I remember that in fourth grade one of my classmates was impersonating George Washington, the first president of the United States. As a class project, students had to dress up as historical American figures, and give an interview in front of the class. My classmate had chosen George Washington, wearing a white wig, breeches, and a jacket. He wasn't much of an actor, so he did not make much of an attempt to mimic 18th century speech or demeanor. However, the only reason I still remember his interview out of all my other classmates interviews is what he would say next. When asked about his greatest regret as Washington, he responded that even though he had fought for freedom all of his life, he had owned slaves. To my then uneducated and innocent mind, this was a little startling. How could George Washington, the "good guy," have slaves? Of course, in my future classes I would learn that slavery was the norm during colonial times, and that slavery and racial inequality would become important social topics that the U.S. would later confront. However, at that time, I looked into the past with the mind of the present, easily identifying actions that violated the values, norms, and ethics of the present-day society. But, this was unfair to the past.
To understand the unfairness, consider the values of today or our actions that future generations may criticize. This can be very difficult, as we have already likely convinced ourselves that our actions and our standards are correct. If we did not think that our values were correct, we would not believe in them. Of the possibilities, the most obvious possibility is climate change. If our current actions lead to some of the calamities forecasted by some scientists, then future generations could criticize our lack of action and our unwillingness to give up our standard of living. For them the calamities would be free of the fog of the unknown, and they would not be able to understand why we ignored such grave warnings. Just as we can look back at history and claim that racial inequality, gender inequality, and religious inequality were wrong, future generations will likely look back on us and easily find our mistakes.
The fact that each new generation can identify the mistakes of the former – and rectify these mistakes – is a sign of humanity's progress. It is evidence that each new generation is taking a step forward, solving social issues, and learning new ways to live together more peacefully. Of course, this is not always the case, as every so often humanity takes a step back, as exemplified by the horrors of World War II, the enslavement of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, and other such tragedies. The hope for humanity rests on moving forward; our steps forward must outnumber the steps backward.
Learning from the past in order to take the next step forward is each generation's responsibility. However, in the process of looking back, my fourth grade self could not help but criticize the people of the past and be shocked by their actions. I did not realize that George Washington was a man of his time, just like the rest of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He lived in a world where slavery was not only rampant, but routine. In this context, one would have to possess a strong moral compass to thrift through the wrongs of his time.
And Washington, as a Virginia plantation owner, demonstrated his moral compass and vision for the future by freeing all of his slaves in his will. Other Founders also opposed slavery: Benjamin Franklin, once a slave owner, later freed his slaves and became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society; Thomas Jefferson considered slavery a violation of individual rights (though he, too, owned slaves). Faced with the realities of deep-seated racial prejudice, the economic and political implications of the abolition in the South, and the need for a unified nation after the American Revolution, the Founders did not abolish slavery (1). Indeed, slavery and racial inequality proved difficult to overcome, and even now, more than two hundred years later, social issues originating from slavery remain.
Ignoring the effect of the time period George Washington lived in on his actions would be a big mistake. Of course, norms of one's society cannot be an excuse for crimes and immoral actions, but it is also unfair to single out the individual, when society as a whole is to blame. It is the responsibility of all members of society to identify their shortcomings and attempt to remedy them. For example, as racism, religious feuds, and hatred of the "other" grip current societies, community members and visionaries have mobilized through intercultural and interfaith dialog in the hopes of uniting through familiarity and shared humanity. Additionally, there are hundreds of charities and non-profit groups based in the U.S. alone attempting to remedy issues ranging from animal rights to world hunger. As issues arise it is the responsibility of the members of society to provide answers, but singling out one individual from the whole society and criticizing them is unfair.
Additionally, the reason I can look back at the past with my current values and morals is because of the progress of humanity through the efforts of people of the past, the important figures in history. They contributed to the development of the current value systems. I did not develop my values; I merely adopted them. Thus, what right do I have to judge the people of the past who did not have the same opportunity?
To conclude, it is important not to forget that society as a whole is responsible. Understanding why the person acted in a certain way by examining the society allows us to draw lessons that we can apply to our society today. Too much focus on the individual distracts from the remedial function of reflection on the past.