In a Crashcourse episode about World War I, John Green explained how irony and cynicism became a lot more popular as a result of the war. In modern society, it is normal to joke about the more serious things in life, both to reflect on it and to keep it light. Yet still, just a few weeks before he uploaded that video, John stated that “slavery is not funny”, and therefore he didn’t want to make any jokes about it. It makes me wonder though… should we really take the past so seriously?
One of the questions you might end up asking is where the line is. After all, we live in a globalised world, and what might have been an issue in one country isn’t always relevant in another. Slavery is already a good example, because in the US (John’s country) it has become a very touchy subject, while Europeans were mainly just the slave traders and wouldn’t care much if someone made a joke about it.
In the end, the reality is that slavery as we know it in history has been abolished for a long time. In Japan, it has been illegal since 1590, in France it was 1794, and in the US, it was 1865, now almost 150 years ago. That means that currently, even the grand-kids of people who were born as legal slaves are either no longer alive or already well in their 80s.
Of course, slavery is still a major issue, especially on a global scale, but it is a different kind of slavery. It is not the kind of slavery that you find in history books and that John could have joked about in his video. It is illegal slavery, and although definitely no less terrible, it isn’t the same as the situation we would picture if we thought of historic slavery.
Not being able to joke or even talk about it is the equivalent of denying it. It is as if people want to pretend like it never happened, which is never a good thing, because history is something we need to learn from. It is ridiculous to dwell on the past in general, but to dwell on a past that nobody current alive has even experienced is just stupidity beyond reason.
Another good example of this is the fact that recently, the UK has been facing compensation claims for the atrocities that happened during colonial times. Now, although this happened in the 1950s, meaning that victims and perpetrators might actually still be alive, it is pointless, because by now, those people no longer pay taxes. It has been over 50 years since Kenya became independent, and although the things the British did were terrible, none of it has anything to do with the people who would have to pay or receive that money.
All of this comes down to the same point: we are stuck in the past. It is definitely good to learn from history, but one of the wonderful characteristics of history is that, and this is going to be shocking, it happened in the past. It is something to move on from, and if there is anything in this world that can be joked about, it is history, because it keeps us aware of the things we need to avoid without actually being able to insult anyone who is still alive.
So John, next time you talk about Atlantic slave trade, don’t worry too much: make a couple of jokes. As you so brilliantly stated, cynicism and irony are normal in this day and age, so make use of it! Sure, there are things you shouldn’t joke about simply because it’s too soon, but there is this tiny difference between that friend who lost his job yesterday and the Atlantic slave trade that happened two centuries ago.
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