“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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29 Responses to ““Safe History” does a disservice to history”

  1. Barry William Teske says:

    I would sure like to hear a healthy cross section of your nations pre vote and eligible youth thoughts on all this. I wonder if all the focused pandering on outward fear and empty future rhetoric has messed with their outlook on the responsibility of liberty going forward. Anybody seriously thinking of those potentials and inviting them to the table? Your next “race” is only a scant 4 years away…
    (Example: In my view Canada is somewhat cultivating segregated gangs of disenfranchised young people who see nationalist bravado as fight club fair.)

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  4. Houndentenor says:

    There’s some very good scholarship in the last 20 years or so on this topic. The minstrel show influenced pretty much everything in western culture and not just in the US. (Debussy’ imitates the style in his piano piece Gollywog’s Cakewalk). What’s so startling about how much it’s been erased is how pervasive it was at the time. A well-to-do person’s sheet music collection (we know this because they often had their collections bound and now they are in library collections) would consist of about 1/3 classical/opera, 1/3 genteel parlor songs (Stephen Foster, etc.) and about 1/3 minstrel and “coon” songs. Right there together on their piano. (And everyone with any money at all had a piano at the time. Also: sheet music is the youtube of the 19th century. Anything that happened inspired some sort of song whether serious or comic. every cultural trend as well as social or political movement.)

    And yes, people would be upset if you showed this stuff publicly now and not without reason. Have you ever seen an episode of Amos & Andy? I haven’t but at the time it was a hugely popular show and CBS only canceled it because of protests and boycotts, NOT because of ratings. This wasn’t that long ago either. (Note: an independent station in Houston…the one where the woman walked off set over the football player kissing his boyfriend on draft day…was showing Amos & Andy reruns at that time in the early morning hours. Yikes!)

  5. I’ve never heard any of that stuff. I’m sure some would be upset if someone shared it publicly. I think we ought to know if things were that bad.

  6. Yep, “damn lesbian” is what I always remember too. He did a LOT for AIDS too.

  7. Badgerite says:

    I think it is important not to forget the truth of our history. I still remember Mamie Till insisting on an open casket at the funeral of her son Emmett Till as she wanted everyone to see what they “had done” to her son. Her action galvanized the Civil Rights movement in a way nothing else could have.

  8. Houndentenor says:

    I follow you on Twitter and I’m shocked at some of the shit flung at you. And it’s not just you. I have been reporting antisemitic slurs and threats of violence made on twitter for some time now. I doubt anything comes of it, but it should.

    I should note that on Facebook a couple of months ago someone (a Russian singer) posted something truly vile about Jews (not that it related to the topic) on Sam Ramey (the bass) ‘s Wall. I flagged it and I got a message from Facebook notifying me that they had taken the post down. I’ve never seen anything like that on twitter.

    I hear a lot from the alt-right crowd about free speech but the speech they seem to want protected is harassment and even threats of violence. Those are not protected speech nor should they be.

  9. Houndentenor says:

    I did my best to avoid the 9/11 images and videos. No such luck. Some of my friends go into a literal media blackout for 48-72 hours. They watch movies or read, but do not log onto social media. I had planned on it but hadn’t. Several friends posted pics of the WTC ablaze. I know they mean well with their “never forget” memes but forgetting is not a problem for me. I have a panic attack every time a plane is flying low. So I woke up Monday morning from a nightmare in which I was back working on 6th Ave and all the buildings on the east side of the street started blowing up one by one. Good morning to me!

    So yeah, we should warn people about sensitive material. It’s not an obligation and honestly we can’t always know what will be disturbing to someone else, but material of a sexual or violent nature should probably come with a warning and then people can decide for themselves if they wish to view it.

