There’s an argument, an argument that I’ve encountered numerous times on college campuses, and argument that bothers me very much. I was talking with one of my friends (a history major)about the nature of historical revisionism, specifically the way that individuals look at the past and then adjust certain cultural practices to be “good” or “evil” based on contemporary ethics, morals, and systems of justice. Both of us were of the opinion that it is more appropriate to attempt understanding a culture without the influence of modern cultural practices (an impossible task, but one that should be attempted nonetheless). Of course there are exceptions to everything, but, as a rule of thumb, we believe this is a good practice.
Another friend of ours made the argument that historical revisionism is necessary because, as they put it, the future will be more just, an therefore more “right” in its determination of what a culture should be.
This argument has been used in other variations, one of the more common sayings being that homophobes/racists/insert-bad-thing here are “on the wrong side of history,” and while I, theoretically, agree, I don’t think this is a real argument.
There are several problems with this way of thinking. The first problem is simple: we don’t know what the future holds. For all we know we could collapse into a so-called dark age or dystopia. We could enter into a world where slavery is accepted; where sexism is not just common, but expected; and then what do we say? What do we say to a future that considers our “progressive” ideals as being foolish, dangerous, or downright evil? What do we say in the face of a real Orwellian Oceania? We can’t say anything, because we have already faded from the face of the Earth.
The other possibility is that human nature will always progress, it will always get better. Either we can assume that mankind will eternally become better, or else we can assume that humanity will eventually reach perfection. This has its own problems, namely, that whatever we do now in the present will not be enough for the future. If humanity is always getting better, then we are put into a situation where, eventually down the line, any practice or belief that’s held in the present will be considered barbaric because humanity has gotten better. The only way around this is to assume that, if we can reach perfection, then we are closer to perfection than away from it, but this is a very problematic worldview in-and-of-itself.
Of course, even if our current practices (progressive or otherwise) will be considered unethical in the future, there is no reason not to strive to be better. The thing that we must realize, however, is that what we do now we do for certain reasons. Practices are born from perceived necessities, and those necessities will die and evolve over time, therefore changing practices. If we assume a cultural practice from the past is necessarily evil just because it doesn’t agree with contemporary values, we do a dishonor to ourselves as well as the past.