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Repeating History

News & Features | September 6, 2014

Academic Voices on the Patterns of our Past

This summer was a bad news cycle. This is something we at the Observer have discussed at length and heard the echoes of at various publications and outlets: this summer’s news was dark. It seemed that conflicts were coming to a head on all fronts— Crimea, ISIS, Chinese territorial claims, arms build-up in East Asia, Ferguson, and the list goes on. But what exactly does a “bad news cycle” mean? Is the news ever uniformly worse at any point in time?

A report published by the Institute for Economics and Peace this past summer claims that the world has become less peaceful and more violent over the past seven years, interrupting a 60-year trend towards increasing global peacefulness. Perhaps the recent news is merely a reflection of this shift in the world’s trajectory.

But this report directly contradicts the work of several scholars, specifically Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2012 bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker argues that the world today is more peaceful than ever before on a small and large scale. His research indicates that there are fewer victims of both domestic violence and multi-state conflicts. Pinker cites history, evolutionary psychology, economics, and sociology to argue that we are living in an ever-improving world.

So where does that leave us? Are we making progress towards a more peaceful society or not? Are we caught in a cycle of history repeating itself? How can we tell? We asked a series of Tufts Professors from a variety of disciplines what their takes on these questions were.

Professor Ayesha Jalal, who specializes in the history of South Asia and the Muslim World, contested that the very word “progress” indicates a certain set of subjective values. Thus, we must be very careful to establish by whose standard the idea of “progress” is being set. Historians, psychologists, sociologists, and literature professors alike concurred that the term itself is an incredibly loaded one. When asked to give their own definitions of progress based on their respective fields, a variety of answers arose—some of which characterized the concept as a negative one. “’Progress’ in feminist/women’s/gender studies is often a word we use with trepidation,” explained sociologist and LGBT scholar Shannon Weber, “given the way that narratives of ‘progress’ have historically been used to marginalize populations.”

Thus the idea of progress can be interpreted as a means of improvement, a vehicle of marginalization, or even a tool with which to analyze history itself. History professor Kris Manjapra, studies the history of thought in its social and political context, particularly in terms of comparisons. He explained, “The assumption that there has been progress or even the assumption that we should understand history as the attempt to measure progress, whether it exists or doesn’t exist, that is something that speaks more about our times, perhaps more about a particular intellectual formation of our times—or of particular groups of people in our times—than it really speaks about an objective way of asking questions about history.”

But regardless of definitions, professors are essentially split on whether the world is any better or worse than it once was. The scholars who, like Pinker, think that the world has improved tended to focus on the trajectory of peace. We found that professors who tended to study more ancient history—those from the departments of Classics, History, Peace and Justice studies—all said the world was improving in one way or another. “If you want to think in terms of progress, you could argue that no matter what it is far better to be living now than in most places in the pre-modern period. The overall quality of life and so forth is better. We live longer, we eat better, we have more access to more things,” explained Bruce Hitchner, a professor in both the Classics and Peace and Justice studies department. “That doesn’t always mean it’s a good thing. But on the whole, I really wouldn’t want to live in the premodern period.” M any of the classicists agreed, citing the incredible violence of the ancient world in their research. Professor Gregory Crane specializes in Ancient Greek Literature, and is quick to remind his students that although there is incredible strife in the world, they are lucky they are not living in the completely violent and lawless world of the Iliad.

The scholars who said the world was not improving tended to specialize in more recent history, or focused on where improvement was still necessary. Nancy Bauer is an academic dean as well as a philosophy professor who specializes in Feminism, and Existentialism and Phenomenology. Bauer explained that although she could sympathize with Pinker’s theory, she felt that there was too much work to be done to declare victory: “Just honing in on how things are for women, when you look at the numbers, you don’t see a whole lot of movement and shifting. There is not a huge change in the amount of parity that men and women have in, say, the work world or even domestically.” Professor Jalal agreed that human rights gains need to be greater in order to make claims of significant progress. She cited the persistence of inequities that have been created due to greed and western capitalism.

Weber similarly thought about progress in a shorter frame of history; she concluded that although there have been very important strides in terms of public visibility, media representation, and certain civil rights, there is much room for improvement—specifically in regards to the human rights of LGBT persons, such as nationwide employment protections, adoption and parenting rights, nationwide marriage equality, a federal bill for a protections for trans* people, and more. Many activists remain unsatisfied by the evolution of human rights, despite our potentially less-chaotic modern society.

Others considered factors aside from basic safety and equality of our population: taking a unique stance, English Professor Takayoshi examined the world’s progress from an artistic perspective. As a professor of literature, he affirms that the human ability to encapsulate our experience into art is constant: “If you take a really long view, 2000 years ago you realize how good it used to be. I mean obviously women were still oppressed and there were some barbarous traditions. But I am a professor of literature. They made beautiful things and came up with great ideas. So there is no progress in that regard.”

Tied up in the question of progress is the question of whether or not we are merely repeating our historic cycles. After all, we’re experiencing a bleak news cycles despite our fixation on progress and improvement from a darker past. The concept of history repeating itself seemed obvious to the classicists and historians. Steven Hirsch, a specialist in Greek, Roman, Near Eastern, and ancient Chinese history, spoke at length about his favorite ancient historian, Thucydides, who wrote his histories because he believed human nature would cause similar things to happen again. “In the end, because any situation is so complex, you can find pieces of it that look like different times in the past,” explained Hirsch, “And I can’t read the newspaper without thinking of ancient parallels, I can’t read a page of Thucydides without thinking of contemporary parallels. They’re there, and if we’re smart we’ll try to learn something from them.”

Professor Crane agreed, “I think history will always repeat itself, have the potential to repeat itself, because we are always one generation or one process from reverting to being apes, and doing all the things that we could do then.” The more modern historians and philosophers did not deny the cyclicality of history, though some suggested of a spiral conception of time (that moved forward while still circling), or even more amorphous shapes. All of the professors seemed willing to admit that there are certain ways in which history repeats itself continuously, retreating back to moments, mindsets, and social dynamics past —whether for better or for worse.

Manjapra concluded: “There are legacies that we are a part of that we continue to be beholden to, that inform our decisions and our actions for the future. There are residues. There are various residues and vestiges of the past that are not dead, that still are alive.”