A matter of judgment

It is one of my strongest beliefs that the past should not be judged by the standards of the present, nor our ancestors judged by the same values that we apply to our contemporaries. This belief is my starting point (although not my end point) in this preface to next week’s blog, which focuses on the heated arguments that have exploded about statues of contentious figures from the past.  

But, before discussing statues, I think it is necessary to go one step further back and examine the whole basis on which we make moral judgments about other people.

Supposedly high on the list of contemporary virtues is the ability to be non-judgmental: to accept people for what they are, even if their values appear alien to one’s own. Yet seldom has a generation been so judgmental of others than the one now emerging through the universities of the western world, nor so determined to impose its judgments on others. This is not an entirely new phenomenon: my own generation, liberal and tolerant in so many respects, attempted to prevent politicians such as Enoch Powell from speaking at universities. But that was not common, whereas ‘no-platforming’ is now standard practice, with Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell being caught up in its net. Yet the ‘no-platformers’ promote the virtues of being non-judgmental…

It is impossible for human beings not to make judgments, often extreme ones. That should not be the point at issue. The issue is what type of judgments we make, how we choose to express them and, most of all, the extent to which we tolerate those who make different judgments.

There is surely a fundamental distinction to be drawn between passing judgments on another person’s acts or omissions or opinions and passing a judgment on that complete person. None of us is equipped to do the latter. That is why I could never support capital punishment: it is the ultimate judgment of society on another person. But that shouldn’t stop me passing judgment on the act that might have led to such a punishment.

Some people express themselves through violence. Whether that is due to their innate temperament, to their upbringing or to their immediate circumstances, none of these things is within anyone’s complete control, so – while we should condemn the violence – we shouldn’t draw finite conclusions about that individual, especially if we happen to have been born with an equable temperament and into comfortable circumstances. We are not in a position to judge.

Values vary with time and place. In the 1950s, the rocker Jerry Lee Lewis was forced to cancel his British tour, and subsequently fell from grace in America, when it was revealed that he had married his 13-year-old cousin. In rural Louisiana at that time, though, marrying a 13-year-old was neither illegal nor especially unusual. Until 1892, Italy had no minimum age for marriage: in that year, it was established at 12. As late as 2015, it was legal to be married at 14 in Spain, and the age of consent there was 13. An acquaintance, a teenager in the 1960s, enthusiastically admits she would have slept with John Lennon at 15, if he had asked her. It does not need spelling out how any of this would be regarded today.

I should make it clear that I am not condoning any of these things. But then I am writing in 2017, from within the culture of 2017, which is the point.

One should not, however, progress from that point to a blanket amnesty for all the horrors of the past. Slave-owners were still slave-owners. Imperialists were still imperialists. Supremacists of race, gender or creed were still supremacists. But one can condemn their actions without entirely condemning the individuals as human beings, when the context of time and place made their attitudes and behaviour commonplace.

Some might say that even at the time there were those who did not share those attitudes and who fought against them. People who opposed slavery, opposed imperialism, opposed misogyny. People who, in many cases, suffered or died for their convictions. Am I saying that the people whose prejudices they confronted were just as good as they were?

No. But the paragons were the exceptions. Exceptional human beings should be remembered, honoured, and indeed have statues erected to them. But the rest of us need to be cut some slack. We should not be too harsh on those who believed neither more nor less than what most people of their time and culture believed. If there is one thing of which we can be certain, it is that some of our beliefs and behaviour today will be thought heinous by a future generation. We should be allowed some advance mitigation on our own behalf. Not all of us can be saints, or should be judged by the standards of saints.

The world needs tolerance and it needs understanding. It has never had enough of either. Yes: we should call out behaviour and attitudes, from the present or from the past, that we believe to be wrong. But we should refrain from ultimate judgments on those responsible for them. We should pay regard to time and context. We should listen to other perspectives. We should spare others from our unreasonable expectations, not least in the hope that we ourselves might be spared from the unreasonable expectations of the future.