Author: Alisha Lee

Pass the Baton

Marcos Perez introduced two concepts found in revolutions that explain why people would or would not participate in a revolution. One of these is the collective action dilemma, in which an individual does not think their involvement would make little to no difference in the scheme of things. This idea was a particular concern over the elections this year. Given the huge population of the United States and the way in which democracy system works here, there were many, too many, people who did not think their one vote would count for anything. I know of several people who did not vote and were eventually either regretful or still thought that they would not have changed the outcome if they did. Perez’s second concept, collective effervescence I think also plays into who chose to vote or not. For those who did not vote, that passion and drive to at least try to voice their opinion and try to contribute to change was lacking. From what I know, they were more indifferent towards both candidates and did not care enough at the time. They did not feel that whichever outcome would not impact their lives very much.

Many other revolutions have involved the risk of harm to those who participate, and that is when collective effervescence is important. When the desire to be involved in something greater than one’s self and to directly tackle the very issues that you and many others face is the drive revolutionists need. That is when the benefits outweigh the risk. And those are the people generations later will commemorate and thank. I think it is difficult to take that risk especially if one cannot see the immediate benefits. For instance, with climate change, an individual cannot visualize the direct impact they are making, particularly because it would be on such a minuscule scale. Climate change, for this reason, is similar to voting systems. Thankfully there are people who are willing to make sacrifices for a bigger cause than themselves, and I am hopeful, in fact I know, that there are many people in my generation who previous revolutionists can pass the baton down to so that we can continue fighting.

Do not Limit the Definition of Revolutions

The question of whether nature and culture can ever be divided is supposedly central to the connection to revolutions. First, why are we trying to separate nature and culture? Second, revolutions can come in many forms on many scales.

I recently finished my semester-long research assignment on Madagascar, a place where the lives of humans are greatly impacting the forests for the worse and increasing the already devastating deforestation rates. In this case, on the surface, it looks like as though culture and nature should be divided in order to prevent the extinction of one of the world’s greatest megabiodiversities. Since the 19th century, the government and outside forces have been attempting to solve deforestation in Madagascar. First it began with enforcing regulations on forestry, then it evolved into the establishment of national parks that relocated villages and banned local people from stepping foot in the park. This took away local people’s resources that they depended on for their livelihoods without attempting to help them adjust. This creates a ‘people vs park’ model which is seen all over the world in conservation projects, which also particularly marginalizes indigenous peoples or minority groups. But this is not a sustainable method for conservation, as Madagascar has seen over and over again. The people live on that island and therefore need the resources it offers, given that the majority of the population are too poor to survive otherwise. Many conservationists favor and prioritize the survival of nature over the survival of the people. How can anyone judge what is more important? We cannot. We need to instead stop thinking that it can only be one or the other – culture or nature – and recognize that the survival of both means we need to build a relationship between culture and nature. Anyway, are humans not part of the ecosystem also?

Therefore, perhaps a revolutionary moment is when a mutually beneficial relationship between culture and nature is formed, not divided. But this would not be the only revolutionary moment. Before we get there, I am sure we will experience many more. Not necessarily huge events such as the French Revolution, but one’s that are slight that we forget to consider them as revolutions, but without them, nothing would be the same as it is. We are revolutionary because we continue to push towards the future and attempt to discover new ways in which societies and human individuals can operate in order to better the lives of many. Revolutions also do not only mean the betterment of societies, but also the worsening of them. I would argue the presidential election this year is revolutionary, but not for the better, but it is a drastic and impactful change for everyone in this country. Revolutions are happening all the time.

The Haitian Revolution

Professor Popkin’s main point of emphasis of his lecture on the Haitian Revolution was the lack of knowledge and coverage it gets in American society and education institutions. While this is true and unfortunate, his other focal point was the lack of documentation and accurate information of the Haitian Revolution available. These two restrictions, in my opinion, are not ideal, but are causes of one another and cannot be so harshly blamed on certain people, as Professor Popkin suggested. It is because there was poor documentation that there is limited knowledge of the events, and therefore, rare teachings of the revolution. I am sure that Professor Popkin was to some extent correct in claiming that racial bias played into these effects, but it is certainly not the only and probably not the main reason why we know little about the Haitian revolution.

