Judging the Past by Modern Standards

A minor controversy that has recently been making the rounds on the Internet is Laura Ingalls Wilder being removed from the Children’s Literature Legacy Award:

The author of the “Little House on the Prairie” series, Laura Ingalls Wilder, had her name removed from a prestigious children’s book award because of “dated cultural attitudes” contained in her books, the association that issues the award said Monday.

In a joint statement, the American Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children said the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was changed to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award during a weekend conference in New Orleans.

While the decision itself is irrelevant to me since I couldn’t care less who receives what awards, it is another example of a particular pet peeve of mine: the tendency to judge people from the past by modern standards.

A good example of this Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan is usually seen as a violent marauder, which is true. Due to that view of him, he’s commonly declared an entirely evil person because by today’s standards he is. However, in this time armies going from city to city and offering their inhabitants either subjugation or annihilation was the status quo. By the standards of his day Genghis Khan was quite progressive. For example, he allowed the people of subjected cities to continue worshiping their gods and even had people of many different faiths in his inner circle. He also took measure to improve the efficiency of travel and trade along the Silk Road, which benefited societies all along it.

People cannot perceive the future. There was no way for Laura Ingalls Wilder to know that the attitude in the United States regarding Native Americans would change so drastically from her time. Moreover, whatever views she held (and since she was a writer, going by her fiction isn’t a good way of knowing her personal views) were more likely than not the common views of her time. People tend to pick up predominant memes (not the fun Internet kind but the idea transfer between individuals kind). If you living in a heavily Christian area, you will likely be Christian, at least for the early part of your life. If you’re a white person living in a society where most white people hold negative views about Native Americans, you will likely hold negative views about Native Americans. Judging people of the past by modern standards is, in my opinion, foolish outside of thought exercises.

I imagine that people living a century from now will look back at us as barbaric and backwards (although I hope they overcome the tendency to judge people of the past by modern standards) because the generally accepted moral framework will have changed significantly. That’s something to consider when you’re judging a person from the past.