Old Timey Racism

I like Jules Verne. I do.

And I know it’s problematic to apply current day social codes to someone from a hundred and fifty years ago.

Well, not really problematic, inasmuch as they were in the wrong about how they treated minorities. The problem comes in disregarding them completely because of attitudes that at the time were fairly common.

Doesn’t make those attitudes right, but it’s like saying NASA contributed nothing to society because they didn’t value their female employees the same as they did men. It was wrong the way the women in Hidden Figures were treated, but at the same time, it’s also factually incorrect to say NASA is worthless as a result.

I try to keep this in mind when dealing with anyone, and particularly with old literature or media. These days, if someone wrote as Verne did in say, Five Weeks In A Balloon, where the inhabitants of Africa were repeatedly referred to savages or darkies, I think most people would be justifiably upset.

Because that’s the way it is now. We’re all aware of what racism is and what it stems from and how unacceptable it is. There’s no excuse for Trumpers and Republicans to behave the way they do toward minorities.

We’ve all been aware of how racism negatively impacts individuals and society, at least since Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. It still exists, but we all know it’s wrong to pre-judge people on anything but their behaviour.

At the same time, we are all evolving. Our society is evolving. We can say Jules Verne was wrong to reference Africans in this way, but given the environment he would have been raised in, it would be disingenuous to believe that he would or could have held to the same level of tolerance we are expected to today. Hell, half of us seem to be unable to do so now.

Imagine trying to do so back when the ideas barely registered on anyone’s radar.

I think about how certain attitudes and beliefs we have now are common, even among the extreme left, and how those might be construed in fifty or hundred years from now. How will we be judged against the coming evolution of tolerance? Will the beliefs of the left be considered those of the far right in our children or grandchildren’s lives?

Would we think it fair to be judged by social codes we don’t even know to think about yet? We are still, as a species, learning to respect one another based on mutual tolerance for one another as human beings, without pre-judging based on appearance or gender or nationality, among other things.

Who knows what comes next? Would we be comfortable being judged on the attitudes and beliefs a thousand years hence? A hundred? Hell, I’m embarrassed about shit I said in my twenties I’d never even consider saying now, because I’ve learned to be better. I’ve grown as a person. Some of those lessons came on topics I never even would have known to consider back then. I just didn’t have the experience to see it in a more enlightened manner.

My own fault, I know, but you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’re not exposed to alternative viewpoints, and it’s not causing personal issues for you, you may not even look. In fact, I think it’s likely you wouldn’t. White privilege, right?

That’s the whole thing, right? We grow up in a bubble, without firsthand knowledge of prejudice. Our lack of experience then can make us insensitive to those who have experienced it. And that sucks.

So, we learn. We try.

Well, some of us. There’s a whole other faction out there who now feels the brunt of bearing that lack of knowledge and has just decided they’d rather not learn, and double down on what they don’t know.

And that’s a whole other story, more Harper Lee than Verne. And hopefully not more Orwellian in the end.

Because when we don’t try, when we demonize and victimize and refuse to find common ground, that’s inevitably where shit ends up.

We can do better, all of us, left and right. We just have to remember, it’s a growth curve, and the only sin is not to try.

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