I wonder why so many people find it easy to wave away past atrocities by arbitrarily defining periods of time as “the past” and “the present”.
For instance, if we were to think back to the unenlightened period of the 1950s, when black people (and women too) were treated as second-class citizens, many people would say this was a “different time”. Therefore, they would argue, we can’t judge folks from this “era” too harshly because it was so long ago. But lest we forget, many of us were alive during this time period. Some of us even were adults during this time period! So when do we decide that the past is The Past, and thus deserving of morality waivers? It’s not a rhetorical question. I’d genuinely like to know.
If the Founding Fathers were of The Past, and thus cannot be judged for the bad they did, then doesn’t that mean we can withhold judgment of them for the good? What about the vocal people who were not slaveowners or racists? Can we judge them as being supremely enlightened, or just “crazy”. Think about it. We call PETA and Jainists “crazy”, but two-hundred years from now society may be look upon these people as being “before their time”. Hell, ten years from now when everybody is married to everyone else, regardless of gender, we’ll be looking at our time now and going WTF!? But we will be the same people. What’s wrong with us now?
Note: I’m not big into judging people, past or present. But I certainly think you can judge people of the past. What I do is rate individuals on the ambient morality of their time, and if they meet or supercede that morality, then I think of them being perfectly fine. Also, it helps if they aren’t hypocrites. Thomas Jefferson was a man of his times, as a wealthy (except when he wasn’t) slaveowner, but he was a damn hypocrite–and even admitted as much. So I judge him more harshly than I would someone else. I can also say that he was a great man for writing the Declaration of Independence. I can judge him as both an asshat and a great man without feeling the need to make excuses for him.
Seems to me the same people who venerate the “good ole days” or wonder what the Founding Fathers Would Do? in each and every situation are often the quickest to not judge people of the past for their wrong-doings. Seems to me you can’t have it both ways. Either we can judge with wise measure or we cannot judge at all in EITHER direction. I say we go with the former.
I’m rambling now, but why limit this to “temporal” separations. What if we’re talking about an individual who grows up in a fucked-up society, with fucked-up mores. If it’s okay to give Thomas Jefferson a pass for owning slaves, is it okay to give a present-day slaveowner half-way across the country a pass too? Why or why not?