Reconciling with a Troubled Past

In an article on CBC, professor Samir Husni claimed that National Geographic was one of the first ways for Americans to learn about the rest of the world.  In publication since 1888, National Geographic has almost been around for as long as Canada has been a country. Similarly to Canada, National Geographic has also had problems with racism in their past, and struggle to reconcile with those in a contemporary setting.  Recently Susan Goldberg, the editor in chief of National Geographic claimed their coverage of other races had been racist for decades and they wished to move beyond it.

This example speaks to a broader issue that we’ve discussed of how a corporation, or even a country, should deal with its past actions.  This issue raises several interesting questions because it has aspects to it that exist in a moral grey area. The world in 1888 was vastly different to our own and along with that came different beliefs and values that people had.  The idea of the freedom and equality of all races was not yet universally accepted and this was reflected in their media and beliefs. National Geographic portrayed people indigenous to Africa, Oceania and Asia with fascination as if they were a foreign and exotic, different entirely from the ‘civilized world’ of the West. 

As this changed and this portrayal of people of colour became less accepted, National Geographic published increasingly less racist issues but they would always have their origins in exploring the ‘other’.  So how does one reconcile with a troubled past? Is the solution to pretend it never happened and move on? Should they attempt to erase the past or reconcile for it? These questions speak not only to National Geographic, but nations and people as well.  Take for example the contrasting example of post-war Germany and post-war Japan.

Germany has attempted to reconcile for their actions by acknowledging the crimes they committed during the Second World War and integrating that into their education system, so new generations understand their past, and are able to move forward from it.  Through actions such as declaring January 27th to be Holocaust Memorial day and erecting several memorials to those who lost their lives during the Holocaust, Germany shows their attempts to reconcile with their past by acknowledging their crimes. The difficulty of this is that there is no quantifiable way through which to atone for the actions of one’s ancestors.  This is a difficult question with no easy answer for Germany. Japan on the other hand takes a different approach by stifling the events of the past.

One author in BBC discussed how their experience in the Japanese education system left much to be desired regarding the history of the twentieth century.  The Japanese education system plays down many of the crimes Japan committed during the early twentieth century including the Nanjing massacre and the comfort women Japanese soldiers took from Korea and China.  This approach indicates that Japan as a whole preferred to approach their past by attempting to take their actions out of public memory. This is made problematic by the fact that in China and South Korea, there is still animosity towards the Japanese for their role in the Second World War.  This creates a dynamic where children in Japan can’t fully understand why China and Korea would bear them any animosity because they do not fully understand the severity of what their country did during the war.

These examples, along with the recent news on National Geographic, paint a complicated picture of acknowledging the events of those that came before us.  Although there are no clear answers to any of these questions. The fact that any sort of reconciliation is being attempted is promising. Our social values and norms have shifted significantly in 100 years and this is reflected through how we treat our past.  All nations, as well as each of us, have something to learn from National Geographic’s attempt to reconcile for their past.

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