The Past is Another Country

An academic colleague once made an intriguing observation about his left wing, multicultural theory-influenced undergraduates (i.e., all of them…he taught at UC Santa Cruz). They were absolutely unforgiving when judging the past of their own culture but were resolutely opposed to making any judgments about other cultures existing today. For example, when learning about the lack of professional career opportunities for American women in the 1950s, they would denounce the vicious patriarchy of the period, raging that it stemmed from an utterly horrible culture full of utterly horrible people who should have known better. But when asked about the same lack of professional career opportunities for women right now in, say, Mali or Uzbekistan, they would maintain that it would be oppressive and imperialistic of them to pass judgment: After all, how can people raised in one culture possibly understand or evaluate a completely different culture?

My colleague noted correctly that his students were showing an extreme lack of compassion for the past. It’s naïve and self-congratulatory for someone alive in 2015 to look back at 1955 or 1825 or any other prior era and assume that all the stupidity of the period would have been overcome if only they’d been there to set the benighted masses straight. It is equally naïve and self-congratulatory not to grapple with the fact that 50 or 100 years from now people will look back on some things we take for granted today and wonder what on earth we were thinking.

I sometimes made use of my colleague’s observation in psychotherapy when I was counselling adolescents and young adults who were being driven crazy by their grandparents, e.g., “I hate the way Grandma is always talking about Jesus and nagging me to go to church!”, “My grandfather won’t listen to me when I tell him not to keep all his money in his house – he’s completely paranoid about banks!”.
I would suggest to these young people to think of their grandparents as immigrants from another country: the past. We understand that people from other countries can have trouble adjusting to our society, that they may struggle to fit in and that it hurts them to have the values they grew up with rejected or surpassed. Seen in this light, our elders are easier to understand and to feel for, and when we ourselves are old we will need the same compassion from the young as the world we knew is replaced by the world they make.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

10 thoughts on “The Past is Another Country”

  1. For me, it's truly another country where teenagers go to expert psychotherapists because they don't get on with their grandparents.

    One solution to the conundrum of relativism is to pay attention to what people said at the time. There's an Overton window in ethics as well as politics, and the arguments within it are instructive. There were serious and repeated complaints at the time about the lawlessness and cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition, complaints going as far as the Pope. Those making them accepted the framing that if there were Judaizing heretics, they should be punished; but they saw that the Inquisition's campaign went far beyond any rational assessment of the threat, and was in reality a persecution of the Catholic converso community driven by envy and paranoia. Rabbis in North Africa stated at the time that the Spanish conversos were not Jews, and if they escaped and asked to be accepted as Jews, they were treated as converts. Bartolomé de las Casas wrote at the time that the Spanish treatment of Native Americans was un-Christian. After the defeat of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus, Crassus crucified 5,000 prisoners along the Appian Way. He had hoped for a triumph for his easy victory and the show of Roman invincibility – but his fellow oligarchs in the Roman Senate did not grant him one. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis did not disagree on the question whether blacks were equal to whites: obviously they were not. Where they disagreed was whether this inequality justified treating blacks as property. Is it really unsound for us to take sides in these debates, taking place within the standards of their times, and say that one was wrong?

    It takes heroic self-discipline to maintain a strictly non-judgmental stance. One anthropologist-explorer who came close was Wilfred Thesiger. He was IIRC once asked whether he had made any comments to his Nuer acquaintances in south Sudan on their necklaces of dried penises. He replied that it had never occurred to him to give advice to his friends on how they should treat their enemies.

  2. There also needs to be an understanding that the stance you take on certain cultural artifacts, whether past or present, depends upon the specific context of the conversation you are engaging in. In some contexts, things should be unequivocally condemned. In others, the same things should be approached in a more nuanced way.

    I had a discussion recently with a co-worker about America's Founding Fathers, specifically the Virginians who were both very prominent in the creation of the government and also significant slave owners. If we look at their beliefs in the broad picture, they were certainly very liberal in how they viewed the relationship between individuals and their government (though not necessarily much more so than some of their British opponents). If the discussion had focused on that aspect, I would have joined my fellow in a nuanced view of their beliefs and actions in regards to political ends.

