Moral Heroism and the “Man of His Time” Defense

07-06-2019 20:06

We’ve all heard it-most likely more than once: the “man of his time” defense.

It goes something like this:

One person criticizes a historical figure on moral grounds. Another person defends that historical figure on temporal grounds.

“We can’t impose our moral standards on the past.”

“This is presentism!”

“He was only a man of his time.”

This defense re-directs blame. One moral charge is met with another: it is not the dead hero who errs, but you, his Modern-Day accuser. After all, they explain, he was only a man of his time. We cannot impose our moral standards on those who lived and died before us, they continue. More than simply unfair, such presentism smacks of arrogance.

In the civil sphere, this defense is most likely to be used when a beloved historical figure is accused of racism.

Yes, slave mastership is wrong, but Thomas Jefferson was a man of his time.

Yes, John Wayne should remain an American hero because everyone “believed in white supremacy” back then.

As these examples show, those who deploy the man of his time defense most need their hero to be not necessarily right, but innocent. He might have been wrong, but he should not be blamed. He simply could not have known better.

We hear this defense in theological and religious circles as well.

Yes, sexism is wrong, but please judge Augustine/Aquinas by the moral standards of his day.

Yes, Catholic magisterial authorities sanctioned slavery for nineteen centuries, but didn’t everyone?

Yes, white supremacy is evil, but how could Junipero Serra have known better?

There are several problems with this line of defense, but I want to focus on just two for now.

One, it’s simply not true. Or, more to the point, it’s true only if we pretend that only certain people existed or think that only certain opinions matter. In the case of Africanized slavery and its ongoing afterlife, for example, surely many of its black victims managed to “know better.”

Although the vast majority of enslaved people were denied the opportunity to write their opinions down on paper, many of them nonetheless left ample evidence of their moral dissent-they ran away, rebelled en masse, placed poison in their mistress’s favorite dish, and aborted fetuses conceived against their will, to name just a few examples among many.

Even still, some did manage to get their moral opinions into print. Frederick Douglass became a national sensation in the 1840s; his autobiography became a best-seller during that same decade. West African-born Ottabah Cugoano began his abolitionist career even earlier, in the 1780s; his theologically-inflected autobiography came to life shortly thereafter.

As these examples show, the man of his time defense mistakes the consequences of racialized power for objective reality. It accords moral priority to a racist white majority under the guise of sober impartiality. In truth, we choose not to remember those we’d rather forget. Nor can we remember those who were forgotten.

Whiteness is no excuse: even a few white people managed to discern the truth about Africanized slavery. German Quakers outside of Philadelphia first denounced slavery in 1688. 1688! Quaker abolitionism would acquire movement status a few decades later in the 1740s. Abby Kelley barnstormed the states of New York and Pennsylvania for the cause of abolitionism in the 1840s and beyond.

And, despite the purported moral impossibilities of their time and place, a few Catholic clerics such as Bartolome de Albornoz cast doubt on the African slave trade from its beginning. Further discrediting the man of his time defense, they did so on the grounds that the transatlantic slave trade did not conform to longstanding Catholic teaching about slavery. Africanized slavery’s apologists were the innovators. But for their efforts, these clerics received not celebration, but censure.

Two, by seeking to let past heroes off the hook, it lets us off the hook as well. It does so in at least one of the following ways. It sometimes implies that white supremacy, like petticoats and stagecoaches, has fallen out of fashion. But this of course is not true.

White people are still habituated into white supremacy just as non-black people are habituated into antiblackness supremacy. Yes, both evils have shape shifted over time, sometimes conceding and other times doubling down. But they live within us nonetheless.

One also wonders exactly when this historical grace period come to an end? When in history did racism become sufficiently unpopular to make those who promote it culpable? Was it 1865, when slavery was mostly abolished? 1870, when black men started becoming Senators and sizable landowners? 1955, when the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional? 1968, when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act?

As evidenced by a 2019 defense of John Wayne’s white supremacist ideology, for some, not even 1971 is recent enough.

The man of his time defense has a second disturbing implication. Ultimately, since we know white supremacy still shapes us, the man of his time defense also implies that contemporary advocates of racial evil ought to be exculpated as well. Those who proffer the man of his time defense end up creating a situation in which white supremacy exists only when no one can be blamed for it.

If Saints Peter Claver or Junipero Serra, or Thomas Jefferson, or John Wayne cannot be blamed for espousing the racism of their time, how can anyone else be?

Katie Grimes