I love living in the United States. It’s a country that is by no means perfect, but its strength and stability over time is nothing short of a miracle. People immigrate from all over the world to have an opportunity here. Many leave their families, arriving with next to no money and nothing but a dream. The success stories are boundless, and people choose to live here for a reason. I think you’d be hard pressed to find an American refugee.
However, many Americans struggle with the history of the country, particularly how it was founded. They’ll talk about it being stolen from the natives and founded by slave-owning white men. Their point isn’t wrong, but it got me thinking about morality and the utility of evaluating it across time in what I call “cross-generational moral appraising.”
The challenge with this kind of evaluation lies in the shifting nature of morality itself. Morality is not stagnant; it’s like a jellyfish wading through the water, bending and stretching with its surrounding environment. What is considered moral constantly evolves as society evolves.
When we use the most modern version of morality to evaluate someone or something from a different era, we are using two different things as a reference point and treating them as if they are the same.
Say you are trying to evaluate a 1992 desktop computer. In order to fairly judge it as “computer,” it must be judged in the context of early 1990’s computers. To judge it in the context of 2018 computers appears to be a judgement of computer against computer, but it’s not. We can define both under the umbrella term “computer,” but what a computer actually is has changed over time. The same goes for morality.
Here’s a more personal example. In the past, many people would administer physical punishment to discipline children. Within the last century, this was considered fairly common practice. In modern society, however, this is widely accepted as immoral behavior. So, should we admonish an eighty-five year old person for using a belt to discipline their child 60 years ago?
What about the song, “Baby it’s Cold Outside?” Written in the 1940’s, the Christmas classic has only recently come under heavy criticism, being described as a “date rape anthem.” However, to take the lyrics at face value in the context of 2018 when the song was written almost 70 years prior ignores many factors. In a Washington Post article published in 2014, Marya Hunnan writes “At the time they were written, an unmarried woman staying the night at her beau’s was cause for scandal. It’s this fear we see reflected in the lyrics, more than any aversion on the part of the woman to staying the night. She never expresses any personal distaste at the idea,a (sic) rather pointing out that her “sister will be suspicious,” her “maiden aunt’s mind is vicious.” Really, then, we are hearing a battle between his entreaties and her reputation.”
This example highlights just one of many challenges in cross-generational moral appraising. It’s not only the evolution of morality we have to contend with, but the evolution of language, and often the relationship between the two. The further back we go, the more difficult the evaluation becomes.
Take Christopher Columbus Day. Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492. In 1792, there was an event held in New York to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his arrival. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison encouraged a nationwide celebration. In 1937, FDR officially declared “Columbus Day” a national holiday. Recently, however, many have become uncomfortable with the idea of a Columbus Day. In 1992, Berkeley became the first city to rename “Columbus Day,” opting for “Indigenous People’s Day” instead. Yvonne Zipp summarizes the feeling behind the change in a 2014 article published by The Christian Science Monitor, writing that the holiday “has made an increasing number of people wince, given the enslavement and genocide of Native American people that followed in the wake of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.”
Considering this, many of us find ourselves at a moral impasse. But if any of us want to evaluate the morality of Columbus Day fairly, we have to consider well… a lot. How many deaths was he directly responsible for? How do we define what we mean by directly? What did Columbus really mean in his letters? Are they translated precisely? Is Columbus day really about Columbus? What is it we are actually celebrating? Knowing what happened after the Europeans arrived in the Americas, should we celebrate it at all? Finally, knowing everything that happened after the Europeans arrived in the Americas, should we feel okay about being American?
These are just a few of the many questions we could ask, but it’s the last question which highlights the ultimate American quandary. It’s a perplexing predicament to wrestle with, and coming to terms with the atrocities of the past in a morally transformed world is difficult. Many times, we find ourselves resorting to uncomplicated tactics like casting of blame on to a single figure.
We see this pattern quite often: Columbus is responsible for the deaths of all Native Americans, Hitler for the genocide of the Jews, Stalin and Mao for the murderous Communist dystopias. We think, “well if that guy wasn’t so bad maybe none of this would have happened.” But we forget about everyone else: All of the people who participated in these atrocities. Everyone who joined the murdering party. All of the informants and the everyday people who lied to those around them and to themselves. Ultimately, we forget about the evil within all of us. We separate and we distance, convincing ourselves we couldn’t be like those people. But we are. We’re just as capable and just as dangerous.
