing. But lecturing me about how awful Hillary is on gay and trans rights isn’t a fuller understanding of the past, it’s a lie.

And that’s why I ended up opting to post the troll’s tweet on my Twitter feed. Because I think that the only way we can honor the past, to honor the lives lost, and to educate people in the hopes that this never happens again, is to be brutally honest about our past, and not try to make history safe and comfortable.

If we pull punches when describing Donald Trump’s racism, we empower that racism.

In the end, I had a very nice exchange with that African-American editor, until he, out of the blue, mocked the fact that I was violently mugged in Washington, DC a number of years ago. It seems he became enraged that I simply didn’t agree with him, that I disagreed politely while explaining why I thought it was important that we share history without pulling any punches. So now I have his followers trolling me. All because I thought it was important to educate people on the fact that Donald Trump is racist, and is courting racists.


(The editor is now complaining that I mentioned his race — which I believe is relevant, as I think an African-American’s concerns about the history of racism in America should be taken particularly seriously. Just as I would pay special attention to a gay person’s concerns about gay history. He also complained that I referred to him as an African-American — he’s “black-American,” he corrected me. I stand corrected.)

Sometimes I’m not very hopeful on this new breed of activist, or about the fact that the Internet has empowered far too many people to simply be jerks. And what’s most sad is when the jerks are on our side.

PS As I’m still thinking this through, I’ll link to the tweet rather than post it. You can find it here. It was retweeted nearly 300 times.

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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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