Hierarchy of politics of power most definitely influences what people are told is important. This includes the country they are in and the relevancy of historical events to that country, political powers across the world depicting which countries’ histories are most important, and what Professor Popkin mentioned, power dynamics among races and demographics. History classes in America focus on American history. I would argue this is the case for most countries too, that their historical knowledge reflects their country’s history. So, in comparison to all the historical events that have been drilled into the minds of Americans, how relevant was the Haitian revolution to those Americans’ lives today and to America today? I would say, not so relevant. Then there is the sheer fact that the United States has far more power and importance in global politics than Haiti, therefore, is it not reasonable for the States’ history to also overpower Haiti’s history?

There is also limited documentation and knowledge available on the exact details of the Haitian Revolution. Basically no one documented the events at the time, and frankly, outsiders also did not seem interested in recording the revolution or even trying to learn about it until recently. Most of the information is derived from oral recounts through generations and generations, and the reality has most likely been integrated with cultural myths. Therefore, there is no way of determining what is true and what is not, so how could we confidently educate a whole population on an historical event that may or may not contain mythologies? It is incredibly unfortunate and sad that the historical understanding of the Haitian Revolution is as unclear as it is and that many people are unaware of the event, but that is the way it is, and at this point, there is not point blaming people and not recognizing why it is that we are uneducated on it. There is no doubt that I am ignorant of numerous historical accounts around the world and there is reason for why I prioritize the history I do know.

Do we see the Evolution of Discrimination?

In recent years, I have noticed several repeated phrases, and one of these is criticizing a linear model for many ways of thinking. I heard this once again in Professor Stone’s lecture on ‘The unfinished business of the Darwinian revolution.’ I do not mean to sound like the asking of people to reconsider linear models is overstated and overused, but in fact, the opposite. Prior to each of these times I had not considered there could be a better and more accurate way of portraying a theory or an event, as I had simply accepted that that was the way it has always been portrayed, and Professor Stone’s argument was no exception. She forced us to analyze the universal image that represents evolution: the linear model of a crawling primate transforming to a walking man. What does this show? First, the acceptance of the theory of evolution and natural selection through the different changes from natural selection that evolved apes into humans. However, it also displays humans as the dominant species through the rising levels of each new transformation and through the idea that humans are the last form. It’s easier to critique the big theories and ways of thinking, and easier to neglect analyzing the smaller details and models that perpetuate an unfair and inaccurate portrayal. Not surprisingly, this ideology that man is best, or typology, is often perpetuated in society, as we have seen again and again in history.

The idea of characterizing a being based on physical traits reminded me of the many ‘theories’ that were socially accepted in the past that we now know was not based on any truths. There was the manuscript, ‘The Scale of Creatures’ by Sir William Petty that stated all living beings were created by God and were part of a hierarchical pyramid, with Caucasians at the top. This might sound ridiculous now, but we to some extent, this ideology is still very much present in modern society. Then there was the study of phrenology, in which it was believed the measurements of a human skull could denote that person’s intelligence and other characteristics. There was also physiognomy, the assessment of a person’s characteristics based on his outer appearances as a way of determining whether a person looked like a criminal or not. Once again, ridiculousness. Even though we now know that none of these theories are scientifically accurate and that the biological difference between people of different ‘races’ is smaller than the biological difference between people of the same race, societies are still judging people based on appearances. The ways in which we do this may be more subtle than in Petty’s day, but I would argue that this could be more dangerous, as the people who recognize discrimination as deplorable may not even be able to see the nuanced representations of inequality.