  10. Houndentenor says:

    I have an acquaintance who works in a large university library. They often buy up old sheet music collections, cylinders (what music was played on before 78 recordings) and the like. He’s sometimes shocked at what’s in there. We have erased a great deal of our racist past. I know why we did it, because it’s embarrassing to admit just how racist pretty much everyone was 100 years ago and even more recently. Dig around in the Library of Congress sheet music collection if you don’t believe me. And it’s not just racist material against black people, but also the Irish and Chinese and other groups. Horrible stuff. As for the cylinders, sometimes they don’t have labels on them any more so they play them with no clue. Many are recordings of sketches from minstrel shows or “coon songs”. Horrible stuff. I listened to some as part of a class on popular song from that era. Yikes. I knew that stuff was bad but I really had no idea.

  11. Houndentenor says:

    In 1992 when Bill Clinton openly addressed gay people and promised to end the ban on gay service in the military, it was the first time any major party presidential candidate had promised us anything. I don’t even remember any other candidate willing to acknowledge that we existed. Yes by 2015 standards their 1992-2000 record isn’t that great. But by the standards of that time, they did more for gay people than any other administration ever had. Openly gay men and women were appointed to federal jobs. Out gay people. And the pushback against that (google: damn lesbian if you don’t believe me) was massive and honestly had naively not been anticipated by Clinton. It’s easy to look back in anger. I was pretty pissed about some of it at the time. But Hillary Clinton has always been good on gay issues, even if she wasn’t a great as we’d have liked. She’s with us now, and that’s what matters.

  12. Randy Riddle says:

    I’ve worked in higher ed in teaching and learning and faculty development for about twenty years.

    I think the concerns over “coddling” in higher ed are a little overblown and sensationalized – it seemed to be a “pet peeve” of conservative media that’s filtered to a conversation among liberals.

    Most faculty I’ve run into are open and up-front about material in their courses that might be difficult for individuals that have been through some kind of trauma and have individual conversations with students about issues. Typically, it’s going to be someone that might have gone through parental abuse, rape, or a violent incident that will be the ones who object to the material. The students might plow ahead and go through the course and perhaps even talk with a counselor about some of the feelings the material brings up. Some students who are dealing with traumatic issues steer clear of courses that might be too difficult for them to handle.

    My own blog deals with old time radio and I debated about putting up warnings about offensive material since most hobbyists are used to this kind of thing. What changed my mind was realizing that there are several visitors that are new to the hobby and might not understand that everything isn’t light entertainment like George Burns and Gracie Allen or Groucho Marx in “You Bet Your Life”.

    I know some African-Americans I’ve talked to stay far away from old time radio or are very selective about what they listen to because of the overt and casual racism that can crop up where you don’t expect it. They know it’s there and a part of old time radio history, but it can dredge up some bad frustration and trauma in something that should otherwise be enjoyable.

    Again, with a blog, I can set an overall tone and you know when you visit you’re in a space that deals with one topic and you might get offended.

    With Facebook and Twitter, since it mixes feeds from so many sources, you never know what might turn up. I’m sure all of us have had the experience of browsing what friends had for dinner, vacation photos, political cartoons, and cat videos when, quite suddenly as you scroll, there’s some kind of meme with a graphic historical lynching photo, a picture from the Holocaust, or an image of graphic animal abuse.

    To me, social media that takes in feeds from many sources isn’t quite the place for this material – I’m not sure one is in a mindset to be shocked or jolted like that and it may be more of a turn-off.

    I compare it to sidewalk abortion protestors with signs of graphic imagery that may be outside a clinic or just protesting along a busy street. Do they really help their cause by “shock bombing” in public places like that?

  13. That’s the entire debate :) I think, generally speaking, the majority of trigger warnings I’ve heard are coddling. Having said that, I’ve written about the fact that 9/11 was quite traumatic for me, and I still can’t watch those old videos, so it disturbs when the networks just inflict 9/11 on us every year. So I’m open-minded on the topic overall. But, I don’t think this means that any time we discuss terrorism we have to worry about my sensitive feelings, that’s silly. And I feel like that’s where this is heading, especially in the scholastic debate — “don’t talk about terrorism near John, he’s sensitive.”

