Should we give people in the past leeway in terms of morality and ethics? I’ve often thought about this growing up, while in school, and even at times in my adult life. With the unrest ongoing in our country this year, these questions come back to me. I often hear that “things were different back then”, or “that’s just the way it was.” As I look at videos and pictures of people screaming at people hoping to have equal opportunities and to be treated equally, or when I see pictures of people smiling and having fun while some unfortunate victim is lynched, I wonder how they came to be the people they were. Where did they go wrong with their morality? How could someone who may have been a good father or mother, who may have gone to church every Sunday, be celebrating and participating in these types of actions.
Right and wrong is universal and timeless. It’s not rooted in complex equations or theories that most people cannot understand. Tenants of compassion, ethics, and morality are basic and timeless. It was just as wrong to mistreat others because of how they look, talk, or act today as much as it was back in the 1960s, 1860s, or any time. Should we give people a free pass because they were part of a society that these beliefs and actions were accepted?
We’ve seen in the past several months where organizations and people are called into question. Should someone still be honored, when we now know they were racists or actively working to hold groups of people back? Should the building names or monuments be looked at again?
They should. Not because it’s politically convenient or trendy, but the nature of history is to constantly review existing information. As historians obtain new data from archaeological records or new primary sources, the events, places, and people need to be revised accordingly. People will argue about “revisionist history” or “cancel culture”, but it’s important to have a full picture, and this process is the nature of the study of history. Sometimes we learn things that may now cast a negative light on someone, but we need to update and revise accordingly. Sometimes someone who was celebrated, may not be more complex and real, with positive and negative characteristics that were not taught initially.
Is it fair to apply our current feelings of morality on those who came before us? Definitely. Right and wrong are rooted in common sense and decency. It’s wrong now to enslave others, or to manipulate groups of people for personal gain. Should we raid Mexico to bolster our workforce? Should we prevent certain people from voting? It was wrong for our nation to mistreat the indigenous people when we formed our nation. It was wrong to own slaves. It was wrong to hold back the dreams and aspirations of those who simply wanted to be equal. For people alive in this time, it was just as wrong then as it is now.
The tenants of right and wrong are timeless, and we should hold people to high standards, now and in the past. We should clearly understand the full nature of someone, not just to focus on either the good or the bad. Thomas Jefferson did great things, but he was also a slave owner. Is this left-leaning revisionist propaganda? No, as this is reality of things, and should be taught as such. We fought a bloody civil war because of slavery. Should this be glossed over because it’s uncomfortable to study and learn about? We cannot sugarcoat this. This is what happened. Thousands died in lynchings in the deep south throughout the 20th century. The treatment of the Native American tribes is a stain on our country’s honor. This should be fully understood.
We must always take what we learned from the past and apply it to make our country better. If this requires marching, protesting, or taking a knee, it’s to make our country better for it. We have done many great things in our past, but we have to fully understand that there are some parts that are things we cannot be proud of. We must ensure that people in future generations can look at us and say they did good things. They turned the corner on some of our dark periods of history. That we did right and made things for the better. Otherwise, we’re going to make the same unfortunate mistakes of the past.
Morality is timeless. Ethical behavior is timeless. We know better. Our ancestors knew better. There are no excuses. Be better. Make a difference.