Friday, May 09, 2008

History is not always black and white

Dr. Roy blogs about an Indian whose mother had a positive experience of a residential school.

The journalist writes:

She credits the residential- school experience with teaching her domestic skills. While she was at the school, she learned how to cook, sew, clean, launder and take care of a home. Her house on the reserve is known as the neatest and cleanest and even though she's an elder, she takes care to maintain it. Her lawn is the only cultured lawn on the whole reserve, shorn, immaculate, stunning.

This reminds me a bit of the truth about Quebec's Catholic past.

I am very much attached to that Catholic past. I feel a strong sense of identificaiton with it. Many people tarnish that past as being absolutely negative, especially under the Duplessiste regime. As in any large body, there were abuses. The tales of women being told off in the confessional for not having a child that year are not myth. There were priests who abused little boys. It was often authoritarian and excessive in its rigidity. If there's one thing I've learned about the "francosphere" (to coin a word), is that its Catholicism tends to be either excessively rigid or excessively liberal. When I read of what was considered orthodox in Quebec, and what was considered orthodox in the US, it's like night and day.

There were many people who had a negative experience of that period. And others who had a positive experience. People's perceptions of the various periods of their lives are colored by all kinds of thoughts and emotions that are unique to the individual. That's why you can have a St. Teresa of Avila who, in spite of being locked up by the Inquisition, loved the Church very much and was very obedient. And then there are others who have no real dark episodes with respect to the church, but decide to leave it in disdain.

History in the popular mind tends to be Manichaean: either all good or all bad. A population is unable to remember the nuances of history-- it has to be mythologized for easy transmission,consumption and reference. I positively love history, but I simply cannot store all the dates, stats, names, sequences etc that it would take to accurately remember any historical period. And this information can change in the light of new discoveries, new studies. So instead of remembering "real" history-- the kind that historians write-- people remember tableaux-like images-- Duplessis the bad guy, the Church his henchmen, the women victims chained to their stoves, etc. Questioning those perceptions can be like questioning people's faith. People hold on to them for various purposes, and someone who does not hold to the "orthodox" view is sometimes (and even often) viewed with suspicion. There are a lot of assumptions, values and even political agendas that are tied into those views of history.

The first step to critically understanding history (and probably any situation) is that people remember in terms of emotions, pictures and vignettes of narration. Their memory is not a journalistic timeline of events.

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