Judge the past at your peril – who knows what we’ll be maligned for

Who knows what we will be judged for in 2118? It’s simply impossible to know.

And then there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Well, sort of. The hit 90’s American sitcom “Friends” recently hit Netflix, some people tweeted some things, and it all well and truly kicked off.

Apparently, some so called ‘Millenials’ (a group to which I, apparently, belong having only been witness to around 4 months of the 80’s) pointed out some ‘problematic’ things about one of the most popular television shows of all time. The lack of racial diversity, apparent sexism, transphobia, toxic masculinity – a veritable feast of modern Twitter cliches poured onto the internet like a spilled tub of organic houmous.

The reaction was no more enlightened. A howl of rage quickly countered, quite disproportionate to the initial crime, and blasted and smashed its way through the rather bewildered twentysomethings.

Now, let’s be clear. Friends is one of my all time favourite shows, it suited its time perfectly, and I can’t stand this horrid modern view that all things at all times must reflect all things and all people (except of course if they aren’t liberals). But that’s what it is – a MODERN view. Whilst the reaction was over the top, the silly, self-serving sobbing over how Chandler treated his dad deserved at least some of it.

I have been rather amazed, having watched some of my favourite classics again recently, at just how much things have moved in this direction, though. One episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ has Uncle Albert use the term ‘paki shop’ and ‘that paki’ (in purely descriptive terms, you understand, certainly not as an insult). I was quite shocked. But that is a relatively old show, most of it made before I was born. While such language makes me bristle, it was of its time (if you don’t believe that, the mere fact that it was broadcast with that word in it should make the case for you).

The IT Crowd has a whole episode devoted to the discomfort of the main characters while attending a ‘gay’ musical. Not much politically correct language there, and this from a trendy lefty writer and producer.

And herein lies the problem. Shows like Friends, the IT Crowd, The Office – they were written by as right-on lefty liberals as you would have been able to find at the time. So how can they be judged by the standards of 2018? Setting aside for a moment that the standards of 2018 are stupid and ridiculous, surely we must never watch anything from the past again?

Moving away from television to more serious matters of the past, some recent issues have involved attempting to remove statues of major historical figures from public view, and lamenting the views of otherwise heroic persons. This again is going to cause issues if we seek to constantly judge the past by the standards of today.

We judge the Victorians for sending children up chimneys. We judge the 1920s for restricting universal suffrage (despite the whole concept being, apparently, up for debate again following the referendum). We judge many previous centuries for overt racism. We judge the slave trade. But how many of things were obvious to the masses to be wrong? Demonstrably none of them.

The problem we will have is that a future generation will slam us – and it is next to impossible to work out what that thing is. The comedian Jimmy Carr once said “I know one of my jokes on my tour will land me in serious trouble – but there’s no way of knowing which one”. Clearly, we’re not trying to be deliberately offensive as Jimmy certainly is, but the outcome is the same – how can we know which of the things that we do or say now will be judged harshly by the standards of 2118?

There may be some obvious candidates. It could be our treatment of animals raised for food, but then that is already permeating pretty far into our consciousness. How about the supply chains for our clothing and electronic devices? Well again, we’re pretty aware of them. Driving around vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine? IN CITIES?! Again, it’s being addressed.

It could be that referring to any baby or child as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ will be seen as monstrous. “How could those ignorant people have assumed their child’s gender before they had a chance to work it out for themselves?”, they may cry. Or perhaps keeping an animal inside a domestic dwelling will be looked back on with shame and anger. “Can’t believe my grandma jailed a conscious creature and referred to it as ‘hers’ – #disowned”.

If that sounds alarmist, consider this. People quickly forget the speed at which some things have entered our consciousness. Who would have guessed even 2-3 years ago how controversial it would have been to claim that there are two genders? Slightly further back, that a marriage is between a man and a woman? I remember the word ‘gay’ being used as a pejorative on the playground at school, quite unchallenged. Sure these things are changing now (and fast), some rightly, others questionably – but should that give us a warning sign?

I don’t want to stray to far into predictions – I think I’ve made my point. Maybe those things will never come to pass. But the point remains – we simply cannot know. And we’re for the most part going about our lives as best we can, just like our ancestors did. If we want to be remembered fondly as people who tried, but were of their time, the biggest favour we could ourselves is giving the old great-great-grandparents a break. They tried their best.

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