I have two main thoughts on “not judging the past by the stands of the present”. https://twitter.com/anandwrites/status/1275448581214728193
First: statues and monuments are not “the past”. They are not “history”. They are part of our present landscape. Judging what we wish to commemorate by values we hold now is wholly appropriate.
Second: the injunction to avoid judging past figures by present standards is, in fact, selectively and unevenly applied. Its practical use in debate is not to support methodological rigor but to enforce some interpretations at the expense of others.
How often do we hear (in public debate) that we shouldn’t judge, say, Galileo’s dispute with the Church by the standards of the present? Where narratives of progress are at stake we are often only too happy to make the present our yardstick.
It’s only when flaws appear in people we’ve come to treat as heroes that this injunction not to judge gets trotted out. Jefferson, the rapist and enslaver. Hume, the racist. Columbus, the harbinger of genocide. That should raise questions.
As should the use the injunction is put to. Because once we’ve been told not to judge by present standards, it might seem logical to investigate what standards obtained in the past — if this is really about context and method. But that’s not what happens.
We don’t then get nuanced discussions of anti-slavery sentiment or disputes over race or questions about the justice of colonization in the periods in question. No; instead, we get asinine and plainly false blanket statements “everyone was racist back then.” This is not history.
It’s not sustained by historical research or appeal to evidence beyond the narrative being defended. To the contrary, it’s meant to forestall or dismiss research that uncovers alternative voices that were quite as real as those were used to hearing.
It’s pure apologetics.
It’s pure apologetics.
Yes, of course, in introducing students to the past we want to get them out of present assumptions. We don’t want students treating past beliefs as stupid and the present as plainly superior, because that poisons their ability to enter into what historical figures were doing.
But that has nothing whatever to do with insisting that they take the views and deeds of, say, enslavers as somehow universally held in their time (they weren’t) or normative for our view of their age (they needn’t be). And in practice the injunction is used for both purposes.
The real question worth asking is why it is so important that we pretend certain sets of past deeds and past figures are beyond criticism, and why the very existence of other views and other representatives of the past should continue to be suppressed.