Does it make sense to judge past behavior using present norms?

I’m not thinking about murder or theft. I think these are crimes that have always been considered illegal and–more importantly–immoral. While there may be mitigating circumstances for judges and courts to consider, e.g. hunger or self-defense, the basic societal norm doesn’t change. However, what I would like to talk about today is different. It is behaviors, acts that are clearly considered inappropriate, illegal even, from our current, contemporary point of view, things that may have been looked at very differently “way back” when they happened.

The #MeToo movement has put the spotlight on a great many such behaviors by men over the past eighteen months. And I think it is important that we highlight such behavior and speak out against sexual assault, rape, but also behavior that may not necessarily be illegal, but inappropriate, e.g. touching someone without their explicit consent, to not accept a no for a no etc. Racism, how we treat the LGBTQ-community, women’s rights etc. are other areas of how our views on humanity have evolved, for the better.

The people’s tribunal is in session…

Every now and then a celebrity or politician is making headlines for things they did a long time ago. Sometimes we learn when that was, sometimes, it’s more obscure. Let me say this again, just to make it clear because the topic is so sensitive, this isn’t about illegal behavior then and now, but inappropriate behavior. Is it fair to judge someone for something they did in the past when societal norms were different? I would like to use examples, but the trouble with specific people is that it clouds the bigger picture, as you dive into specific circumstances. So I won’t.

A long while ago, I wrote a post about the many statues that commemorate the American Civil War and the controversy they cause today. My point then was that we must see those statues in the light of the historical context during which they were erected. And treat them accordingly. Use them to teach today’s population about history so that we may avoid making the same mistakes again. I think we should apply the same approach to our more personal, human mistakes as well.

…and there is no way to appeal

If a politician made a racist remark thirty years ago may not necessarily disqualify them from holding office today. What was the context of their behavior then? What has their track record shown since? And how did their society, the place where they lived at the time view that which we now consider racist? Or homophobic? Please understand, I’m not trying to condone the act per se, but I also believe in human fallacy and in our ability to learn, to forgive and second chances.

In our days, we are so very quick to judge, so very quick to draw far-reaching conclusions. Social media and commenting here and there make people’s tribunals so easy to reach a damning verdict, a verdict to which there is no appeal. And let’s face it, if we look within ourselves, haven’t we all done things we are less proud of? Things we might not even remember? This is all part of the human equation. As such, everyone deserves that forgiveness, the caution before judgment, not just those we like or those who are on our side of an argument. Who has the right to cast that first stone?

What is your take? Should past actions be viewed through current lenses or through the lens of what society looked like back then, which–once again–is no endorsement of the past? Comments are welcome. Let’s talk.

Hans M Hirschi

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