The other day, I posted this as a status on Facebook:
It’s amazing what a few years and some learning can do to my perceptions of literature. The first time I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I was twelve, and I cried my eyes out because of the horrific incidents and the tragic characters.
The second time I read it, I was an undergraduate in an advanced literature seminar. I was 21 or 22. I found the overwrought sentimentality a little bit laughable, but also understood the genius of Harriet Beecher Stowe for crafting it as she did and I admired her for the work she was trying to do.
Now, going through it a third time as I study for my comprehensive exams, I still appreciate what it was trying to do, but I’m also appalled by the condescension and racism in the text. Yes, for the time Stowe was progressive. But underneath the criticism of slavery lies the assumption that the slaves gained something by their exposure to Christianity.
Makes my skin crawl.
It didn’t take long before someone commented and said, “But you have to consider the context.”
I addressed her concern, and said that I do consider the context, but that I still think we need to talk about the racism and colonizing language that was present even in texts that were considered progressive for their day. The person continued to insist that I consider the context, despite my assurances that I was. She told me I can’t blame the authors. I don’t believe that pointing out that there was inherent racism in abolitionist texts is actually blaming them: it’s just stating a fact.
This “consider the context” argument has been handed to me, nicely and not, countless times over the course of my college career, both in my undergraduate and my graduate years. One professor, whom I admire and still love dearly, always discussed the context and tried to make the argument that texts were not problematic when taken in their own time frame and in light of the culture that produced them. Another, less pleasant and less productive example is a fellow grad student screaming down all of the other students in the class for criticizing Gertrude Stein and Joseph Conrad for racism.
Both arguments, whether presented gently or not, came down to “You have to consider the context.”
That’s fine, but what then? What do we do with it after we consider the context? Do we excuse it, because the people didn’t know any better? Do we applaud them for good intentions, even though their good intentions are marred by racism? I suppose these are two approaches we could take, but they seem to bring the discussion to a screeching halt. The fact that we “consider the context” seems to lead to an attitude of “forgive and forget” unless it’s an author we don’t like.
I told my colleague on my Facebook post that I was tired of “consider the context” as an excuse. I stand by that. “Consider the context” leads to nothing productive, and actually could be partially responsible for the continuing presence of subtle and overt racism in American culture. “Consider the context” is lazy. It keeps us from thoroughly interrogating the texts that we read and study, the texts that we admire, the texts that we hold up as models of “progressive” thinking.
How far are we to take this idea of “consider the context” ? Do I need to “consider the context” now, when it comes to issues of homophobia? Do I need to excuse that guy from Duck Dynasty for his remarks, because of the context he grows up in? In 50 years, will we excuse him because the context he existed in was homophobic so we can’t hold him accountable? What about the day when rape culture is no longer acceptable? Will I have to excuse comedians that made rape jokes because of the “context”? Do I have to excuse them now? Should I excuse Christina Fallin for her appropriation of Native American culture because she has grown up in a culture that doesn’t have a problem with this appropriation, because she has grown up in a culture built on an ideology of hypocrisy that preaches democracy and committed mass genocide in order to bring it about?
“Consider the context” shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore prejudice and colonizing ideology. It should be used as a reminder that we need to familiarize ourselves with the politics and beliefs of an era so that we can better understand the texts that were produced, but it should never be used as a pardon. Once we consider the context, we should continue to criticize the context and consider to point to the things that are wrong.
“Consider the context” should cease to be an argument that amounts to “everyone was doing it.” We should consider what the texts mean in the context in which they were produced, and also consider the contexts in which they still exist. If we don’t, we continue to allow discrimination and we learn nothing from the context of our past.