OPINION: Battle against intolerance will be fought in history classrooms

A complete accounting of the past – not platitudes – is our best weapon against racist mistruths

It was sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday, in the midst of viewing one video or another from Charlottesville, that I realized what I was watching.

Beyond the violence and the racism – all of which are disturbing but not exactly new – the thing that stood out to me was just how young and how male the white supremacist crowds were that had gathered in that city.

The majority of those holding tiki torches, yelling Nazi slogans and railing about white power were men in their early to mid-20s. Most seemed likely to have attended university recently, and few seemed like they were suffering socioeconomically from their supposed discrimination.

It’s easy to label these racists idiots, because their views sure are dumb. Their arguments are tangled knots of errors, distortions, omissions and inconsistencies almost none of which would withstand a second of solid research or probing. They shout about people taking their freedom away while their lives and actions – the walking through a distant town armed to the teeth, and yelling treasonous slogans – are evidence to the contrary.

But are they idiots, or just young men who have absorbed one falsehood upon another and then arrived at the most heinous of conclusions?

A certain level of self-absorption and mental incompetence is surely at play here. But the internet’s insular communities, and the ease at which one can become immersed in a community dedicated to spreading lies and fallacious arguments, also seem to warrant considerable blame.

But I actually don’t think the cause of the racism is that important. That’s because the best preventive measure we can level against intolerance should be almost universally effective.

I’m a journalist, so it shouldn’t surprise that I would say that such people need more exposure to information that – while it can never be perfect – has been vetted and assembled with an eye on telling the truth, not a particular viewpoint.

But as important as I think journalism is, schools are even more crucial.

In Canada, some of the most pernicious views involve First Nations and their relationship with the government and non-Indigenous people. Much of Canada’s anti-First Nations racism seems like it stems from a total lack of knowledge about the history of how Canada was settled.

Two decades ago in school, I learned about the explorers who “discovered” British Columbia, and was taught a cursory history of the province’s last century and a half. I learned about the French explorers. But that was about it. Nothing about residential schools, and vanishingly little about a smallpox epidemic that wiped out much of B.C.’s First Nations population. There was little about how the land was used before settlers showed up, and treaties were glanced over.

I hope (and think) that education about those events has improved in the last decade-plus.

History should be taught for history sake’s itself – not to convince people not to be racist. But in telling true stories, and giving a full accounting for the past, history can also be a weapon wielded against the arguments and mistruths that racists use to convince themselves they’re right.

The often-sad history of B.C.’s settlement is important because they tell the province’s true and full story. But it also explains why things are the way they are today – why Indigenous men and women are more likely to be homeless, and why something like the voyages of Simon Fraser may not be embraced as something worth celebrating.

History education has a similar role to play in arguments over the American South’s thousands of confederate monuments. Not only is a dispassionate, full accounting of the Civil War – and the critical role of slavery in prompting the conflict – required, but so is widespread education on the history of the statues there, most of which were erected not immediately after the conflict but in response to civil rights activism more than 50 years after the ceasing of hostilities.

Today, as in the 20th Century, the best weapon against would-be Nazis won’t be slogans, but the truth.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter at the Abbotsford News.

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