History as a Second Thought is Still History

Jeffrey Schnapp began his lecture with the question “what happens when a monument outruns its historical meaning?” Personally, I do not think a monument can completely lose its historical meaning, but its historical reference can become second thought. For all monuments, there is an underlying recognition that it was built to represent an event or a person/people, but the importance of monuments nowadays is to symbolize a place. I think it is safe to say that when someone see the L’arc de Triomphe they think of Paris first, not of the French soldiers who fought in the revolution, or when someone sees images of the towering Christ the Redeemer, they think of Rio de Janeiro before they recount scriptures. It is an unfortunate truth. So, how can we bring the historical meaning back to the forefront? Professor Schnapp presented one way, which was renovating a monument in ways that make history relevant again. While this is an effective strategy, it can only do so much. It is just time before the importance of the historical memories are once again replaced with the structure of the monument and the place in which it stands. Those famous monuments that were built to preserve and honor the memories of historical moments but are now known for more superficial ideas may be a lost cause, but perhaps this generation could learn something from that.

Professor Schnapp mentioned arguments against modern monuments, such as, how monuments are irrelevant to living humans and has no use for societies in modern civilizations. While I agree to some extent that it is worth asking if a monument in which living humans cannot occupy or use in any form of production should take up a city’s limited available land over a skyscraper, for example, I do not think we should, or could, eliminate monuments altogether. As societies, I think we want to commemorate significant moments in history that we do not think we could simply write them down in history books and leave it at that. And what grander gesture is there than to build something that could last centuries? I also would not say monuments are completely irrelevant to living humans. First, they bring in tourism. Second, that is almost like saying history is irrelevant to humans. Even though many people think of a monument’s historical meaning second to its structure or location, the historical meaning will always be connected to it. Whether it be through engraved names and dates or through the image it replicates. Monuments are reminders of historical moments that many of us otherwise would not think about. However, seeing both sides of the argument, I propose that we could incorporate modern use into monuments. For example, a monument honoring those who fought for our country could also be the headquarters for veteran support. That could be an example of a modern monument.

“Shapeshifting Data”

Other than examining the ways in which the display of data has changed, we can also see shifts in the uses of the word data and its meanings. It seems that what is most reliable and fixed throughout time is visual display. As Robert Hooke said, words can mislead us, we need to show what we can. The definition of words have been known to change throughout time, but images, for the most part, are secured. Now, we think of data as being used in a quantitative form or as scientific reasoning or evidence. I think it is also safe to say that ‘data’ is rarely used to refer to literature, especially, religious scripture. There is certainly data on the number of times a word is used for instance, but the publication of a phrase is generally not considered data. However, the first recorded use of the word was in reference to bible passages: “a heap of data.” Here, data was used to describe truth, like we see it now, but the time in which a word is used also needs to be considered. This was not during a secular time, but rather, when the Church held greater rule in society and when the large majority of people agreed God’s word was law. In this case, the cultural distinctions between then and now is what changed how ‘data’ is used. I believe that ’data’ is still undergoing a gradual and continuous change. I used to think of ‘data’ as being synonymous with ‘fact’ or ‘evidence’, which it still is, but with the rise of computers, softwares, and technology in general, ‘data’, I believe, is shifting into a mainly quantitative analysis. As a society, we build on the newest forms of technology, and therefore, there is a correlation between  the rapid rise in quantitative data and the possible ways of accumulating information efficiently and transforming this into a statistic or a graph.

The value of data now versus then is even more significant and its value is also increasing. It seems that a theory or an argument is not valid unless supported with data. A presentation is not complete without a chart or a visual representation of data. The increasing importance of data is based on the reduction of risk. For example, before producing a new product, there must be analysis of data to estimate the success of the product. However, data cannot be the predominant form of reasoning. First, because it is theory-laden in itself. The complex matter is that data is also made from theories. When accumulating the data of income in a neighborhood for example, there is the theory of what value is below the poverty line. Second, it cannot predict what has not yet come. We cannot calculate the success of an innovation, but we still try. Therefore, is data restricting possibilities, or is it saving us from failure?

