Historians, activism, solidarity, and empathy

Enjoy this think piece from historian Miranda Johnson, University of Sydney: author of The Land Is Our History, and one-time special correspondent from Te Whenua Moemoeā – Australia.

Our newsfeeds this past week have been filled with the images, sounds, and words of protest. From anti-Trumpism, which is galvanizing millions of people in the United States and beyond, to the annual celebration and protest of Australia Day on January 26 (for a useful resource on the history of indigenous rights protests in Australia, visit here). Marches are media events, and they’re also teachable moments for many of us working in the academy. They can help us connect issues of the present to other histories, placing us, our bodies, and our experiences, in longer political traditions of activism and solidarity. Why we might want to recall those traditions is beautifully evoked in this essay by the British historian Susan Pedersen about the women’s march on Washington and its antecedents.

The protests I’ve mentioned are framed by “identity” politics. There are many critics of these politics. For some political thinkers, politics based in a claim to a particular identity divide more than unite. They foreground one group’s experiences, often of suffering and victimization, over and above that of another. They don’t necessarily address structural issues of economic access and opportunity that a wide range of people might be experiencing.

For some historians, identity politics trouble the founding idea of the discipline, that the past is “another country.” Protest movements often assume continuity and similarity across time, rather than difference and contingency. Politics of history clash with the evidentiary demands of the historical discipline (a distinction between the “public life” of history and what Dipesh Chakrabarty in his recent book usefully calls the “cloistered life” of the discipline).

But what Pedersen reminds us is that the political feelings that motivate us to resist, oppose, and identify are often older than ourselves. Though she thought the march she attended in Washington D.C. on January 21 was a “good one,” it’s not her favourite, a judgment she reserves for another march she never attended since it was well before her birth, in 1913.  So, we draw on stories, some of which are our own and some of which are other peoples’, as we try to understand our own place in the present. And in so doing we are reminded of ancestral connections, sometimes to stories we didn’t even know we were related to.

We need to identify with others, beyond ourselves, in order to find commonality with those not like us, or what the author Roman Krznaric calls “cognitive empathy.” (Also, check out his “Empathy Museum.”) So what identity politics offer us is a chance to empathize across cultural, gender, and historical divisions, without losing a sense of the structural injustices that often help to create division in the first place.

It seems to me that historians, too, can do really important, useful work, in our classrooms, in our scholarship, and in our communities, in helping to create conditions for empathy. One of our most important tasks is telling stories that allow and inspire this kind of cognitive, and even critical, empathy. It’s not about giving up critical reason and evidence-based thinking. It’s about using those skills to enrich everyone.