Of his time

When I criticize someone in the past for having done something that I consider bad by my own modern standards, I often get pushback from friends who say things like: “He was just a man of his time. [Alternative phrasing: a product of his time.] You can’t/shouldn’t judge him by modern standards!” (I’m using he here because usually the person who I’m criticizing in such contexts was male.)

So here are some responses to that argument.

  • I'm not saying that the person’s work is of no value. I’m saying that by my standards, something the person did or something about some of their work has some problematic aspects. We can simultaneously recognize that the person’s beliefs were common at the time, and recognize that by our own standards, those beliefs were wrong.
  • In most cases, lots of people who lived in that same time period didn't behave as badly as the person I’m criticizing. Therefore, it was possible to do better, even in that time period. Therefore, it seems reasonable to me to criticize the person.
  • Slaveowners were men of their time. Should we say that it's therefore okay that they owned slaves? Is it inappropriate for us to criticize them? By the standards of their society, what they were doing was fine; but that doesn’t mean that I’m required to approve of it.
  • Okay, I might as well go full Godwin’s Law: Hitler was a man of his time. Are we required to avoid criticizing him?
  • Trump is also a man of his time. Does that mean we should excuse him, because by his own standards and the standards of his supporters, his behavior isn’t bad?
  • Often, part of the “of his time” argument notes that in the future, people may criticize me, and I wouldn’t want them to do that, would I? Well, I certainly agree that people in the future may well judge our actions and beliefs by their own standards, and some of what I believe may well be repugnant to some people in the future. In that case, I expect that they will criticize me. I might disagree with some of their criticism, or I might realize that I’ve made mistakes too. Either way, I don’t think it will be inherently morally wrong of them to judge me by their standards.
  • Meta-argument: If none of the above points are convincing to you, then note that I too am a man of my time. So by the “you can’t judge a man of his time by your own standards” argument, you can’t judge me by your standards; you have to judge me by my standards, and my standards say that it’s okay to criticize past people. Therefore, you shouldn’t criticize me, and you should excuse my willingness to criticize people of the past. :)

See also Tempest’s post from 2015 about Lovecraft, which makes some of the same points.

(I wrote most of this post in early 2018, but didn’t finish and post it until mid-2019.)

3 Responses to “Of his time”

  1. Jason Merrill

    Hmm, I think of “man of his time” as meaning “the behavior under discussion was typical for a man of his time”, which would not apply to the more repugnant actions of Hitler or Trump. Otherwise, yes.

    • Jed

      My impression is that most people who say that someone was a “man of his time” or “product of his time” don’t really know what was typical of the time (they’re not usually historians); I think they usually mean something like “standards were different in the past than they are today, and someone who behaves according to the standards of their time should be forgiven for doing so by later people who have different standards.”

      So part of my point is that behaving according to the standards of one’s time can have really really awful results, and that it’s okay to criticize past people who did that.

      There were a lot of people at the time who approved of what Hitler was doing. He was a product of his environment—not, obviously, the only possible product of his environment, but the person he ended up being was shaped in part by his experience and the culture around him. His behavior wasn’t “typical,” but his attitudes were shared by a lot of people. (Though of course also not-shared by a lot of other people.)

      So, yeah, I do think that Hitler was a man/product of his time in much the same sense that Lovecraft was. Hitler was higher profile and took it further, but I don’t feel like the way that the man-of-his-time claim is usually made applies only to typical-of-the-time behavior.

  2. Mark Precious

    Brilliant as ever. The arguments you face always come from the socially and politically regressive sector of that particular person’s thinking, period. My favorite point is, “In most cases, lots of people who lived in that same time period didn’t behave as badly as the person I’m criticizing. Therefore, it was possible to do better, even in that time period. Therefore, it seems reasonable to me to criticize the person.” This is a common argument (that I agree with completely) on the Pacifica network. They, the late Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky note how privilege is all about, on the micro-level, the underlings making sure the privileged don’t have to be troubled with whispers of wrongness in their midst, and on the macro-level, Chomsky has said, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…” I would have that very conversation with my father about slavery and he’d not only use the arguments you mentioned. but that the slave owners didn’t even regard the slaves as human (and therefore the more correct comparison should be to how they treated their animals.) We can look at how they treated their children with enslaved women to see how that’s just plain false. But more to the point, there was all manner of disagreeing voices from the time that weren’t considered legitimate enough to listen to at the time or preserve for later. If they even spoke up. For example, if you were a Spaniard in 1500, how eager would you be to speak out against what you heard they were doing in the New World, given the government’s, the Church’s, and the actual slavers’ willingness to make maiming examples of everyone? More recently, my roommates pleaded with me not to have bumper plate stickers protesting the Bush administration circa 2003-2006 lest we get our tires slashed or a Molotov cocktail thrown through our window. In that context, the “man of his time” argument is really disgusting. And to show that this point is personal for me, my dad was one of those people who were “men of their times”, having been born in Pennsylvania in 1928, but the attitudes of the times didn’t remain stagnant from then ’til 2014; he could’ve made the effort to change his thinking. In a way, he did. He made the conscious choice, thanks to Fox News, to return to the values of his childhood. For me, one completely legitimate response to the “man of his time” argument (even though I wouldn’t actually use it), is, “Fuck you, you fascist asshole.”
    (Anyway, sorry for the rambling argument.)


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