We have been reading about the casual, and sometimes vigorous, dismissals of people, we otherwise respect, for holding what we consider with hindsight to be racist or other incompatible views.
This brilliant essay by Brian Morton in the New York Times talks about how to travel into the past.
/I think it’s a general misunderstanding, not just his. It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.
As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.
I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.
If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.
To take an example almost at random: Most of us rely on technology that can be traced to child labor or even slave labor. We know this — or we should know this — but we don’t think about it much. When we’re texting or using social media, we don’t tend to be troubled by the thought that the cobalt in our phones may have been extracted by 10-year-olds in Katanga working 12-hour shifts for a dollar a day. We don’t stop short, seized by the realization that taking part in the fight against global inequality is more urgent than anything else we could possibly be doing. We finish the text or the tweet or the email and go on with our lives.
If you or I were to write a novel with a passage in which someone takes a casual glance at his phone, how might this strike a reader from the future — someone whose understanding of human interconnectedness is far more acute than our own? I’m guessing that readers from the future might find our callousness almost unbearable, and might have to remind themselves that despite the monstrousness into which we could descend in passages like this, some of what we were saying might be worth listening to.
If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity (those essential tools of the time-traveler), we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back. We’ll be able to appreciate that in their limited ways, sometimes seeing beyond the prejudices of their age, sometimes unable to do so, they — the ones worth reading — were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do./