“Historical Humility”

As I mentioned here a few days ago, I was interviewed last week for an article on CNN.com. 

The piece that appeared represents me as calling for “historical humility,” but doesn’t fully convey my thought on that matter.

No problem, though.  I  have a blog, so I can elaborate on the topic myself:

What I told the reporter was that we need “historical humility” because, just as we look at earlier generations and are baffled by what even the good among them could sometimes do and say and feel entirely fine about (e.g., with regard to race and gender), it’s virtually certain that there are things that we do and say that future generations will find both appalling and baffling.

Earlier generations lived in a moral universe in which the acceptability of certain things was simply unquestioned.  By today’s standards, for instance, even Abraham Lincoln was a racist, and it can scarcely be doubted that he and all of his contemporaries were, again by modern standards, sexists.

It seems extremely unlikely that, while every generation prior to ours has tolerated things that we no longer find tolerable — the HBO series Mad Men, for instance, set in the 1950s and 1960s, makes the universal, reflexive sexism of its protagonists (largely accepted by both men and women) a major theme — our generation will be celebrated as an utterly self-aware paragon of moral perfection by our descendents. 

What might we all — or most of us, anyway — be assuming to be right that isn’t?

The CNN.com reporter suggested, while we chatted, that global warming might be such an issue.  Perhaps.  I might suggest elective abortion as another possibility; someday, our posterity may find the millions of purely elective abortions we’ve performed as morally surprising as we now find the eugenics movement and the forced sterilizations of three or four generations ago.

It’s very difficult to tell.  And that’s precisely the problem:  The attitude or practice of ours that will someday astonish our grandchildren or grandchildren might be as natural to us, and as easily taken for granted, as the proverbial air that we breathe.  We may not see it precisely because it’s everywhere, accepted by everybody.

With that in mind, I suggested that, if we hope for charity someday, we should be prepared to exercise charity. Not to the extent that we accept the villainy of truly evil people — I’m not a moral relativist — but rather that we accept the goodness of the flawed, mortal, and decent people of earlier times.  “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2).

Hence, in my view, history ought to teach us humility.  “It’s stunning for us,” the CNN.com article quotes me as remarking, “to look back now and say, how can people face themselves in the mirror after doing what they did? But they did.”  And, though I hope the offense is nothing nearly so gross as slavery, so, very likely, do we.

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