February 11, Tuesday, was the anniversary of when a group of Quakers petitioned Congress to end slavery. As Fred Clark says at the link, “Congress opted to ignore that. You’ve probably been told at several points that we mustn’t judge Congress for doing so because, after all, they were ‘men of their time.’ But the Quakers were people of their time too. And so were all the people who were enslaved in 1790. Sufficient moral evidence was readily available for anyone who wasn’t working ferociously hard to ignore it. Still is.”
This is important to keep in mind. We’re often told that we shouldn’t judge people for doing what was acceptable by the standards of their era. It’s been applied to everything from slavery to religious intolerance to Isaac Asimov aggressively fondling women to doctors who made nuclear experiments on unwitting human guinea pigs. The standards were different. If we’d been them, we’d have done the same things. Do we think we’ll do any better when judged by the standards of 230 years in the future or even 50?
I understand the logic of this argument, but it’s implicitly inviting us to judge the past and the standards of the past from the view of the oppressor. Not the view of the slaves or abolitionists. Not the female fans Asimov groped or the secretaries he chased around a desk; I suppose it’s possible he was oblivious to their discomfort, but I don’t buy that at all (as witness he almost never groped women who had any status in the SF world, only those who were safely subordinate). Not the people who brought up this behavior at the time, as abolitionists did. Some slave-owners saw the light and converted; others could have chosen to do so. The Catholic Church at its peak faced plenty of people who challenged its power and its opposition to religious freedom; the church leadership could have conceived that intolerance wasn’t the way to go.
After all, today we still have people who advocate for slavery or insist it really, really was good for blacks (unsurprisingly when they talk about shiftless people who need to shape up and work hard, they never mean unemployed white people). Marital rape was legally not rape in the U.S. until the 1970s, and wasn’t outlawed in every state until 1993. There are still people who think religious freedom is bad, just as long as their faith gets to decide what the rules are. I’m less troubled by someone in the future frowning over my views than the people arguing that bigotry and intolerance in the early 21st century were just the way it was — you couldn’t expect people to know any better could you?