I would like to invite this to be a dialogue of sorts, especially among myself and other history bloggers here on tumblr (but everyone in general), regarding their feelings about the meeting point between history and social media and what is appropriate.
This post started out with someone pointing out the new “History Meme” circulating parts of tumblr. Memes, by definition, are ideas and concepts that jump from person to person and by their very nature are appealing to pass around. This latest meme asks people to pick and choose their favorite historic events/people/moments and — I would like to say there is nothing inherently wrong with having favorite moments in history, even if those moments are not good moments. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding yourself intensely fascinated or engaged intellectually by some of the world’s greatest tragedies, wars, disasters, and so on.
However, this is where historicity comes in — in this case, I use the word not in the philosophical sense necessarily, but as the idea of separating legend and myth from fact and truth. It has been brought to my attention that this meme asks for the following:
And again, being fascinated or engaged with any of these things is not necessarily a bad thing on its own.
However — there’s been some problems. It’s easy to romanticize history when we place it in a memetic context. It’s extremely easy to become desensitized to war and genocide if we pick our favorites and post images of these wars (photographs if they exist) and do not examine them with a critical lens or with appropriate respect in regards to how we view these images. And as an art historian, I know all too well how easy it is to mutate and change meaning of images based on context, production, exposure, and alteration.
But this is where I think things get tricky: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make graphics to explore your love of history, but I have heard complaints of using graphic images for this meme — which asks for “war, assassinations, natural disasters,” all of which are devastating and recall the imagery of devastation. I know that when I look at, say, the images of Buddhist monks who have set themselves on fire, or Soldiers with beheaded people, or other images of violence, war, gore, terror, humiliation, famine, disease, disaster, etc, I have to ask — very seriously — Is it necessary to distribute these images in order for the history to be told or understood? If I use these images, can something be gained from their use?
If you make a graphic set of World War II, how much are you separating from actual images of the war from images from films either ones that dated from that era, or ones that are more modern?
By the same token, if you choose to represent a King or Queen from India with a white-european model — understand that this is problematic. When you choose to “represent” history with someone or something of the modern era, you must understand that there is accountability within that representation. Yes, it is absolutely whitewashing to use a white woman to represent an Indian Queen.
And this rightfully upsets people, just as the callous use of images of dead soldiers on battlefields being used as backdrops for “favorite war” might upset people, or at the very least might seem distasteful. While some of these graphics for this meme are superbly well done, and honestly taking part in the spirit of history “geeking” I have to call into question the beautification and romanticization of violence, death, war, and the prevalence of glossing over the facts in favor of what “looks good” or what is readily available or easy seeming — especially when it comes at the expense of whitewashing or outright misleading history.
Please, there is no need to not celebrate and engage in history that you find fascinating. But as I scroll through this meme tag, I urge people to consider, and rethink how they might approach history and social media, especially when it glorifies violence by minimizing the historical context in favor of what are essentially graphic art exercises.
Ask yourself: How does the use of violent images in memes affect how we approach those histories? What is and is not appropriate when approaching such images? And how can we approach social media and reconcile it with thoughtful and contextualized historic engagement?
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