For the last two weeks I've been thinking about an essay Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote called "Grappling With Genosha," which explores why the pre-Civil War American South—and by extension, the entire United States—supported something as morally wrong as slavery.
Coates finds "almost any explanation that invokes individual evil to be unpersuasive." Instead, he says one must look at how society and self interest makes people rationlize and support things they might personally disagree with. Many people in the pre-Civil War South no doubt realized slavery was wrong but supported it because of the cumulative weight of their culture and self-interest. That's why slavery was accepted. It was far easier to go along with the evils around you than to take a stand which may cause you to lose your social standing, job, family, and much more.
I agree with this analysis. While it is easy to look back at slavery and say we enlightened modern people would never have supported such a horrible system, we're saying that from the comfort of a 150 years distance. Instead of saying how you'd have fought against slavery if you'd been alive back then, find a major societal trend in today's world and see how accepting you are of it.
For example, gasoline powered automobiles create polution and other planet-wide side effects. But how many people are willing to cut themselves off from the benefits of the internal combustible engine? Instead, the best people seem to do is slowly change things. To hope that one day technological advances will result in cleaner engines so we can have the benefits of cars without the bad things. I wonder what our descendents will think about such rationalizations?
And that is at the heart of how to view history—time changes what humans are willing to accept and how we see our world.
Last year I took part in an Authors and Ideas Panel at the World Fantasy Convention. One of the participants—author S.M. Stirling—said something which really resonated with me. To quote:
"If a writer is arguing for a point of view or a belief in their work, that's not what they really strongly believe. The things you believe most strongly, the things you never even think to argue about—your default assumptions about what the world is, what humans beings are, how they operate, that sort of thing—that suffuses what you write. These things vary both between individuals and over time. That's one of the reasons it is valuable to read stuff written a long time ago. You're looking through alien eyes. There is no one more alien than your great-great-great-grandparents. Reading stuff they wrote gives you a valuable corrective on assuming that you are the default condition for human beings. That your basic assumptions are the laws of the universe and will endure forever, or that everything changed up until it came to you and your glorious self and now it will be that way until the end of time."
I love that quote. And Stirling is absolutely correct. No one is more more alien than your great-great-great-grandparents.
But that also brings to mind how our great-great-great-grandchildren will see us. To them we will also be totally alien and they will likely condemn us for the moral choices we made—choices which to us seem totally acceptable but to our descendents will be nothing but evil.
This isn't to say slavery was anything but morally wrong. I hope that if I'd lived back then I'd have taken a stand against this evil institution. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, we don't have that luxury.
Instead, Coates says that to understand how you would have lived in the past "You almost have to forget who you are and start thinking about what you might have been. But if you're going to go there, you have to go there. If this feels safe, comfortable, or affirming, you've done something wrong."