    This reminds me of the discussion about whether we have so much asthma and diabetes, allergies, and other disease of late, that didn’t exist to this degree in years past because we’ve been protecting young people from “germs” to an extreme degree. I wonder if we’re not developing historical allergies, to brutalize a metaphor :)

  14. Randy Riddle says:

    Is it “coddling” or simply being polite and respectful?

  15. dcinsider says:

    No obligation to warn exists, even if John did warn folks. Adults should be able to handle things like this. If they cannot, they have larger problems than the need to be coddled with trigger warnings.

  16. dcinsider says:

    Sorry, no. Life is full of unpleasant things, and each day we see things we’d rather not. But going through life coddled and protected from the bad things does no one a service.

    Trigger warnings are OK for 3rd graders, who are too young to grasp the difficult images and concepts that may arise from everyday life.

    Trigger warnings are not for adults, be they college age, or older. No one can live their life in a bubble. Disturbing images appear, on the Internet or on TV, and guess what? You can go to another site, or change your channel.

    I dare say that victims of rape probably know better than most that rape happens.

    Time for everyone to be an adult now. Cookies and milk time is over.

  17. And one thing this election has taught us, which I tried to explain to the editor in question, is that we learned that youth don’t always know their history, and unless you’re extremely vigilant it’s forgotten and changed. For example, millennials and their impressions of Bill and Hillary, or their claims that the Clintons have always been bad on LGBT rights, when in fact they’ve been insanely amazingly good. The new generation loses its history unless you are vigilant. And that’s one reason I think it’s important to share history, as violent and awful as it is.

    In fact, the more horrible the more it should be shared, lest we forget. And the fact that a Trump supporter was sharing images of a lynching, in essence threatening African-Americans if they dare vote, is not just newsworthy, it’s important for all of us to know about, acknowledge, and fight. Especially with Trump having such a record of wooing racists and supremacists, and denying it. This is proof, horrible proof, of Trump’s basket of deplorables.

  18. Yes, you understand completely.

  19. I was there too, and your report is wholly inaccurate. The exchange is public. In fact, he got upset because I didn’t necessarily agree with him, and tried to engage him in a thoughtful conversation about why I believe sometimes we do harm to history by censoring it. The entire discussion is online, I was incredibly civil because I found the conversation interesting and important and appreciated the opportunity of discussing it with someone who might not agree. I tend to find intellectual discussion interesting, and illuminating. In response, after I heard him out, he got angry and started attacking me on other topics, and then, as a result of what he posted, I got someone wishing I had died. So, with respect, your report is inaccurate. And it’s sadly an example of the very problem I’m trying to document. You didn’t like that I disagreed with him and tried to explain my point of view. So now you’re claiming the very fact that I disagreed is a sign of dishonestly and being hostile, dismissive and baiting. No, it’s called having and expressing an opinion that might not be the same as yours. It’s a beautiful thing that fortunately is still legal and ethical and necessary in our country.Thanks for your opinion.

  20. You should warn them, if only to show WHY you’re posting it at all. And I did :)

  21. Randy Riddle says:

    This is a tough call.

    I think it has to do with the nature of social media and context. It’s a little disconcerting to log on to Twitter or Facebook and see the usual mix of news about the election and current events, updates about friends, and cat videos to suddenly have a graphic violent image show up. It’s not exactly what we expect from the overall tone of what we see in that medium.

    I do restorations of original discs of old radio shows from the 30s, 40s and 50s and post them on a blog. I do include disclaimers on entries that include difficult themes or ethnic and racial stereotypes, not only because some individuals might find them disturbing, but as a way to signal that I’m not posting this historical material because I agree with it or, in the case of comedy shows, that I personally find it funny. It creates a tone on the blog that you’re in a space where you might find something entertaining, but the main point is historical exploration.

    Usually, hearing performers doing Blackface or using racial slurs during World War II doesn’t faze me, but even I found one program that I found it difficult to listen to. It’s a fifteen minute drama based on a real-life 1920’s case in Georgia where a man enslaved, abused and killed African-American men from a local prison. It’s probably the most hard-hitting and gut-wrenching piece of early radio I’ve run into.


