Presentism Shouldn’t Determine Progress

Many of the founders of United States preached equality yet enslaved thousands and saw women as lesser to men.

Many of the founders of United States preached equality yet enslaved thousands and saw women as lesser to men.

Television shows airing in the late 1900s that were cult classics then–Friends, That 70s Show, and Looney Tunes–still remain popular among younger generations, but can now be viewed as controversial due to politically incorrect, racist, and homophobic scenes. Traditions at Lawrenceville that were once commonplace such as initiation rituals and a “Missing in Action” page in Olla Pod have been criticized and eliminated. We congratulate ourselves for moving on from the more backward days of our ancestors, but this feeling of progress can be an illusion. Yes, the world may be better than it was fifty years ago, but this is more so due to natural progress that comes with time and the changing of moral standards rather than our generation being innately better.

We like to think of ourselves as ethical, productive, and decent people. What is good, right or acceptable in society changes. It is easy to be self-congratulatory about how much less prejudiced we are than past generations and deplore them for their persistently linear thinking, but this form of hindsight can become a way of unjustly transferring our current moral standards, to which no past culture even had a semblance of, to past misgivings.

Our founders are too targeted by this reviewed morality. People today judge them because of racism, discrimination, and hypocrisy, and because of these alleged faults, the value of their accomplishments is diminished. However, it is only because of the society that they created that we now have the luxury to look back and judge the contradictions of their imperfect character. The application of today’s moral standards to these individuals is unfair because they didn’t have the same standards of equality and multiculturalism as we do today. While it may be a noble effort to condemn the crimes of our past, we must realize that these actions were the norm of their society and environment.

At Lawrenceville, hazing or team initiations have been eliminated because of the negative impacts it had on students. While several of these events were seen as funny and had the intention of welcoming new students into the fold of the team, people viewed them as extensions of bullying. The elimination of hazing, though more recent than the supposed crimes of historical figures, represents a change in views.

Ultimately, it is unfair of us to apply current practices to the past because the idea of morality, a concept that changes over time, is not transferable. What we may consider ill-informed and immoral now–racism, homophobia, and sexism–was once the orthodoxy. Morality can undergo complete revolutions in a mere generation, so to criticize a person, who didn’t know and couldn’t do any better, for their past mistakes is an unfair way of assigning blame. After all, in another fifty years, eating meat and factory farming may be regarded as unethical, overprescription of antibiotics as regretful, the marginalization of LGBTQ+ communities as intolerant, political polarization as foolish, and the high incarceration rates in the United States as immoral.

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