The 18th-century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, was a professional pessimist who advised against tectonic efforts to change our world according to some ethical principle. This was not because Schopenhauer thought we were incapable but rather because active pursuance of optimal conditions is the enemy of happiness.
Essentially, the harder we try to make the world a better place, the worse our failures, with each disappointment more stinging than the last. Schopenhauer is famous for advising us to not try at all to effect social change but embrace quietism, the ascetic suppression of the worries of the mind and body. Trying to assert our will on nature is not going to end well for us.
Schopenhauer’s minimalist requirements to a happy life have fed modern-day arguments for what political theorist Robert Nozick would call negative rights. Negative rights are the liberties we have to not suffer other people’s actions. If I have a negative right to life against you, it means you have no right to take away my life. The concept is important to modern libertarian praxis as was theorized by Nozick himself.
What we have the right to not suffer has been stretched over the last few decades. The debate on whether we have a right to be ignorant (or a negative right to be informed) arose in the last three decades of conversations in bioethics. Doctors and specialists had to confront individuals who did not wish to know their health status as well as genetic conditions. Some of those who say that we have a right to not know our health status have been known to cite Schopenhauer’s thoughts that the more we know, the less happy we are.
In Utah last week, the director of a charter school announced that parents had been given the option to withdraw their wards from Black History Month activities. Although he regretted that some parents had taken the option, director Micah Hirokawa pointed out that individuals had the right to “exercise their civil rights to not participate in Black History Month at the school.”
The school reportedly teaches a student population that is 70% white. Ordinarily, the case for Black History Month would point out that students at Maria Montessori Academy are most needful of Black history lessons. But in the modern liberal state, avoiding information may be as morally defensible as the right to information. This is because the modern state places above all, the right to self-rule or autonomy unless the law prohibits one’s liberty.
The right to not know seems counterintuitive in a democracy where ideally, information is the currency of power yet, it has an intriguing history of good-faith intellectual defense. Philosopher Tujia Takala is one of the best contemporary proponents of the right to not know. It remains to be seen if there are legal implications to the school’s decision but that does not make forcing one to learn Black history less difficult. There is a moral burden that comes with forcing students to learn something they may not be interested in. There is also another angle in a country such as the United States where allowing white students to hold in abeyance Black history lessons and activities, would open a can of worms the country does not have enough anthelmintics for.
So, do people have a moral right to not learn Black history? The question itself cannot be answered outside the historical structure in which it is conceived as well as the hope inherent in teaching such lessons. Perhaps, there is no one better than Langston Hughes who succinctly represented Black people’s existence in this world vis-a-vis the horrors inflicted on them.
Hughes’ poem Remember encompasses all there is to be learned about the tortured Black existence:
The days of bondage—
Do not stand still.
Go to the highest hill
And look down upon the town
Where you are yet a slave.
Look down upon any town in Carolina
Or any town in Maine, for that matter,
Or Africa, your homeland—
And you will see what I mean for you to see—
The white hand:
The thieving hand.
The white face:
The lying face.
The white power:
The unscrupulous power
That makes of you
The hungry wretched thing you are today.
The obvious question that stems from the above is the future of a country that grants the moral right for some of its people – indeed, the descendants of the offending party – to refrain from learning this past. One would think the answer is George Santayana’s description of those who are condemned to repeat history. It is almost a deal with the devil to allow this to happen but the ethical impetus to force people to learn Black history simply does not occur.
Hirokawa was right, prima facie. It is a free country where none is compelled to sympathize with Black people as all are to paying taxes.
In the strictest sense of liberalism, that moral right to avoid the gory lessons of white exploitation of Black humanity exists. Liberalism can be seen as the affirmation of individual liberty, even via social engineering but never at the expense of central authority. Sure, there are revisionist versions of liberal political philosophy that challenge the individuating power of the old-school European enlightenment era kind.
European liberal philosophy, starting from John Locke, founded the basis of the American constitutional proclamation that all men are equal. Although the promise of a prosperous equilibrium for everyone was rendered nonsensical by the very existence of slavery, Americans kept up the appearance. After World War I, it became clear that the free-market – the free exchange of needs and wants – was not capable of healing the ills of western society and that government intervention is necessary. Governments in Western Europe, particularly in the UK and France, and governments in the United States, would start interceeding in the free-market on behalf of the vulnerable, as advised by J. M. Keynes.
One has to remember that in America, federal seriousness was attached to civil rights only in the 1960s. Employers and service providers could not discriminate on the basis of race but one was under no obligation to sympathize with Black people. The revision of the liberal philosophy is still inadequate to prevent what happened last week in Utah.
And this is an uncomfortable truth for all well-meaning citizens who believe in the ambition of creating a more perfect union from all who were supposedly created equal. The liberal order, arguably our best foot forward, still offers backdoor channels unhelpful to a perfect union.
It is easy to see how one could argue that white students should be forced to learn Black history. W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk: “Herein lies the tragedy of the age…that men know so little of men”. Knowing about ourselves and from where we have come is of intrinsic communal worth. But that utopia demands a critique of current proceedings.