Sunday, February 19, 2012

When It Seems Like a Good Idea at the Time

People in the past were not any less intelligent than people today. In 300 years, schoolchildren everywhere will laugh at the stupidity and ignorance of the inhabitants of 2012. You cannot judge people of the past by modern standards, values or ideas, you can only try to understand them through the lens of the time period in which they lived.                                      ~in "There's a Word for That: Presentism" from World Turn'd Upside Down
As we roll onward through the never-ending cycle of annual events and remind ourselves of historic mile markers—perhaps through such commemoratives as National African American History Month (this month) or National Women’s History Month (coming up in March)—we may find ourselves looking back at what was the norm a century ago or more, and thinking:
          “I would never do that.”
And yet, if we were living in those times, surrounded by those contingencies, we most certainly would find ourselves operating from an entirely different mindset than the one to which we have become accustomed in our “modern” times.

“Modern,” it turns out, is one of the most old-fashioned terms in our up-to-date lexicon. It is nearly laughable to think that this word, defined as “of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote,” is actually a relic of late fifteenth century French.

Just as tenuous as our terminology is our conceptualization of those hundred- or two-hundred-year-old “modern” times. We insist on carrying the framework of our “modern” spectacles to the noses we look down to examine those olden times. This, it turns out, is a slippery slope for those family history researchers trying to get a grasp of what it was like for our ancestors. What is our response when, say, we discover that they were shameless slaveholders? Or involved in violence? Withholding natural affections for their children or spouse? Harboring grudges or indulging in corrupt business practices? All these less-than-praiseworthy actions and tendencies have been part of the human condition since the beginning of time—but it is how these behaviors have been viewed by each time period’s society that has changed. We need to enlarge our scope of inquiry to include the context of the culture in which these relatives were immersed.

I like what Stephanie Ann, college history major and historic re-enactor, observes in her blog, World Turn'd Upside Down. Introducing the word, “presentism,” she examines that “tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.”

Just as horrified as I would be looking back now from the comfort of my current position at what I might consider the barbarities of those times, if, instead, I were ensconced within the insouciance of those times’ sensibilities, I’d likely take a different attitude.

Take this scenario and flip it: what if someone in the future were looking back at us and our enlightened “modern” practices? Might we not wish they looked upon us with a perspective of enlightenment?

World Turn'd Upside Down: There's a Word for That: Presentism

Photograph, top left, courtesy Wikipedia (in the public domain): Actress Elaine Hammerstein, 1921.


  1. Amen! I often invert this as well - what would the ancestors think of our present behavior? There are times it gives me pause.

    1. Now, that, Susan, is a scary thought!

  2. Replies
    1. Stephanie, my pleasure! I have always appreciated the thoughts presented on your blog!


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