Bach: The Importance of Perspective

Our generation would benefit from a sense of historical perspective.

by Jinsung Bach | 2/24/17 12:30am

From our comfortable perches atop the 21st century morals that have become our societal bread and butter, it is tempting to look at people from the past and judge them harshly for their actions. In order to satisfy modern standards of inclusivity and tolerance, we whitewash our own history by denouncing former icons as racists and bigots. Past moments of reactionary hysteria have become periods of shame worthy of derision. Too easily do we look back upon these supposed fools of yore, wagging our fingers at their ignorance, smug in our belief that we are above such nonsense.

Those of us that choose to do so would do well to take a long look in the mirror, because the truth is that we are no better than the very people we mock. People in the past faced the same anxieties that we do today, and certainly were no more stupid than we. Without the benefits of modern living or technology, let alone exposure to alternative ideas, people from the 18th and 19th centuries can hardly be blamed for believing in things that would be considered backward today.

Yet we still insist upon judging them with 21st century standards, forgetting all sense of perspective in the process. Ours is a generation that judges George Washington for owning slaves, ignoring the ideals so prevalent in the 1780s when Washington’s own beliefs — and indeed, his freeing of those very slaves after his death — were considered wildly radical and progressive. Ours is a generation that is quick to condemn the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, conveniently forgetting how little we knew of the horrors of nuclear fallout at the time or how much both the Allies and Japanese civilians stood to lose from a mainland invasion of Japan. Hindsight might be 20/20, as the saying goes, but in this case, it is laughably blind.

This is not to say that such responses were unavoidable or necessary. It is good that we can look back on such terrible events of the past and see how we as a society faltered. However, we must not consider ourselves so enlightened and morally upright that we can rewrite history to our convenience. The moment we consider ourselves above the past is the moment that we refuse to learn from it, because in doing so, we blind ourselves to the reality of what was happening when these events unfolded.

Are we not prone to the same mistakes as our ancestors? Just as people in the past believed in falsehoods and perpetuated violent behavior, current generations engage in similarly self-destructive actions. We are not immune to the same sort of hypocrisy that was common in olden times, nor are we any less gullible. Those who lived in past eras had to make do with what they knew, and we cannot fault them for making the most of their limitations. There is no reason to revile figures from our history as morally bankrupt or irredeemably evil when our present already has plenty of self-reflection to do.

We mustn’t try to rewrite our history in the name of some misbegotten scheme to sanitize it, nor should we unfairly denounce the figures of the past based on some arbitrary moral quirk. We must instead judge figures of the past for the legacies they have built — and destroyed — and what they inspire us to accomplish today. But most of all, we must never believe ourselves superior to them based on our morals alone. We must instead accept that we are every bit as human and fallible as they were.

We might know more than our predecessors and have access to more resources. We might expect higher standards from ourselves and thus be better prepared to avoid repeating past mistakes. But it does not make us morally superior, and we must at once dispel the dangerous notion that we are.