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Okay, so I’m sure I’ve seen other people talk about this, but I can’t find a link to any articles on this topic. Maybe I’m just not thinking of the right key word to find them, but since I’ve run into some people making this argument in several different contexts, I wanted to address it.

There is an idea that the only fair way to view people and works from the past is to take into account the time period that they were living in. This is a version of the idea that we can’t judge people or works from the past by “modern standards.”

When applied to oppression, this is a deeply toxic idea that is all about prioritizing the comfort of privileged people over an honest acknowledgement of the harm done by oppression.

Human suffering that happened in the past was not lessened by the fact that some of the people living in that time and place considered it normal. The racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist stereotypes in a novel don’t impact readers less just because they were written in the past.

Oppression has always been wrong. It hurts and kills people. We can and should judge it, because judging it means that we are fully seeing the humanity of oppressed people and recognizing their suffering.

This isn’t easy. It can hurt to really take in how much suffering, injustice, and cruelty have happened in human history. For those who are privileged, it is hard to recognize our own personal connections to this history, whether it was things our ancestors did, or simply a history that we are benefiting from right now (whether we want to or not).

It’s a lot to process and it’s okay for that to be hard. What is not okay is hiding from this struggle by using arguments like “you can’t judge past people by modern standards” to pretend that past oppression was less bad than it actually was.

In talking about this, I do want to recognize that there are things we can learn from understanding the historical context that people lived in. But we can’t understand this historical context without a full understanding of the oppression that was happening. If it was a time of brutality, oppression, and suffering, then we need to acknowledge that and the suffering it caused.

And it is crucial to keep in mind that every time and place in history has multiple perspectives in it. The privileged perspective about what is right and wrong isn’t the only perspective. Oppressed people have perspectives too. Even if we don’t have records of these perspectives, they matter and it is important to not erase them by pretending that the privileged perspective is the only one.

For as long as there has been oppression, there have been people struggling against it. We don’t know all of their stories, but they worked hard to make change happen. And that work has continued for generations and played a crucial role in shaping our “modern perspective” about oppression. Even as I write this, the work of fighting oppression continues and the “modern perspective” is changing. Because if you really think about it, this “modern perspective” isn’t a universal perspective either. It’s just the current mainstream privileged perspective of oppression, a perspective that is continuously being challenged by oppressed people.

We all have an ethical duty to recognize the full humanity of oppressed people. Doing this requires us to admit the harm that has been done in the past, and the harm that is currently being done. We can’t argue that harm away or lessen it by the fact that it was considered normal by some of the people in a certain time and place. The fairest thing we can do is acknowledge that suffering and center the voices and perspectives of oppressed people.


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3 years ago

Not really about “standards”, but possibly related… One thing historical – and other – context is useful for sometimes is to judge what impact a specific action or phrase has. Are miniskirts freeing or oppressive? Was there ever a time when something that is now a slur wasn’t harmful? Why did/do people get so mad about this seemingly innocuous thing (Isn’t “darling” a nice thing to say)? Things like that. Depending on what oppressive norms a movement is up against, they will use different tactics, sometimes ones that are later part of the problem. For example, when struggling against prudish… Read more »

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