Dennis Prager is not someone you’ll often see quoted on this side of the page, but he sometimes resonates with me. He once said: “You judge people in the context of their time, not in the context of ours.”
“Context” occurred to me when Senate candidate (and astronaut) Mark Kelly, was criticized for calling Winston Churchill “one of the greatest leaders of modern times.”
Not knowing Churchill made comments supporting Aryan superiority and absolved injustices to indigenous people, Kelly apologized and promised to learn more.
Yet, how could Churchill, in the context of World War II, not be considered a great leader?
Even historical figures like Thomas Jefferson have been re-evaluated. Despite his articulate rhetoric to frame a republic with freedom and equality, Jefferson had slaves. Many founders succumbed to the status quo.
In colonial America slavery was legal, and conventions are often more persuasive than moral intuition. But will historical context allow these figures to withstand the progress of social consciousness, or are they to be discarded as flawed, even corrupt, figures?
And who lives up to our ideals?
James Madison also had slaves. So did George Washington. FDR? A mistress. Kennedy? Too many to count. Gandhi? Often they were too young.
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And moral ambiguity is not confined to men; Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist.
Margaret Thatcher’s denial of habeas corpus to Irish Republicans resulted in one of the bloodiest decades in Irish history.
Look into the closet of many historical figures and you’ll find a skeleton. Contradictions arise when examining the progress of ethics. America’s narrative implies emancipation granted freedom, yet that’s contrary to our founding proclamation all human beings are created equal. It was a moral awakening to that self-evident truth that authored the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
It wasn’t until the 19th Amendment that women were endowed with those same inalienable rights. Racism and sexism are systemic, but is it immoral to be less conscious? Obstinacy extends immorality, but can we demand enlightenment?
Can ignorance absolve oppression? No. Human bondage and denial of rights are too grotesque, but history shows that institutions formed within cultural narratives often require Herculean forces to move toward justice. We can re-examine the legacies of anyone (even the lyrics to holiday songs) and discover beliefs and traditions proven false by enlightened awareness, but we must also consider the confluence of people and culture at each juncture in time.
I also thought about context as Joe Biden’s antiquated chivalry was put on notice. His actions should be scrutinized but also have to be put into the context of his intentions.
When conventions and figures are viewed through the lens of progress we have the advantage of knowing where we are today. Hindsight often exposes moral blindness, but it does not necessarily reveal amoral character.
The study of history will reveal our flaws, but is also a study of context, and as Mark Kelly realized, there’s always more to learn.