Toxic Nostalgia and you/me/everyone

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What is nostalgia? I asked that question about 4 years ago now for a dissertation that I wrote for university. In that, I looked at the cult of nostalgia for East Germany. For some people, looking back to seemingly simpler times is a good thing.

People either embrace or reject nostalgia. Some people like to look forward, and that is perfectly valid. To be fair, I am probably one of the former. I love to look back at the past, and remember things, people, and experiences. Simply put, I love nostalgia. However, for this post, I am considering toxicity in nostalgia. Are rose-tinted glasses damaging to your eyes?

Defining things

For this post, I am looking at the colloquial definition for ‘Toxic Nostalgia’. In researching this post, I found a pretty good definition of it from Rabbi Mike Harvey. Toxic nostalgia is thinking that things used to be amazing, focusing only on good memories, and defining the past by those good memories, then projecting the difference between the reality of the present with the imagined reality of your past and seeing the difference. 

Firstly, what does that all mean? For me, I consider how the world is viewed from the perspective of a child. For instance, how does a child watch a movie? They’re not going to critically analyse it, like an adult. If it’s a superhero movie, they will like it when the heroes punch the bad guys, and save the day.

When you are older, you tend to follow the story more, and become more critical of things that don’t make sense. Issues that would not be noticed by a child. You are able to notice more as an adult, than you are as a child. And when you look back to things from your childhood, the films, TV shows, books, etc. you are going to have a much more pleasant view on the past, compared to now.

Nostalgia and Media

The people who indulge in toxic nostalgia take these things, and use it as an argument that ‘these things are ruining the franchise’. It doesn’t matter if what came before was bad, or if things in these new versions are good or better than the original. Like I said, this is a child’s mindset. People consider different things as adults, than as children.

Let me be frank, I am guilty of toxic nostalgia. You’ve seen me critique the most recent series of Doctor Who. And yes, I have watched that show since I was a little boy. In fact, this is actually what has encouraged me to write this very post. Jodie Whittaker is allegedly leaving the show, and looking back on her, I think I was somewhat unfair.

Did I blame the actress for ruining the show? Yes, I did. I do think she did a bad job making the role her own, but is that necessarily her fault? Is the writing on the show worse than it was? It re-treads a lot of things from previous series, but is it not all in the execution as well? I don’t know. What I do know that people blame political correctness for the change.

We’ve seen a lot of media, in the last decade, reboot famous franchises with predominantly female or minority casts, and spotlight scenes for ‘representation’. In and of itself, that isn’t a bad thing, or it doesn’t have to be. I do still believe that you could have original stories and characters for these people, but originality isn’t what puts butts in seats.

Nostalgia and Populism

I’m not going to use this section to harp on Donald Trump. In summary, yes, he is symptomatic of toxic nostalgia in politics. But that topic has been discussed to death by people smarter than I, and who have been writing about it far longer than myself.

What I will discuss is Ostalgie. That topic I did a whole dissertation on. That is an example of nostalgia becoming toxic in politics. There’s a quote from Christian Lorenz, keyboardist from Rammstein, that I used in my dissertation. The band members were all from East Germany, and I feel Lorenz sums up why people become nostalgic:

‘I miss the simplicity. You went into a bar, ordered a beer, and you got a beer!… They didn’t ask if you wanted…’

There was a way things worked back then, when East Germany existed. A whole way of life that was superseded by West Germany. Some remnants survived, but very few. And that must have messed with a lot of people’s heads. Populism, on the left and right, preys on toxic nostalgia. The idea that things were better then, disregarding the flaws of the past, and the good that has come since that time, is damaging. Plenty of bad things have happened in the time between my childhood and my adulthood, but if I had the opportunity to reset things to a time I liked, I wouldn’t.

One of my favourite times in life was back in 2012, when I was 15. I used to go out with my friends, hang out in a 4×4 with some of them. I was a senior prefect in school, and I was quite happy. Lots of bad stuff has happened in the time since them, but I would never go back to that time. And why? Because there is so much stuff now that makes me happy, even if its in a different way from then.

But, for some, people can prey on that, and it can be corrupting and manipulative. I’ve seen Britain First use Golliwogs as a way to share posts, and get likes, because so many old people remember those toys from their childhood. It’s manipulation, and it isn’t right.

Conclusion

Nostalgia is an emotional callback to the past. Its nice to reminisce, and it can actually have some health benefits. heck, you’ve seen cute videos of old people listening to music from their youth. But calling back to the past, and becoming stuck in a mindset that ‘everything was better in my day’, as seductive as that sounds, is damaging, and addictive. Looking back is fine. But don’t stare.

More from If you ask Ben

My Ostalgie Dissertation

Life Matters

The New Age of Piracy

About the author

Ben

Since 2012, Benjamin Attwood has written for the If you Ask Ben blog.

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