Century-Spanning Revolution?

Darwin and his theories of natural selection are often thought in juxtaposition of God and the theory of Creationism; yet, history suggests otherwise. In Darwin’s life, and particularly in the ways in which his image lived on after his life, there were many associations with religion. Before the idea religion and science must be mutually exclusive permeated around the world, the religious public did not seem to condemn and segregate Darwin and his research as heavily as one might imagine. Although it was recognized that he no longer accredited God to being the ‘creator’ and consequently became an agnostic, Darwin was respected enough throughout the community that his statue was placed in the centre of a museum built as a Cathedral and his funeral was also in a Cathedral.

Similarly to how the Darwin Revolution spanned decades, the potential revolution between science and religion could be in the process right now. The relationship between science and religion has always been a tense and conflicting one, which is especially clear in the Scopes Trials and the ongoing debate of creationism versus evolution, but, it is also a constantly changing and varying relationship. Neither field of knowledge can prove with absolute certainty that their truth is the right truth, and I think people forget that ideas and what we thought we knew to be true can change. Taking Galileo’s heliocentrism theory for example, it was a long and hard fight to get his theory published and for people to take him seriously as opposed to simply shunning him, but eventually, everyone recognized the possibility of his theory and there was a complete 180 degrees turn of thought. The point of this example is not to show that Galileo was right and the majority was wrong, but rather, to show the need for an open mind and consideration of other ideas. At the base of it, there needs to be respect for individual beliefs and an elimination of the strict dichotomy. When will people stop questioning or being uncomfortable with the fact that a doctor, a person of science, can believe in God? Will the next Pope be as willing to speak out about climate change as the current one has?

The possible revolution I hope for may be centuries in the making and continue for centuries more, but I think there will come a point in time when the relationship between science and religion will be a strong and mutually respectful one, when it will not be more shocking to hear of the next Darwin of being remembered in a Cathedral than of them being condemned.

Real News From Real People

It is easy to criticize and to allow the negative to outshine the positive, which is what frequently happens with discussions regarding social media. While social media networks, such as Facebook, were initially designed to simply connect friends, over time, they quickly became a platform for open discussion that is unprecedented. The anonymity factor may exacerbate online harassment, but anonymity also allows for complete freedom of speech and opinions without the concern of judgment or safety. Khalid Albaih identifies his appeal to art as being the same as his gratitude towards social media. Both generate “that feeling of freedom” (Albaih) and can reach people from all over the world, or even people in your neighborhood who may share the same opinions, interests, or beliefs. Social media can be a vehicle for change and revolution. In order for people to make change, they need to talk, and they will need a space to talk, a space like social media.

A predominant difference between social media and mainstream media is the number of voices heard. Due to social media’s nature as an individual’s space for self-expression, there is the already opened door to an impossibly wide array of shared voices. Like in any business, there is a hierarchy of positions in mainstream media which dictates who can say what. This often leads to a network with a single view, whether it be a political stance, or a local cultural perception. The internet is a place where every angle of a story and every area on the spectrum of opinions can be found. It gives readers a chance to hear the full story and how it impacts various people around the world.

In addition, I think that mainstream news media is too focused on capturing a target audience and selling a story, whereas, people reporting in social media are more concerned with sharing their opinions and their findings with anyone who is willing to listen. This reduces the inclination to mislead people and paint a story in a certain light, therefore, making social media as a less legitimate but more trustworthy form of news reporting in some cases. Moreover, stories, news, or art on social media rely on a sharing method. This means the general public are judging what is worthy, not a single person calling all the shots. News stories are in some ways forced upon me through social media networks. The majority of news I hear about nowadays are found when scrolling through Facebook. I do not intend to go on Facebook for the purpose of reading recent news, but it has evolved from a site where one shares their daily activities to one where one shares their honest opinions and concerns.


