Part of the 20th Century’s progress myth was an assumption that recency means improvement and therefore old age means “fixed in early developmental stage.”
The argument goes that it’s unjust to measure ancients by the morality of this society rather than by the morals of their own culture. It’s wrong, some say, to judge grandparents by their grandchildren’s standards.
But this approach to history flattens out the variations within each era and minimizes options that’s each of us has no matter when we live.
General Lee and General Grant were both products of their time, and they fought on different sides of the U.S. Civil War.
Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery were also products of their time, and their shared story is legendary.
We’re all products of our time. Every soul in history was a product of their time. And because our era is something each generation shares, it isn’t a strong explainer for why people take the ethical paths they do. Whatever our common factors, they affect people who are similar to us and those who have different beliefs.
There were people living during Lee’s and Grant’s era who were much further along than both men on the novel ideal that enslavement was wrong. (There were also ancient Greeks who’d figured this out—before the era of Christ.)
Some people in the 1900s made safe homes for their trans children; others worked to explain the relationship between coal burning and greenhouse gases. These innovations aren’t all new and contemporaries aren’t necessarily that much further ahead than our ancestors on maintaining open-hearted welcome or brainstorming about climate action.
I’ve befriended enough grandparents now to recognize that whether they learn or grow isn’t an exclusive function of their age or generation. It’s also related to their choices and how motivated they are to see an oppressive environment that negatively impacts us change.
We can choose to stay open to new ideas, new people, and old responsibilities to them all. Our ethical choices are up to us, not simply when we happened to be born.