Moral judgements can make us uncomfortable, especially when making them public exposes us to criticism.
Philosophy professors see this all the time when students minimize their position by prefacing it with “It’s just my opinion, but…” – a conversational habit that is a pet peeve of mine.
Should we be surprised, then, when we stifle moral judgements which conflict with national allegiances? Citizens are protective of national pride, and sometimes, getting rid of the moral judgement means erasing episodes of history.
Here are a few examples of what happens when the weight of patriotic, historiographical taboo is hit by rude facts:
- American reaction to the Smithsonian exhibition of the Enola Gay.
- Canadian reaction to the portrayal of firebombing in the film The Valour and the Horror.
- Japanese reluctance to acknowledge war atrocities such as the Nanjing massacre and the conscription of ‘comfort women‘.
- Chinese censorship of Tiananmen Square massacre.
- Turkish repudiation of an Armenian genocide.
In each of these cases, a heroic national self-image is called into question by a moral judgement about a historic event. When confronted by the premise that killing civilians is wrong, face-saving requires we either deny civilians were killed or justify the killing as an exception to the rule.
Knowing this, I do not need to wonder much how people will react to my suggestion that we should build a monument honouring the victims of what some call a North American genocide.
This is not my idea. It belongs to Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, an artist in British Columbia. (His blog is not yet active.) He suggested the creation of a memorial during an interview with CBC radio’s Ideas, and I was struck by his suggestion that Canada make such a statement.
We usually see the exploration and settlement of the Americas as noble, heroic, and our shared heritage. We don’t see it as the coerced occupation of foreign lands by European invaders. Debates about whether or not this counts as genocide provide a good example of example of historical framing. I shan’t get into that debate except to point out that even if the intent to commit genocide was not present, the effect was largely the same.
Canada has never treated its aboriginal people very well. A decade ago, this was recognized by the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which chronicled a heartbreaking history of assimilation and marginalization. Despite its recommendations, the scars remain – in large part because most Canadians can live their lives unaware of them.
That is why it is important to see these scars, and to know the magnitude of what was lost. This appreciation can go a long way to improve relationships with its First Peoples, because in Canada, nation-building has never really stopped. It takes national courage to look upon episodes of historic shame and be motivated to fix the resulting problems of the present. I’d like to think Canadians have such courage.