Future Crimes We Are Committing Now
Verbal abuse of computer systems like Siri or Alexa. Mistreating your iRobot vacuum cleaner. Hurting your grass by using lawn mowers. These daily incidents — which are commonplace today — might someday be condemned as barbaric, unspeakable behavior.
Many of you have probably concluded that I am being facetious. To this, I would respond: “yes… but.”
Yes — we don’t know what will be seen as politically correct or morally reprehensible in the future. But shouldn’t our conduct also be judged by the laws, ethical mores, customs, and standards that prevail today?
With that in mind, what do we do with the increasing willingness to pass judgment retrospectively on our forebears?
How appropriate and how fair is it to apply the ethical mores that we subscribe to today to a very different world 200 years ago or more?
To me, this is narcissism writ large.
“I am not a racist, and therefore I condemn and loathe all racists.” Okay, but was all past behavior that today is deemed racist thought to be racist when it was practiced?
Take slavery as an example. Slavery today is inextricably tied to the notion of harsh racial oppression. And while slavery was tied to racism in countries like America, for thousands of years slavery was universally practiced, with a focus that ranged from indebtedness to military conquest.
The Hebrew Bible speaks extensively about slavery, including the enslavement of Jews who could not pay penalties levied by a court.
It was the same interactive relationship between master and slave, but in a completely different context. Africans enslaved other Africans, just in the same way that people who conquered others enslaved them in virtually every corner of the world.
If that sounds barbaric, it was — at least according to our present day sensibilities. But it was the norm of its day, and for centuries it engendered no widespread moral rebuke or condemnation.
Now, with the hindsight of moral purity, all of it seems reprehensible.
Why is this increasingly happening? Clearly, it is not to pat ourselves on the back — to congratulate ourselves on our heightened sense of justice and equity.
Sadly, I believe there is a not-so-subtle political message here. This retrospective judgment is being used to deconstruct and to demonize our political forebears, particularly our founding fathers and all those, ranging from Columbus to the Pilgrims, who are pillars of the hagiography, the foundational story of the United States, and by extension the West.
The implication is that our fundaments are rotten, tainted, and unworthy of adulation. In its more angry and extreme form, it becomes a rationale for revolutionary change, throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the name of greater fairness.
Ultimately, this kind of hateful revisionism exposes the great ideological struggle now gripping the West.
Do Western values of individual freedom, free choice, speech, and markets provide the template for just and equitable societies, or are they just a smokescreen for oppression?
If the response is “no, I don’t want to overthrow Western Civ, but I am profoundly upset by the conduct of supposedly great people (all of whom seem to be dead white males) who we have been raised to venerate,” then here is my suggestion.
First, see these people as products of their own time and place, not ours.
Second, feel grateful to be living in a time when such attitudes or behavior are now deemed unacceptable.
And third, give credit to our Western values for allowing, indeed encouraging, the kind of moral evolution and growth that have made our evolved sensibilities possible.
Those who self-righteously condemn past figures for behavior that was often considered exemplary in their age (and in ours, for that matter, until just recently) need to be rebuked.
This is the worst kind of sanctimony — moral judgment with the benefit of hindsight, but without the benefit of humility.
He who would be sinless to posterity, let him cast the first stone in retrospect.
For the rest of us, silence is golden.
Douglas Altabef is the Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund.