Past Imperfect

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been patiently watching a phenomenon that is both slightly disturbing and completely understandable. (If I’ve touched on this topic before, my apologies.)

It is the discovery, revelation, and condemnation of individuals and institutions that have been involved in slavery. I see it as an offshoot of the #MeToo movement, which as brought the careers and lives of predatory men crashing to a halt…and in rare cases, ending in the slamming of a prison door.

Social observer Fran Lebowitz remarked in her recent Netflix series that it took movie stars coming out about this issue to give it traction in society and in the courts. Nobody was listening to the hotel maids and waitresses who endured this harassment and abuse for decades. Nevertheless, she’s happy that change has come. As am I.

Men who prey on women (or other men) when they have leverage in the workplace or in any imbalance of power should pay the price. Financially, criminally, and socially. It’s one thing to pay a settlement; it’s quite another to serve time, to become a pariah to one’s peers.

But back to the condemnation of those who profited from the slave trade, or committed other injustices in the past.

It’s right to call out injustice. It’s right to correct history. But tearing down someone’s legacy because they weren’t perfect or because we are comparing their morals to our moral standards of today can be a slippery slope. Few can survive what historians refer to as ‘presentism’, i.e., holding someone who lived two hundred years ago to the same standards of behavior that we hold today.

It feels like ‘cancel culture’ is seeping into our assessment of history, staining the accomplishments of otherwise great men and women, because they were not perfect, or because they held beliefs that–now, in 2023, we find abhorrent.

I would offer these words of caution: first, it is easy and sometimes comforting to look into the past and find fault. It makes us feel better about ourselves because we have found fault in others, usually others who’ve contributed more than we have. Don’t fall for that. No one builds statues to critics or skeptics. We need them, but our world is seldom changed for the better by them. (Maybe Fran Lebowitz is an entertaining exception.)

Second, know that the past is most valuable for this reason: it is a reference for teaching us how to use the present to build a better future. If that’s what you’re doing when you look back on history, great. If it’s just to nit-pick, or join in the chorus of criticism, move on. Learn from history and shape a vision of the future. And take action today.

It’s easy to tear down statues and condemn those who lived in a different world than the one we live in today. It’s far more challenging to accept that imperfect people do good and even great things in our world. It’s even more challenging to get out there and do great things ourselves…especially if we’re focused on the negatives in someone else’s life.

It’s best to accept a few contradictions, to be suspicious of absolutes, to be reluctant to judge quickly and harshly, and to question the motives of others whose primary focus is to tear others down.

As my French friends are fond of saying of so many issues in life, C’est complique’.

It’s complicated.

  • BGT



4 thoughts on “Past Imperfect

  1. Well said, Byron.

    When I am tempted to judge the past by the present, I need look no further than my own childhood to see the difficulty. I grew up in a sprawling “exurban” area where transport by car was a necessity at least until young people mastered the use of a bicycle and sufficient parental trust to ride a far distance independently. I recall going to and from the ice cream stand eight miles away riding in the trunk of a neighborhood friend’s mom’s station wagon, and Girl Scout field trips riding four or five girls in the backseat of a car with two smaller and thinner girls double-buckled into one seat belt. No car seats past the toddler years, no booster seats.

    Unsafe by modern standards? Absolutely. Were I to have allowed my own children to do the same, I would definitely have expected law enforcement to intervene.

    Do I think that my friend’s mom or my Brownie leader were, in retrospect, horrible people because they didn’t follow modern car safety standards in the early 1980s? Of course not!

    I think it is important to be honest about the past, including about those things that we need to very clearly state both that we don’t do this anymore as well as the reasons why. To look at the great ideals espoused by notable figures of the past, as well as the ways in which those figures failed their own tests. I went to the FDR Museum with my daughter last summer, and thought that the exhibits did a very good job of balancing those aspects and looking at as close to the whole picture as we reasonably can expect this far after the fact.

  2. It’s a good thing that society as a whole has access to a more complete history of our past. We can learn from both the accomplishments and grave errors of those who lived before us. Nevertheless, I caution those who try to justify the existence of harsh slave societies (and it’s aftermath) by comparing the horrors of rape, lynchings, and forced subjugation upon millions of individuals (which in the United States continued well into the 1960s) to modern day ideological shifts such as that of global warming or the use of seatbelts. The main point of the comparison is understood yet the comments are condescending especially if your parents and grandparents were subjected to such treatment.

    (By the way Monticello is a great work of architecture in my opinion and recommended a tour)

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