From: L. Michael Hall
2021 Neurons #61
September 17, 2021
Can Save Politics #13
JUDGING THE PAST BY TODAY
Another Bad Idea
Here’s another bad political idea— judge what happened in previous times and ages by the standard and criteria of today. Forget about indexing an event to the time and culture in which it happened. Forget about what people were thinking, where science was at that day and age. Assume that not only can you impose your more advanced understandings on the past, but that by your hindsight view, you can now truly understand the past from your future position as you look back on things. Of course, in logic this is the Hindsight Bias and Fallacy.
Why is this a bad idea? It’s a really bad idea because it is the structure of mis-understanding. To understand anyone or anything, you have to start where the other person or the situation is. In NLP we talk about the structure of influence and effective communication in terms of matching where the other person is in order to take that person’s perceptive. Only then can we gain a sense of what and how things look like to that person. This comes from Milton Erickson’s formula for connecting to clients, “pace, pace, pace …. lead.”
Conversely, to jump in without taking the other’s perspective not only indicates the lack of compassion and empathy, but the unwillingness to “seek first to understand” a person on that person’s terms. It really an act of arrogance as it assumes that your perspective is the only true and right one. Spoiler Alert: It is not!
Evaluating or judging the founding fathers of the new constitutional republic of the United States by today’s standards inevitably puts them in a bad light. Science1770s was extremely primitive to science2021. The average person today knows more about medicine and the human body than the most advanced doctors of that age. They had no idea about bacteria or germs; they had no concept about vitamins or minerals. They used leaches and engaged in blood-letting — which led to George Washington’s death.
In addition to being arrogant, it is actually downright stupid to impose our thinking patterns, understandings, cultural background knowledge, etc. on people in the 17th or 18th centuries. At that point in history, the world (meaning most countries) was just coming to a level of conscience that made them think that slavery was wrong. They still put the mentally ill in dungeons and would go out on the weekends to make fun of them and mock them. It was sport. From our perspective today, it is cruel and inhumane.
Paradoxically, many of the founders of the country in the north actually kept their slaves and treated them with respect and human decency because to free them was to turn them loose in a society that was not ready to integrate them. They would be treated worse and would be more vulnerable to mistreatment if freed. If the gears of social changes grind away slowly, often it is because there are other changes that first have to occur. So long before the proclamation of emancipation by Abraham Lincoln in 1860, there was the prohibition of slave ships in 1808. They first had to cut off the supply chain which meant the slave dealers had to change, the slave sellers in Africa had to change, and so on.
To understand the past accurately, we can never view it through the lens of today. To truly understand what was going on then and how things developed from then to now, we can not judge them by the criteria which has been developed since that time. All of the current “cancel culture” of today ignores and disrespects the advances that people were making two hundred years ago. That’s a foolish and fallacious way to try to comprehend the past.
In psychology, sound mental and emotional health also has to avoid this Hindsight Bias. If you judge your seven-year old self by your more grown up and mature understanding of today— you will always come up short. You will always to condemned and blamed. Of course, when you were 7 or 15 you had a 7-year old brain and operated by 7-year-old values. A much better idea is to judge the past with the values, criteria, and understandings of that day and time.