Putting the past on trial: burning dead witches?

Battle of Ideas festival 2013, Sunday 20 October, Barbican, London


Denouncing racism in football, Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared, ‘we will not let recent events drag us back to the bad old days of the past,’ exemplifying a new trend to look back at the past from a position of moral superiority. Past decades are routinely disparaged today as a toxic legacy, particularly in the discussion about revelations of child abuse in the 1960s and 70s, but also in debates about ‘old-fashioned’ patriotism, traditional religion and ‘dead, white European males’ being taught in school curriculum, not to mention football hooliganism.

Far from celebrating the achievements of the past, the cultural script of the 21st century seems ever-hostile to the practices and values of yesteryear. When it comes to parenting, for example, the experience and insights of previous generations are castigated as dangerously old-fashioned prejudices, far too out-dated for our progressive, enlightened times. And in the debate about Baby-Boomers betraying today’s ‘jilted generation’, the older generations are admonished for the allegedly hedonistic, selfish and unsustainable lifestyles of their youth. Geoffrey Wheatcroft declares, ‘If there is any hope at all, it must be that our crappy generation can slink away in shame, and let a younger generation see if they can manage things better’.

Against this, Irish writer John Waters has warned against a dangerous condescension to the past and what he characterises as an ‘unlimited appetite for past obscenities’. Certainly we seem to have a morose fascination with excavating yesterday’s culture for secret scandals and hidden abuse. In the aftermath of the Savile scandal and amid Operation Yewtree, the police are openly encouraging people to examine their past for any possible abusive behaviour. For critics, this means inviting individuals to make sense of their current problems by seeing them as part of the damage inflicted by past wrongs. Should we accept the implication that their lives today were scripted by past childhood traumas? And are we being encouraged to reinterpret past experiences through the prism of present day preoccupations, obscuring our understanding of the past in its own terms? Why are we so keen to turn backwards and put the past on trial today, rather than concentrating on an optimistic embrace of the future? And was the past so bad anyway?

Jennie Bristow

senior lecturer in sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University; author, The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges and Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict; co-author, Parenting Culture Studies

Allan Massie
author, nearly 30 books, including 20 historical novels, including A Question of Loyalties and Dark Summer in Bordeaux; columnist, Spectator

John Waters
Irish newspaper columnist; author, Jiving at the Crossroads and Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot

Professor Sir Simon Wessely
president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists; head of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive