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Historical Figures Shouldn’t Be Judged By Current Values

Art by Ivanka Kumar

At some point in your life, the education system has made you learn about history. 

“Look at this person,” your teacher probably said. “Their actions inspired massive revolutions in certain aspects of our history. Also, they were racist, sexist, classist and acted on all of those beliefs.” 

Many of you probably then concluded that impressive as these people were, people from ye olden days were massive jerks.

History has countless depictions of extremism, bigotry and genocide. The atrocities committed throughout humanity show that perhaps the pessimistic philosophers Hobbes and Locke were right –– humans are cruel and brutish creatures.

Even the most highly-revered people are not without their faults. Take Martin Luther King Jr., for example. Peace-loving, equality preaching and radical for his time, King was an essential proponent behind the Civil Rights movement. He was also quite sexist. In fact, influential civil rights leader Ella Baker left a leadership organization run by King because he only agreed she could join on the condition that she receive no pay and a temporary title. 

Despite all her good work, King never allowed Baker to take a permanent role in the organization. When we look through history, we are often confronted with facts like these that seem contradictory at first glance. How does it make sense for equality-loving King to be sexist?

One way to take a look at these discrepancies is to understand that no one is without their faults, and some people have greater faults than others.

But this interpretation — while somewhat accurate — is also missing some crucial pieces of information.

The best way to analyze historical figures is to see them through the lens of their time period: looking at beliefs and behaviors that were socially accepted and widely prevalent when they were alive.

Peering through the lens  of a liberal Californian in the 21st century, it seems ludicrous that King preached equality for some but not all. After all, if the race you’re born into does not determine your worth, why would your sex?

The answer lies in the way history is often framed.

Presentism, the act of evaluating a past belief or action based on the beliefs of the present, is becoming increasingly common in schools, reframing many historical figures in almost an exclusively negative light.

Evaluating Martin Luther King Jr. and other historical figures with the morals of the present day omits something important: context. Brushing people off as “bad” or “flawed” ignores one of history’s major questions: Why do people act the way they do?

The answer lies in the timeframe. King was born in the 1900s, in a time period where sexism was normalized. It is possible he was never exposed to more modern viewpoints regarding gender equality.

But even after considering context, you may still decide King is not a figure to look up to. After all, he challenged fundamental beliefs on race. Why couldn’t he challenge beliefs on sex?

And that is a perfectly fair interpretation. Having a justification behind an action or belief does not change the morality of the belief, and it can be argued it does not change the morality of the person either.

But I believe it is important to keep the idea of presentism in mind. Acknowledging people’s motivations, regardless of how flawed they are, is always important when it comes to understanding history, and judging people from the past on today’s standards gives us an inaccurate view of who they really are.

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Lea Kwan
Lea Kwan, Staff Writer
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  • W

    Wes HagoodJan 10, 2024 at 8:28 am

    I agree is does not make sense to judge someone from a different era but today’s modern standards of ethics and morality.

    It does make sense to judge someone from a different era by the standards of their own generation.