The prevailing attitudes of an era do not exonerate past wrongdoings.
As a Canadian child, I was taught to celebrate the Fathers of Confederation, in particular John A. McDonald, our first prime minister.
As a Catholic child, I was taught to celebrate the missionaries who helped to build and educate this country, who opened the first hospitals and schools.
Later on, as a student in the UofA Women’s Studies department, I was taught to celebrate the champions of women’s rights, people like Canada’s Famous Five — Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby — who campaigned for the vote, and American reproductive rights campaigner Margaret Sanger.
But over the past decade or so there has been a reckoning of many such historical figures, called out for their discrimination or violence, or both, against marginalized groups. The Famous Five lobbied for the vote for women — but only for white, upper-class women. McClung, Murphy, and Parlby all campaigned in favour of Alberta’s eugenics program, and their support helped get the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta (1928) passed through parliament. The program targeted the mentally infirm, poor women, women of colour, and especially First Nations women (they made up 25% of all victims despite comprising only 6% of the population).
Margaret Sanger was also a vocal proponent of eugenics, though her reasons were based more on class than race. (But then, who were most likely to be poor in 1930s America? Catholics and people of color.) She considered the Nazi eugenics program to be too aggressive, but she was not above associating with openly racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in the pursuit of her own cause.
The Catholic Church has been called out for its history of sexual and physical abuse of children; in Canada this abuse was particularly directed against Native children of the Residential School System.
Sir John A. McDonald has been called out as the architect of the Residential School System, and recent calls for his statue to be removed from public spaces, as well as those of other historical figures such as Halifax’s controversial founder Edward Cornwallis, have demanded Canadians re-examine our past. (A similar movement in the States has also garnered headlines and sparked necessary public discussion.)
Yet whenever these historical figures are exposed as the less-than-perfect people they were, what I often hear from their defenders is this: “To be fair, s/he was a product of the time.”
That to me is a bogus excuse.
Time does not change society; people do.
Attitudes and laws change because someone or a group of people — perhaps more intelligent or understanding, or more compassionate, or more progressively minded, or the victims themselves — speak out against hate, abuse, and discriminatory legislation. They speak up, they gather together to form a united mass that cannot be ignored, and eventually they change the minds of others. The group then becomes a movement large enough to cause a cultural shift, and social progress takes place.
So when someone defends a person as a product of their time, what that really means is that person, regardless of their other fine qualities, nevertheless had a blind spot where they lacked the intelligence or understanding or compassion or foresight to see (or care about) the harmful effects of some of their other beliefs or actions. Does this mean the good things they did should be ignored or dismissed? Of course not. But it is equally wrong to dismiss criticism of past behaviour or beliefs that had negative, hurtful consequences for others. You can dismiss a child’s past bad behaviour, but not an adult’s. Time may force us to grow up, but it doesn’t force us to change our attitudes. Only criticism and self-reflection do that.