Retroactively judging historical figures is misguided

David Bordelon

All across college campuses, students are protesting the statues, monuments and honors given to historical figures, individuals who no longer represent the values that young people across America cherish. While it is important for newer generations to fight for their values, this method is misguided. Historical figures will undoubtedly be seen as immoral by future generations who follow different moral systems. It makes little sense to retroactively judge figures of history for moral crimes they had no way of knowing they were committing.

In a recent petition to school administrators at Matteo Ricci College, students there demanded that the curriculum be changed to less represent “dead white men.” Their petition uses transphobic, queerphobic, ableist and other phobic-buzzwords to describe these figures who they believe deserve less curricular recognition. Whether these accusations are true is beside the point. What matters is that these issues of morality didn’t exist at the time of these figures’ lives. While transgender people were around, their existence was not a well-known phenomenon and certainly not one that permeated the public’s moral consciousness. Likewise, I doubt anyone had even conceived of ableism at the time. Calling someone from the 1700s an ableist transphobe is about as sensible as attacking them for failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s not a reasonable standard.

Thomas Jefferson, a recent target of protests for his ownership of slaves, once wrote that the earth belongs to the living. In other words, those alive decide how things are. Ironically, his words ring true in the protests that oppose him. What the protesters of today fail to realize is that the same method they employ now against historical figures can be used against them by future generations.

These sort of analyses seem more nonsensical when applied to present-day figures. For instance (in the words of a hypothetical future concerned student), “Pope Francis contributed heavily to the systematic oppression of living non-humans (animals), not only by failing to counteract the oppression of zoos, slaughterhouses and the like, but by even eating them.” Or, “Pope Francis contributed to the degradation of our planet’s ecosystem by failing to fight hard enough for the environment, and even by polluting the earth himself. He is even worse than the normal historical person because he utilized an entire motorcade of polluting vehicles (and chartered private planes too).”

We find this ridiculous. Pope Francis has little option but to use transportation powered by non-renewable resources. He did try to help the environment but he’s not the only factor in those decisions. Does he even have the power to shut down zoos?

These future accusations are merely analogies to represent the current movement’s logic. Retroactive judging will nearly always be misguided, as the historical person was not adhering to our current moral systems, and probably couldn’t have adhered even if he or she wanted to due to external factors. Instead of accusing people of moral crimes they had never even conceived of, we should focus on adhering the best we can to our own moral standards, and try to be morally blameless in the eyes of our present-day peers.

Bordelon is a philosophy junior from Houston. Follow him on Twitter @davbord.