    How could you not warn readers that they might find it disturbing, even in the context of a blog on history?

  22. Monte Logan says:

    John, I’m disappointed in you because your followers may not have read that exchange on twitter, BUT I DID. He did not call you out of your name, he did not mock what experience you’ve had, and he did not threaten you or become angry with you. But instead of hearing him out, you blocked him and accused him of setting his “twitter goons” on you. did people watch this exchange and insert themselves into it? yes. did you hear anyone out? no. and that’s entirely dishonest to make it appear that you were trying to be civil and that he was just hostile, dismissive, and baiting. no one is above criticism, nor are they above needing to do better. Do better, John

  23. Monte Logan says:

    Believe me. several people, mainly black americans have seen the lynching photos before. We’ve seen them, we’ve internalized them. we’ve done a lot of researching and gatherings around to go over the past and how wonderfully “bright and sunny” it is -_-. we went out and learned this on our own and it opens our eyes to everything that’s going on today and it’s got us looking at everything going on today and understanding how much of the violence and racial microagressions that go on today are very similar. as a result, it might have a trigger for some who are on twitter and have ALREADY EXPERIENCED racial violence. so asking for a trigger warning is just asking to give some people a heads up so that they can gather themselves.

    an example of how it makes sense: plenty of young adults have discussions on twitter, facebook, instagram, tumblr, etc detail rape and abuse that many of them went through growing up e.g. RAPE, mainly to reach out to anyone else who has been through it too for solidarity but understand that not everybody can mentally and emotionally from being raped and being able to talk about it so therefore they take the time to let those people know in case they come across it so that way they don’t have flashbacks.

  24. goulo says:

    Do I understand correctly that a fellow anti-Trump person was so upset at you for retweeting a Trump supporter’s appalling tweet+photo (for your shared goal of discrediting Trump) that this fellow anti-Trump person actually wrote to you that “Its a shame they didn’t kill you”?! Literally writing to you that he wished you had been killed by muggers?

    Sigh. Humanity is hopeless. :/

  25. Zorba says:

    You can never know about those filters, John.
    After all, Facebook censored the iconic, Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked girl fleeing a napalm bombing in Vietnam.
    Until Zuckerberg and Facebook got so much sh!t about this censorship that they restored the photograph.
    Most of these sites have automatic filters that “look” for certain words and images. And they don’t have many (if any) humans looking at every single thing to make a reasoned judgement.
    So if you’re talking about Disqus, or, even worse, Facebook, yeh, you’re going to get “automatic” censorship.

  26. dcinsider says:

    I’m a bit confused perhaps, but was this editor seeking a trigger warning?

    The original tweet was of an actual event I assume. Thus the history argument. The photo I assume was not doctored.

    So, to retweet the image, which was factually and historically accurate, albeit terribly disturbing, required an accompanying warning of some kind?

    History is ugly. It involves blood, and guts, and gore, and murder, and suffering. Pictures are the window into the past. You can write about lynching of blacks in the South, but one picture of a person hanging from a tree says a lot more than a 1,000 words describing it.

    If this is about trigger warnings, good god what have we come to?

  27. quax says:

    I know quite a few people in my old home country (Germany) who’d be happy if we could never again show the pictures of piles of emasculated corpses at Auschwitz.

    It doesn’t matter why you want to hide these kind of pictures, if you do, you end up on the wrong side of history.

  28. Except that tweet will probably get the ads shut down on this page, and maybe the site. We once had a complaint from the ad company for writing about US Senator Coons of Delaware. I kid you not. Their filter said we were denigrating African-Americans.

  29. LeeDoza says:

    THANKS for this. But one way to solve it is to post a photo of the whole tweet with image, then you have over 100+ Characters for your warning. It also doesn’t post a link, but people can find it via the handle they can see.
    Go to Twitter see @LOrion I will do one.

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