“He was a product of his time”
People from all walks of life frequently use this phrase in the defense of historical figures and artistic productions. The phrase rests on the premise that it is unethical to apply what is determined to be contemporary social norms or values onto past actions and ideas. This assertion is wrong. The phrase, in application, is a universal justification for hatred and violence under the guise of outdated social norms. What is more insidious, however, is how the phrase is used as a scapegoat for real historical analysis. The application of this sentiment by those in academia and in everyday conversation is reflective of many tools used to devalue the experiences and histories of marginalized groups.
Current historical education is frequently criticized for the tendency to focus on individuals. This is paired with a tendency to heroify these chosen few. This way of thinking is reflected in how people discuss groups like the founding fathers, or the great philosophes of the enlightenment, as if their character and insight ought to be unquestioned to this day. Dominant groups unwillingness to confront the complexity of reality in our education and discourse is what allows for this veneration. The “product of its time” sentiment is one tool used to simplify history. It presumes that participation in racialized and gendered violence is irrelevant if it conflicts with the idealized version of a figure or work. This can be exemplified by the conflict in academia over John Locke, and many figures like him. In most textbooks and profiles he is summarized as an english philosopher and author of Two Treatises of Government, where he argues for government based on the public’s sovereignty and natural rights. He is hailed as an influential enlightenment thinker, whose ideas were credited in influencing the glorious revolution of 1689 and the Declaration of Independence. He also invested heavily in companies that ran the transatlantic slave trade and worked on documents that outlined the “absolute power and authority” of masters over their slaves. This quote was not included in the profile. The dominant historians that shape historical narratives consciously omit these contradictions. These silences hinder our engagement with the figures and ideals that shape our society. This pattern reoccurred more recently in public discourse in the me too movement. As discussions on sexual assault became more widespread, many observers criticized the expressions of rape culture in “classic” 80s movies. In both scenarios, people rebutted the criticism by arguing they are simply the products of their time. In both scenarios this is a veiled attempt to silence factual criticism and prevent engagement with the racialized and gendered violence that has always been and continues to be a part of the western worlds legacy.
This returns to another trend present in incomplete historical narratives: the assumption of the subject. The product of its time defense assumes that the subject ia a member of the dominant group while completely ignoring the voices of minority groups and other discenters. In addition, this reading removes both the agency and the culpability of the presupposed subject. Take, for example, founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Many have tried to complicate their image as crusaders of liberty and freedom by acknowledging that they were slave owners. This is often met with the product of his time rebuttal. People using this defense are inherently asking how was he supposed to know it was wrong?; in this case it, is slavery. This removes the agency of Washington and Jefferson by asserting that because slavery existed, we should expect them to particitpate in slavery. This presumes that the people of the time had no choice but to participate in and protect the institution of slavery. During this time there was an easily identifiable group of people who objected to slavery: slaves. But the voices of enslaved people are not considered relevant. People using the rebuttal are silencing the activism and humanity of enslaved people. They are assuming Black voices have never mattered and further, that we should not expect Black voices to matter.
The product of its time response is especially disturbing because it acknowledges that the violence occurred, but dismisses it as unimportant. It is used in situations ranging from a bigoted comment to crimes against humanity. This utilization was on full display when a statue of Christopher Columbus was removed from Los Angeles in late 2018. A headline of a response article written reads “Christopher Columbus: A product of his time or guilty of genocide?” The article proceeds to analyze whether or not Columbus’s action constitute genocide. Another article published by Staten Island Live in 2013 is titled “Christopher Columbus, no saint, was product of his time”. The authors of these articles are presuming that being a product of one’s time is a reasonable justification of mass murder, enslavement, and rape. It reflects an unwavering acceptance of Columbus’ treatment of indigenous people; there is no expectation for indigenous people to be treated like human beings. They are calling for silencing the reality of Columbus’ violent legacy on the grounds that racism was normal. This excuse is baffling. Furthermore, all of these unconvincing defenses are in response to calls for honest historical narratives. They are defenses against discussing reality. They are thinly veiled attempts to classify recognition of racism and violence as unwarranted attacks.
This returns to the idea that it is unfair to apply “modern” ethics to the past. This claim is again incorrect and dangerous. It is not modern ethics to treat Africana people as human beings, nor is it unfair to apply this standard to all of time. Africana people in the western world have constantly vocalized their history, their humanity, and their resistance. It is a choice not to listen.
2 thoughts on “But He was a Product of His Time”
This post is very thought provoking and insightful. The idea of being a product of one’s time as an excuse for racist actions is a problem in the academia when dealing with problematic historical actors. I particularly liked how you put it at the end of your third paragraph and the idea that during the slavery not everyone was for the institution and we should not have to excuse the acceptance or participation in the subordination when we could focus on those who were against slavery. What are the implications of your critique of this phrase? How do should we deal with historical actors that are plagued by support and participation in slavery? How can we reverse the silencing that exists surrounding the thoughts of enslaved people and their ancestors?
This post is extremely intriguing as it argues that racism and the abuse that is correlated with it in our history is overshadowed by the ideal unbiased precedent of work, people, and studies; this actually strongly resembles my blow on racial bias in medicine as its early abuse on the enslaved was unaccounted for due to the huge advancement in early colonial medicine. However, your take on bringing in early English philosophers like John Locke, who was detrimental to the creation of our Constitution, brings an even deeper meaning to the dismissive behavior that is shown when it comes to displayed racism in the extent of the early creation of our nation. I really enjoyed your post as it brought upon questions of early moral and ethics and its correlation to the modern interworking of our society.