The Current

History is 'more than statues and names on buildings': Malcolm Gladwell

"History is an awful lot more than statues and names on buildings. If it was that easy to erase, we'd all be in trouble."
Malcolm Gladwell offers solution for controversial statues 0:47

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We are living in times of social and political upheaval, and one of the central debates of our times is who gets to tell our history — and how. This is apparent on both sides of the border.

In the U.S., protests have erupted over Confederate statues and their place in public spaces. Here in Canada, there are calls to expunge Sir John A. Macdonald's name from schools. 

History is an awful lot more than statues and names on buildings. If it was that easy to erase, we'd all be in trouble.- Malcolm Gladwell

Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell has been tackling our perceptions of history in his podcast Revisionist History and believes these debates are healthy.

"I think people are taking history seriously ... to the extent that we have discussions about where we come from, and what sort of moral trail has been left by our society," Gladwell tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

He says the current discussion over Confederate statues and the renaming of buildings has "too much heat" attached to it. 

"History is an awful lot more than statues and names on buildings. If it was that easy to erase, we'd all be in trouble."

From a Canadian context, Gladwell says the recent debates over schools named after Sir John A. Macdonald should serve as a teachable moment. 
Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell wants to change the way we approach history. (Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Fusion Fest 2017)

 "This is a chance to learn something valuable about who we are," he says.

Gladwell says if evolving societies are working properly, the identity of the victors change over time.

"When you have these kinds of turmoil, it's a sign that something's appropriate, something good is happening. If the same people are in the victorious position for 500 years, you have a problem."

He suggests that when it comes to discussions about our historical legacy, "you should change your mind on everything you believe, at least once …  on the understanding that you can always change it back."

Gladwell says that by entertaining the other side for awhile — even if ultimately you revert back to the belief you first had — can be incredibly powerful.

"That is where our ability to be empathetic comes from. Empathy is where I put myself in your shoes and you cannot do that unless you practise."

He believes empathy is not innate — "I think we're born with sympathy but sympathy and empathy are different things."

"Empathy is taking one step further. It is actually going to the effort of looking at the world through the eyes of someone who is not yourself — that's hard to do."

This segment is part of our season-long series Adaptation looking at the surprising, innovative, and sometimes ill-advised ways we accommodate a rapidly shifting world. 

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.