In order to understand morality, it’s imperative we understand this potential within us for both good and evil. We can’t be a fair judge of any human being if we believe ourselves to be levitating on a platform of benevolence. If we look at people from that angle, everyone looks terrible.
Coming to terms with this could save us all a lot of trouble. Since most people lack the time and/or energy to conduct a fair cross-generational moral appraisal, it’s common to resort to overgeneralizations and assumptive accusations in what many describe as a “callout culture.” Understandably, these simplistic tactics are often met with resistance, and we find ourselves circling around each other, arguing over the past as if it were the present while delaying progress towards a better future.
It’s a frustrating dance for people who feel as if they cannot be forgiven for their past, and many question the motives of the moral appraisers, who are often driven by a political agenda. When these politically motivated patrons treat the past as if it’s the present, they are able to convince us certain issues are more prevalent than they actually are. They can point to examples of remarks that are racist/sexist/etc., attribute those remarks to the entirety of one’s character, and then use the character (from the past) as an exemplar of everything wrong with the present.
This kind of tactic damages those making present and legitimate claims about issues like sexism, racism, and xenophobia. In the modern world, sexism, racism, and xenophobia are not the norm, and if you are to espouse these ideas in public, you will likely be condemned. To use examples of racism/sexism/xenophobia from the past in an attempt to highlight their prevalence in the present is to help normalize rather than ameliorate. People may be less likely to pay attention to or stand up against acts of racism/sexism/xenophobia if they are convinced these things are the norm rather than the exception. Amy Chua highlights this in an article published at The Guardian titled “How America’s Identity Politics Went From Inclusion to Division,” citing “a progressive Mexican American law student” who says “If everything is racist and sexist, nothing is. When Trump, the real wolf, came along, no one listened.”
Considering the complicated and ever-changing nature of morality and the dangers of making cross-generational moral appraisals, especially when there’s an ulterior motive, it’s hard to find much use in such an evaluation. When we take something from the past and evaluate it against present-day norms, it will rarely measure up, and we often find ourselves focusing on the comparatively adverse nature of the past over progress.
We can illustrate this by expressing morality numerically across time. Say our goal is to get to an entirely peaceful society, free of violence, poverty, and starvation. The final goal is ten. For the sake of argument, we’ll just say we are currently at eight. We can express the beginning of civilization (around 3000 BCE) as zero. Let’s pretend that in the year 1500 we were at five. If we compare five (or anything closely surrounded by it) to eight, it looks pretty bad. If we compare it to ten, it looks even worse. If we choose to compare things in this way, it becomes incredibly easy to illustrate humanity’s pernicious disposition.
However, if we focus on eight, and we recognize that we’ve been able to move from zero all the way to eight, we can be confident in moving to 8.1, which is where our focus should lie. If we do this, we may find ourselves at ten sooner rather than later.
Chua, Amy. “How America’s Identity Politics Went from Inclusion to Division.” The Guardian,
Guardian News and Media, 1 Mar. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/01/how-americas-identity-politics-went-from-inclusion-to-division.
Flanagin, Jake. “Columbus Day, or ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’?” The New York Times, The New
York Times, 13 Oct. 2014, op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/13/columbus-day-or-indigenous-peoples-day/?rref=collection/timestopic/Columbus, Christopher&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=10&pgtype=collection.
Hannun, Marya. “’Baby It’s Cold Outside’ Was Once an Anthem for Progressive Women. What
Happened?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Dec. 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/19/baby-its-cold-outside-was-once-an-anthem-for-progressive-women-what-happened/?utm_term=.0ae445c03604.
History.com, A&E Television Networks, http://www.history.com/topics/exploration/columbus-day.
Schulten, Katherine. “Should Columbus Day Be Replaced With Indigenous Peoples Day?” The
New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Oct. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/learning/should-columbus-day-be-replaced-with-indigenous-peoples-day.html.
Yan, Holly. “Across the US, More Cities Ditch Columbus Day to Honor Those Who Really
Discovered America.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Oct. 2018, http://www.cnn.com/2018/10/08/us/columbus-day-vs-indigenous-peoples-day/index.html.
Zipp, Yvonne. “Is ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ a Long-Overdue Change, or Political Correctness
Run Amok?” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 13 Oct. 2014, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/USA-Update/2014/1013/Is-Indigenous-Peoples-Day-a-long-overdue-change-or-political-correctness-run-amok.