Our Modern Tambora

It is often said that the importance of studying and teaching history is so that we do not repeat the same mistakes, but Gillen D’arcy Wood’s research is showing that we are failing. While reading through Tambora, I could not help but consider the relevance and similarity of the effects of Tambora and the Earth’s current climate crisis. Both are experiencing, or have experienced, drastic weather changes that have/had devastating global effects. The difference is one was a natural disaster and the other is on our hands. A haunting question Professor D’arcy Wood posed was whether similar violent events that stemmed from the eruption are destined to happen again in the 21st Century.

Although this was posed as a rhetoric question at the time of the seminar, it is not one that should be forgotten or disregarded. Tambora presents a reality of what could happen if we continue to pollute our atmosphere in the manner we currently are. As tragic as the years following Tambora’s eruption were for people around the world, there is some relief in knowing that there was nothing much that people could have done at the time to change the outcome. On the other hand, we know we are responsible for accelerating the degradation of our home and for what is to come.

A couple of students asked what would happen if an eruption as big as Tambora’s was to occur today given the modern infrastructure and medicine available to some places. While this is a valid question, it is also not as pressing as the question of what will happen if we do nothing to change the ways in which we use modern technologies? Even more alarming, what will happen if a Tambora-sized eruption occurred during the peak of our climate change crisis? Fortunately, we are seeing gradual environmentally friendly improvements being made around the world, which in return can be considered socially friendly, if you will. France for example, recently became the first country to ban the use of plastic tableware, which paves the way for other countries to hopefully follow suit in the near future. We need to take our environment and the evidence of climate change more seriously than we currently are. Last night in the first Presidential debate, this was not observed. Clinton reminded the nation that Trump believed climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese. Trump then went back on his claim saying that it was all simply a joke. In reviews and summaries of the debate, this exchange of joking about climate change or using it as a tool for criticism is the only mention of the issue. Is that all we have to say about the future of our planet?

The Truth About ‘Scientific Truth’

Often the terms ‘objective’, ‘factual’, and synonyms of these, are used to describe science, or are at least, connotations of ‘science’. Yet, if we look at the history of science, what is considered as scientific truth and facts of life at a certain point are sometimes debunked later on. As Professor Cohen stated, the concept and standards of science are moving. Why is it then science is described as factual and objective, words that denote consistency and certainty?

A scientific theory is only accepted when other intellectuals agree with it given the evidence. This I believe, is the most imperative difference between science and the arts. Art can still be art even without the approval of other artists, but science cannot be science without thorough review and acceptance of many other scientists and intellectuals. The concept of art and what qualifies as art are personal perspectives, and therefore, art is subjective. Whereas, with the combination of experiments, evidence, and peer reviews, a scientific theory is as objective as any other fact can be, even though there is always the possibility for it to be proven wrong in the future. The moving nature of science may mean that no theory can be proven to be absolutely correct, but for now, however, there is also no reason or evidence to prove that the theory is not correct.

What the scientific revolution taught us was the incapability to say with absolute certainty what is true. We should always leave a space in the back of our minds that is open to the prospect that the rules and theories of the world we know may not be entirely correct. This idea was drilled into me in high school chemistry when my teacher would emphasize the difference between a scientific theory and a scientific law. A theory being a concept that we consider as truth given the evidence, but also recognize that there is no absolute certainty in it. On the other hand, a law is a constant statement of truth that is the foundation of theories. I remember this being the first time I was told to doubt, only in the very slightest bit, but still doubt the theories I considered to be absolute truth, such as evolution by natural selection or that all living things are made of cells. Before the scientific revolution, the distinction between scientific theories and scientific laws did not exist, which was why scientists struggled to present new ideas and why when those theories were shared, it changed the way humans looked at science. This brings me to the question of now knowing that nothing is absolutely certain, is it possible to have another scientific revolution like the one in the 16th-17th Century, or would sudden and extreme change in ‘truth’ still be met with the same level of denial, anger, and debate?