The Paradox of Presentism

Physics teaches us that a myriad of factors – causal loops and the grandfather paradox, to name just two – render the possibility of travelling back in time obsolete. It teaches us that the future is born out of the past, and that it is unlikely that our kind will ever be able to journey through the vastness of bygone millennia; much less command the power to alter it.
But certain social justice circles continue to latch onto paradoxes otherwise rejected by the world of science and common sense. The latest is the paradox of presentism: the notion that not only should we revisit events, systems, and figures of the past but also actively interrogate their existence using modern-day sensibilities. If, God forbid, they fail to live up to our standards of equality, justice, and fairness, we should sanitize history by expunging any hints of their presence.
In March, members of the student government at George Washington University in DC voted to bid adieu to “George the Colonial,” the school’s mascot. Allegations that the “Colonials” nickname overlooks the dark side of colonialism and venerates President Washington’s colonial upbringing over his rebirth as an American revolutionary certainly merit consideration. The rallying cry, however, did not stop there. Some students went so far as to demand subbing out all George Washington connections, pointing to the first president’s lifelong involvement in the murderous institution of slavery.
The GW developments are hardly an outlier. Not too long ago, activists at Princeton called for the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs, citing his defense of segregationist policies. And the frenzy extends far beyond names and symbols. The internet abounds with opinion pieces by English teachers and professors – many from some of the nation’s most respected institutions – refusing to assign Shakespeare due to his “sexist tone.”
Unlike their natural counterparts, social sciences do indeed allow for time travel – presenting inhabitants of the modern era with two unparalleled opportunities. First, to evaluate events and characters of the past within their unique contexts. While we may rightfully find certain things despicable, it is important to keep in mind that they were products of social, cultural, and political environments wildly different from our own. Second, to make ourselves better. Instead of whitewashing history, let us commit to learning from history so as not to be doomed to repeat it.