Is there a statute of limitations on political correctness?

I have now lived long enough to be a fundamental part of two different centuries. I have witnessed multiple generations: my parents (the Greatest Generation), my own (Baby Boomers), my children (the tail end of GenX and the start of Millennials) and now I am watching GenZ grow into adolescence.

I grew up in the time of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Andy of Mayberry.” I was too young for “Camelot” or serving in Vietnam, but both made indelible impressions on my psyche. I was not part of the Summer of Love, but high school in the early 70s was anything but prudish. It was a period of very mixed messages.

The world has much changed since I came of age. In many ways I am more comfortable with decades past. Things made sense then. I had a pretty clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. Men were providers, I suppose the last vestiges of the hunter gatherer. As fathers, they were aloof and stern, but towering figures to their children, frequently un-liked, but always respected.

I was rebellious against my parents. I heartily felt the sentiments of Cat Stevens melody, “Father and Son” and David Bowie’s “Changes.” I spent much of my life bucking authority, yet now I tend to bow-up when the younger generations question the standards I grew up with.

Let me be clear, I do not consider all of those values and mores from the past to be uniformly appropriate, fair or worthy. Certainly, some are (respect for God and country). Others are more questionable (racial prejudice and gender inequality).

Things should and do change, but not all change is for the better. I fear that we too easily re-write the rules and then apply them retroactively in a context in which they may not fit.

Here I tread on thin ice.

How should we judge our past actions? Are transgressions acceptable simply because that was the standard of the day. Was it right to relegate minorities to second class citizens simply because the rules made it so?

It is easy to say that we should accept the actions of the past as suitable simply because they were of a different time. That is incorrect.

However, is it appropriate to condemn someone of another age for beliefs they once held if they have subsequently revised their views. Is the utterance of a racial epitaph decades ago sufficient cause to label someone a racist today? Paula Deen was crucified for it. Yet I wonder how many whites who grew up in the South during the 50s and 60s are innocent of such action, regardless of how they may hide their earlier beliefs.

Likewise, there is a rare man over 50 that did not at one time make a comment to a woman that today would be termed inappropriate. Popular media of the time celebrated such chauvinism. Perhaps too many also crossed the line in sexual behavior. However, there may have been a finer line between “free love” and intimidation than we care to acknowledge. Some of these acts may be inexcusable, but not every comment or action falls into that category.

Even liberal icons of the past are guilty when it comes to violations of contemporary political correctness. FDR interned Japanese-Americans simply on racial identity. Kennedy (the entire clan) manipulated women to their own ends. Bill Clinton was caught in the act. LBJ often used derogatory racial comments at the very time he was trying to improve minority rights. It is a rare leader who is innocent of some transgression.

Is there a statute of limitations on such things? Are we to rewrite all the history books? If past actions or statements are “the” defining characteristic of a person, then we are all condemned.

I am certainly not innocent. Have I held ideas in the past about another person solely based on an outward characteristic (like race or gender)? Sadly, the answer is yes. Have I treated someone inappropriately because of those same characteristics? Yes, I have. Am I proud of this? No, but I also cannot pretend it never happened.

I (and many others of older generations) have changed our beliefs and behavior. Yet, we cannot escape the fact that latent racism and gender-bias still exists.

Forgiveness and tolerance are the key, but they cut both ways. Perhaps it might be more productive to focus on charting a consistent path forward rather than constantly rewriting the past based on an ever-changing set of criteria.

You may also like...