Search Box

Sunday, May 10, 2009

We're all just products of our time

Whenever I read about a large group of people who are all made out to be horrible human beings, I always think, I doubt their natures are much worse than other group's. Their leaders were probably evil, but people who rise to power anywhere often are. Political leaders from any era are usually at least narcissistic, and quite often, even sociopathic, even if the public doesn't realize it. But the rank and file of any organization, or country, tend to be normal people with normal psyches.

If I had been brought up in Germany in the 1930's, and had been taught that Jewish people were the devil's spawn, I'd probably believe that. If I had been brought up in the South Africa of the 1960's, I'd probably think that segregation was the natural way of things.

And so would you.

Some people seem to feel that had they lived in another era, they would have somehow miraculously retained their current sensibilities. This is ludicrous. I generally find that the people who believe this most strongly are those most thoroughly inculcated with the currently politically correct attitudes, i.e., those people most obviously unable to think for themselves. So in fact, they'd likely be the biggest True Believers in whatever culture they found themselves.

It takes an extraordinary individual to see through and rise above the beliefs of his time. Most of us are simply not that extraordinary. Certainly not me.

If I had been brought up in the South of the 1820's, I might not have questioned slavery. (I'd like to think I would have, but I probably would have just accepted the status quo.)

Had I been brought up in Europe circa 1600, I would probably have felt that the sun orbited the earth and that to say otherwise was sacrilegious. (It's just common sense -- the sun does rise and set over our seemingly unmoving planet every day, and it certainly looks smaller than Earth.) I might not have wanted Galileo tried and sentenced by the Inquisition; but I undoubtedly would have thought him wrongheaded.

Had I been an Apache of roughly 2000 years ago, I would have responded to drought by doing a rain dance. Had the Great Spirit in the Sky answered with a thunderstorm, I would have thought him angry.

Had I been brought up in present day Afghanistan, I would surely be shocked to see a woman's naked face in public, and appalled at the idea that she might want to learn to read. And I would certainly be hopeful, if perhaps not quite sure, that 70 virgins awaited me in heaven.

We can look down our noses at people from other eras or other cultures as woefully benighted, but it's not as if most of us are able to rise above the petty prejudices and silly beliefs of our own time and place. Are we individually so much more clever than those who preceded us? How much human evolution could have taken place in the past few hundred years? Speaking of which, we look down upon those who do not believe in evolution, but when Darwin's theories were first debated in London, Samuel Wilberforce, who was arguing the con case, asked his opponent, Thomas Huxley, if he himself was descended from an ape on his mother's or his father's side. (Huxley responded that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a man who used his great talents to suppress debate.) Wilberforce may have been on the wrong side of the argument, but how many people do you know who would have the cleverness, the intelligence, to come up with that line? (Even if they do live in a more enlightened era as far as evolution goes.)

The more interesting question, of course, is what will the Americans of 100, or 200 years from now think of us? Will they regard us as environmental criminals for squandering fuel oil so wastefully with our gas-burning cars? Will they laugh at us for our taboos against speaking honestly about race and gender?

The only thing we can be sure of is that they will think we lived in the Dark Ages.


Anonymous said...

We really are the product of our times. Each of us grapples with whatever the issues are in our own day and age (specific period of time that we live in history). Good post.


John Craig said...

Thank you Birdie. Very few people read this far back in the blog. Looking back here, I sure didn't get many comments back in '09.

Anonymous said...

I had some computer work to do (for work) and to avoid doing said work (for a short time), I am reading older posts. Mind you, my work will get done (I have a little bit left to do). Smile.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Get to work!

Although, now that I think of it, the "about me" section on the front page of this blog does say something to the effect of this blog being an amusing way to waste time while putting off your work. So…..enjoy, and thank you.