April 08, 2010

Can One Fairly Judge Yesterday’s Deeds By Today’s Standards?

I have, time and again, been confronted with precisely that question in recent days. Looking back at the events of the past, there are those who wish to judge individuals and their actions based upon the morality of 2010, as if those standards are universal and eternal. Little consideration is given to the fact that moral standards have changed – that which was deemed morally licit or legally just might not be viewed as such today.

Consider the recent dust-up over the Virginia declaration of Confederate History Month. Now I have no problem commemoration of the Civil War – indeed, as a social studies teacher I would like to see a greater focus on historical study and commemoration of historical events because of the historical illiteracy that afflicts our society. Personally, I’d prefer that April be declared Civil War History Month rather than Confederate History month, to honor and commemorate those on both sides who fought (and often died) in defense of their principles and their conception of our nation’s founding principles as contained in the Declaration of Independence. But for Virginia – home of the Confederate capital and site of most of the major battles of the conflict – to focus on the Confederate side does not offend me. But some have taken grave offense at the commemoration, based both upon the defense of slavery that was a part of the Confederate cause and the assertion that the Confederate cause was one of “sedition and treason”. And yet most Americans in the immediate aftermath of the war recognized that those who fought for the Confederacy did so for reasons that transcended slavery and that both the Union and the Confederacy were espousing legitimate views on the nature of the American experiment. After all, the Declaration of Independence itself is premised on the right of “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” Yet to the modern sensibilities of a certain segment of the American populace, one which usually argues against an ethnocentric imposition of contemporary American values on other cultures, there is a peculiar desire to re-judge that earlier era by today’s standards and declare any different interpretation to be evil rather than simply incorrect. After all, those who fought on the Confederate side were, by the lights of the time in which they lived, patriots.

A similar revision takes place today regarding sexual abuse that took place within the Catholic Church in decades past. Such abuse was often not reported to authorities for a variety of reasons. Indeed, many families were reluctant to call the police in such instances because of the stigma that attached to the victims of sex crimes in that earlier age – especially teenage boys who had been sexually involved with adult men. In addition, the consensus position of the psychological professions was that those who had committed such deeds could be successfully treated with therapeutic counseling. Bishops, acting on the best advice available to them at the time, removed perpetrators from the scene of the crime, put them through counseling, and then placed them again in ministerial settings where boundaries were violated and more children were victimized. It is easy to say today that the decisions were objectively wrong – but were the motives venal or good? But to ask that question makes one an apologist for child abuse in the eyes of some, living as we do in a society where zero tolerance for child sexual abuse has become the norm. Today’s standard is the only one that can be used, even if it was not so in an earlier age.

All this puts me in mind of a controversy in the closing days of the 2000 election. On an evening shortly before the election, a document drop by the Democrats disclosed that George W. Bush had been cited for a DUI a quarter century before, had entered a guilty plea and paid a small fine. Serious judgments were made by some, ignoring that the event happened at a time when the prodigious consumption of alcohol was more accepted and a DUI was seen as a lesser offense than it had become in the intervening years. Lost in the hail of words and judgments was the reality that a great societal shift had taken place, and the need to contextualize the incident in terms of when it happened.

All of which leads me to a conclusion that I, in my Social Studies teacher hat, often find myself repeating again and again to students in my classrooms. It is a good thing to have standards and values, and one should not lightly abandon them. But one must recognize that those values, even those which we might hold to be universal in application, are not universally held. It is therefore important to make judgments of people and events not merely based upon our own standards and values, but to also judge them by the standards and values in that held in their proper time and space. To do otherwise is to a grave injustice to the people and things we judge outside of their proper context.

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Comments on Can One Fairly Judge Yesterday’s Deeds By Today’s Standards?

Superb post. It has always seemed to me that so much of revisionist history is made up of writers not necessarily cherry picking facts, but rather engaging in precisely the same exercise you discuss.

|| Posted by GW, April 8, 2010 10:14 PM ||
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NAME: Greg
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