The Past is Another Country

An academic colleague once made an intriguing observation about his left wing, multicultural theory-influenced undergraduates (i.e., all of them…he taught at UC Santa Cruz). They were absolutely unforgiving when judging the past of their own culture but were resolutely opposed to making any judgments about other cultures existing today. For example, when learning about the lack of professional career opportunities for American women in the 1950s, they would denounce the vicious patriarchy of the period, raging that it stemmed from an utterly horrible culture full of utterly horrible people who should have known better. But when asked about the same lack of professional career opportunities for women right now in, say, Mali or Uzbekistan, they would maintain that it would be oppressive and imperialistic of them to pass judgment: After all, how can people raised in one culture possibly understand or evaluate a completely different culture?

My colleague noted correctly that his students were showing an extreme lack of compassion for the past. It’s naïve and self-congratulatory for someone alive in 2015 to look back at 1955 or 1825 or any other prior era and assume that all the stupidity of the period would have been overcome if only they’d been there to set the benighted masses straight. It is equally naïve and self-congratulatory not to grapple with the fact that 50 or 100 years from now people will look back on some things we take for granted today and wonder what on earth we were thinking.

I sometimes made use of my colleague’s observation in psychotherapy when I was counselling adolescents and young adults who were being driven crazy by their grandparents, e.g., “I hate the way Grandma is always talking about Jesus and nagging me to go to church!”, “My grandfather won’t listen to me when I tell him not to keep all his money in his house – he’s completely paranoid about banks!”.
I would suggest to these young people to think of their grandparents as immigrants from another country: the past. We understand that people from other countries can have trouble adjusting to our society, that they may struggle to fit in and that it hurts them to have the values they grew up with rejected or surpassed. Seen in this light, our elders are easier to understand and to feel for, and when we ourselves are old we will need the same compassion from the young as the world we knew is replaced by the world they make.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.