Context really is everything.
That line could apply to a lot of people, but I’m going to use just one.
One that I happen to know well.
My mother was born in 1931, in the United States, the youngest of seven children and, as a result, scrappy. You don’t get your fair share with six older siblings unless you’re willing to fight for it. And she fought.
Her father, I’m told, was outspoken in his dislikes — immigrants and people of other races among them.
(There was something of a family joke about the fact my mother and both of her headstrong sisters married the offspring of immigrants, a Wangersky, a Gagliardi and a Radomski.)
As a result of the time and her upbringing, my mom had more than a few pithy sayings that, nowadays, would not be in the least bit acceptable, sayings that surrounded her when she was growing up and wormed their way into her lexicon. I think she probably said them without ever thinking about just what exactly they meant, or how they might be taken. (Many of us have at least one relative like that.)
If she were alive now and made one of those comments in front of you, you’d be perfectly within your rights to call her on it — to point out that what she was saying could be considered racist.
If you did, she would have been mortified. She was an educated, intelligent woman — blunt, but easily crushed if she was told she had unintentionally hurt someone else’s feelings.
But raising an issue about what she might have said in the past — and suggesting she was racist in the process — would be different. It would only be a tiny part of her story.
Because, beyond a handful of turns of phrase that had accompanied her from another time — a time when they might have been considered acceptable — my mother also actively, publicly and personally fought racism. She fought it at a time when doing so could affect your profession, your spouse’s profession and even your presence in a neighbourhood.
She stood up and called out racism in town halls and school board meetings, at a time when everyone else in our part of the city seemed willing to sit on their hands. She fought it so determinedly and publicly that I was regularly teased at school about her outspokenness — it was unusual behaviour in 1970s Halifax, and even more unusual coming from a strident fireplug of a woman.
She didn’t just talk the talk — she walked the walk, chin stuck out and eyes flashing bright.
She fought it until something broke her, and she retreated to house and garden, repeatedly reminding all three of her children that “Life isn’t fair.”
I have a problem with people who are intent on mining the past to find new coal to power the boilers of the currently fashionable outrage machine.
I never found out exactly what it was that stopped her — but though she became less public, anyone was always welcome at her table and in her home, and would be now, if she was still alive.
That’s why I have a problem with people who are intent on mining the past to find new coal to power the boilers of the currently fashionable outrage machine.
You don’t know the context of the time people lived in, nor do you know the context of the thing you’ve decided to self-righteously trumpet.
Taking something in isolation, outside of its time and away from any understanding of the rest of a person’s life is more than simply dishonest. It’s revisionist by design.
And what’s particular odious is when it’s just a drive-by cheap shot, used by people intent on ingratiating themselves with their own particular peer group.
Building your own pedestal on the backs of others you know nothing about isn’t praiseworthy — it’s just a new and trendy kind of smear campaign.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.