One of the most fascinating asymmetries that exists in the lives of human beings is the asymmetry between looking forward and looking back. As imperfect as our memories are, whether speaking individually or collectively, they are nonetheless far better than our abilities at forecasting and prognostication. If we are poor historians, we are absolutely miserably incompetent prophets, as a general rule. No writer of history, no matter how bad (like Howard Zinn, to take an example not at random) can fail to come across some genuine knowledge about the past, however biased one’s perspective and worthless one’s worldview. In writing about the past, we are here and we know that something came before us, something that we have a record of, however much or little we may think about it or however perversely we may interpret it. The same is true of our personal memories. No matter how much our memories of the past have been warped by what has happened in the intervening years, we know that there was a past and have at least some glimpses of it that have survived in our brains, no matter how senile we may become. Our knowledge of the future is far less than even the most unreliable account of or memory of the past that we have, and this wide gap between the present but limited insights we have on our personal or collective past and our very limited cognizance of what will happen creates some fateful consequences that could lead us to some sort of moral insight but sadly usually do not.
One of the customs of our contemporary age is to treat figures of the past without any mercy concerning their personal and societal flaws. In seeking to counteract the tendency of viewing the past as a golden age and ourselves as fallen and corrupt and unworthy inheritors of the greatness of preceding generations, our age has without mercy or adequate self-awareness condemned past generations for a whole slew of real and imagined wrongs relating to the narrowness of their views and sympathies when compared with our current enlightened state. Instead of looking at people from the past–including past generations whose survivors still live and breathe–with a degree of sympathy and a giving of the benefit of the doubt, we consign such people and their insights gained over a lifetime to the rubbish bin of history as being hopelessly out of date and obsolete and unworthy of consideration, to say nothing of emulation. Where our asymmetry comes into effect, of course, is between our too-sure condemnation of the past and our too-blind belief that we will escape the condemnation of history that we so blithely dish out to others. A belief that we can dish it out without having to take it is the surest and most common sign of a hypocrite and a bully that exists. Even the suspicion that one will be held accountable for one’s words and one’s deeds and that later generations and other people may have a different (but valid) view of our words and deeds will tend to curb the excesses of our disregard for others, to the benefit of both ourselves and them.
One thing we can be sure about the future is that it will be different than the past. It may be better, it may be worse, it may be better in some areas and worse in others, but it will be different than the present, however it turns out to be. Those who believe that progress in certain dimensions is inevitable would be well-served to examine history. The world is full of sad stories of societal collapse where various mistakes on the part of rulers and the behavior of people within societies led to the destruction of cities and whole ways of life. The ruins of the past can speak evocatively to us and mock our expectations that we and our way of life will go on forever. Similarly, if we look at a nation like Afghanistan, we may see that what looks like progress to the noble goal of being a Westernized nation can be derailed by the forces of conservatism and reaction. Whether or not we are in favor of such forces in all circumstances or ways or may even be part of those forces in some circumstances and situations, if we are wise and informed by the history of the world we will be able to avoid too-facile judgments about the inevitability of certain ways of thinking or behavior or certain political or social worldviews. Progress is not inevitable at all–stagnation and regression are all too common fates for humanity when progress has gone awry, as it frequently does.
One of the reasons why, in generations past, there was a sense of respect given to those who were older is that it was presumed that life experience gave with it some degree of wisdom and insight about life and how it works that would be beneficial to those who are young and ignorant about the ways of the world and tendency to be more than a little cocksure about their own future achievements and attainments. The devaluing of the importance and worthiness of knowledge about the past and the ways of the past has come with it a remarkable blindness about the insights that we can gain from the past. Those who care about the value of subaltern groups and caring about the opinions of those who are so often ignored and disregarded ought to pay attention to the most oppressed subaltern group of all, and that is those people who are no longer alive to defend themselves in word or deed but who can be abused and libeled at will without remedy unless someone else should stand up in their defense without the expectation of being rewarded for such a thankless task. The only reward one has for speaking up on behalf of those from the past who could provide us with wisdom and insight but whose presence as being members of generations and groups who are considered to be beneath contempt is that bringing up their perspectives and insights may help to avoid some of the errant folly that our present age is headlong in rushing towards. Most people do not appreciate those who attempt to dissuade them from folly and error, and it is only after some earnest payment of that bungling has been paid that wisdom and insight is appreciated, all too late for it to be of practical value.
Be that as it may, as we are beings with the capacity for moral imagination, it is of use that we take advantage of this capacity when it comes to a proper evaluation of those in the past and of ourselves. If we are young, at some point we will be old, or dead. As hard as it can be to put up with the feebleness of body and mind that comes with old age, recognizing that if we are lucky to live for very long that we will experience that feebleness ourselves encourages us to be more merciful to others in the hope that when we are feeble that someone will be equally (or more) gracious with us. Similarly, the harshness with which we view the mistakes of the past and our lack of charity and understanding for the ways of thinking and acting that are present in other societies as well as cultures from the past (including our own) can help us to recognize the lack of charity that we ourselves are likely to be treated and viewed by others. If only for prudential reasons it is wise for us to be charitable and gracious to others to the greatest extent possible because more than we can possibly realize we will be dependent in our dotage or after our death in the realm of historical reputation on the charity and grace of other people who will not understand why we think and say and do what we have thought and said and done. To the extent that our charitable and gracious treatment of others is noted and remembered, we will at least have in our favor the awareness that we treated others with kindness and may therefore be worthy of being treated with some ourselves. Those who show no mercy to others will not be shown any mercy, and our day and age is not one in which mercy and consideration and respect and kindness and charity and graciousness are common currencies. At some point we will pay for that, and the price will be steep.