    That wasn't the conversation we were having, though. It came about because I mentioned that I was reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton and that I am closer in outlook to him than I am to almost any of the others. As a part of that, I mentioned that the hypocrisy shown by Washington, Madison, and especially Jefferson (both in his rhetoric and the fact that he didn't even emancipate most of his slaves in his will) demonstrated personal cowardice in taking the steps to align their philosophy with their actions. I contrasted that to Hamilton, who, despite growing up in the slave hell of the sugar islands, not only was ardently abolitionist, but went so far as to argue that blacks were in no way inherently inferior to whites and, given the same environmental advantages, would compete effectively with whites on any basis.

    In my mind, that makes Hamilton a far more appealing individual than Jefferson. My co-worker insisted that we can only evaluate the Virginians in the context of people who were raised to view blacks as almost a separate species and remain sympathetic to them. The funny thing is that this is someone who rants against moral relativism and could not grasp that he was making a morally relative argument.

    1. Wasn’t Jefferson’s problem that he had borrowed against the security of his slaves? That doesn’t let him off the hook of course. While we are on contemporary standards, another well-known Virginian slave-owner did free his in his will: George Washington. My tribute to his cook Hercules here.

      1. It's more complicated than that. Jefferson borrowed against his slaves in 1796, but by that time he had already engaged in operations that more deeply entrenched slavery on his estate. His advocacy of eventual abolition had always been one that pushed it far enough into the future not to worry about it, but even that largely disappears from his rhetoric after 1792, when he conducted a study that showed just how profitable slavery was for him. Indeed, he refused a $20,000 bequest from the will of Thaddeus Kos­ciuszko because it was dedicated to paying off debt and funding the emancipation of some of his slaves.

        Jefferson also was opposed to large scale emancipation, such as what Washington did upon his death. He believed that it was impossible for whites and ex-slaves to live in the same society, as the latter would inevitably revolt in vengeance for having been enslaved. He opposed any attempt to end slavery that did not involve the transport of ex-slaves to the Caribbean or to Africa.

        Madison's attitude was similar to Jefferson's, and stands in great contrast to Hamilton. The image of Hamilton being accused of being an arch aristocrat who stood in opposition to the people is ironic, coming as it did from political enemies who owned other human beings.

  3. I must agree with Mr. Wimberley. While, for example, Shakespeare's occasional anti-Semitism was mild to the point of tolerant for his era, H. L. Mencken's and W.H. Auden's were cringeworthy before there was ever any Holocaust. Jefferson raped his slaves, while Washington freed his. Daniel Webster might have been regarded as one of the three greatest legislators in American history, but he's not, because he sponsored the most Evil (Capital E) act ever enacted. Thoreau and Emerson and Twain all eviscerated him for his cruelty and cowardice, and he is rightfully judged since as a rotten human being. Similarly, we all have those uncles who kept saying n****r right up to their recent deaths, and we all have those uncles who stopped doing so at some point between WWII and 1970. The former cannot possibly be judged as anything but assholes, not immigrants from the past.

    1. I assume you refer to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 rather than the act of 1847 introducing postage stamps.

      1. I assumed he was talking about the section of the Compromise of 1850 which admitted California to the Union.

  4. "I would suggest to these young people to think of their grandparents as immigrants from another country: the past."

    I wonder about this. Immigrants undergo a sudden, frequently traumatic, change of scene. On Tuesday they are among their compatriots, speaking a familiar language, observing familiar rites, eating familiar food, saying familiar prayers… On Wednesday it's all gone, replaced by a bunch of strangers who can't understand them, and whom they can't understand.

    I'm the grandparent now, in my seventies, still using my AOL email. But aside from that (which, in truth, is a simple accommodation to convenience; who wants to have to notify over a thousand correspondents of a new address?), I'm pretty much adapted to the "country I live in" because it changed day by day, while I was living in it.

    Perhaps it's attributable to my parents, who were pretty far left of center back in the fifties, and who welcomed change, but I have never felt estranged from this "new country."

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