Last summer, Reddit drew a lot of praise when it began banning harmful subreddits with toxic content, like r/FatPeopleHate. However, one of today's top Reddit posts is all about what should not be banned.
In a post, user MaryTulula submitted this image of an "offensive newspaper from 1799" displayed at her place of work, an "historic interpretive center."
The newspaper contains an ad looking for "a negro wench, for which the cash will be paid." A visitor to the historical center apparently took offense to the ad, and requested its removal from the historical center:
One of our guests recently came across this newspaper and has asked that it be removed because it is offensive. How would you respond to this request? What can I do to change this awkward situation into something we all can learn from? P.s. It probably doesn't need to be said, but I am not going to take down the paper.
Here's the full ad in question:
"WANTED TO PURCHASE IMMEDIATELY,
A NEGRO WENCH,
For which the Cash will be paid.
For further particulars, enquire at this Office.
Commenters on r/history quickly rallied to MaryTulula's side, offering support and advice.
"We can't remove history because it offends us - we have to learn from it," the top comment read. "The only way humanity improves is by acknowledging our failures - as painful and awkward as they may be - and by refusing to repeat history."
Another comment built upon this: "We cannot take today's sensibilities and project them backwards onto historical items without losing its historical context."
And another: "Historical documents that illustrate how far we as humans have come certainly should be displayed."
Honestly, it's pretty amazing that this didn't turn into a flame war. User PaulT_89 summed it up nicely:
Ive been blown away by the amount of thoughtful and rational comments posted. Kudos to the reddit community for treating this with reason and not reacting with the blind judgement we tend to see in society today.
The Redditors fall firmly in line with the American Historical Association, who have long set guidelines for how museum exhibits should handle difficult subjects.
Museum exhibits play an important role in the transmission of historical knowledge. They are viewed by citizens of diverse ages, interests, and backgrounds, often in family groups. They sometimes celebrate common events, occasionally memorialize tragedies or injustices, and contain an interpretive element, even if it is not readily apparent.
The relevant portion of the AHA's guidelines are the last two items addressed.
When an exhibit addresses a controversial subject, it should acknowledge the existence of competing points of view. The public should be able to see that history is a changing process of interpretation and reinterpretation formed through gathering and reviewing evidence, drawing conclusions, and presenting the conclusions in text or exhibit format.
Museum administrators should defend exhibits produced according to these standards.
American history certainly contains offensive, controversial artifacts. But the importance of learning from history cannot be overstated.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org