Feet of Clay

We all grow up with heroes, people whose accomplishments we admire, whose philosophies and ideals helped to shape our own. As time passes our social conscience develops, the historical record (or our awareness of it) becomes more detailed, and our perspectives change. Unless our role models are fictional, we are bound to discover that they have faults. Often these faults will take the form of attitudes and actions which we find disagreeable in our current social environment. This raises a vexing question: may we dismiss these actions and attitudes by recognizing that they might have been more socially acceptable in the historical context from which they were born? Or must we reevaluate the meaning these people might have for us, in light of the discovery of their shortcomings?

I do not believe that the answer to every social question is relative. I have a family member, for example, who is prone to blame most social ills on “welfare niggers.” This concept is wrong, as are the attitudes that underlie it. It was as wrong in the South in the 1900’s, when he was formulating it, as it is today. Yet this same man was a critical influence on me as I was growing up, and helped to shape many of my views — views which I consider to be positive aspects of my character. I am, therefore, predisposed to find excuses for him. Yet, though I am keenly aware of the social forces in turn-of-the-century rural Missouri, I cannot believe that they lead inescapably to racist attitudes.

Before condemning others for refusing to see obvious truths, however, we would do well to consider how our own views might be interpreted by future generations. Imagine a society a generation or two into the future, where small but effective improvements in the technology and politics of contraception have made birth control universally accessible. In such a society, my belief that every woman has the right to choose to terminate an early pregnancy might be viewed with horror. Removed from direct contact with the social, political, economic, and technological barriers that make contraception so inaccessible, unpleasant, and unreliable in 1991, a person in the twenty-first century might find it impossible to understand why it should be an issue at all.

A good portion of Weltschmerz seems to derive from the fact that extremes seldom work well in the real world. The easy decisions, the ones that can be made by applying a black-and-white rule, are made so easily we don’t think about it. The tough decisions fall in that murky gray area, and have to be made one at a time. Similarly, we cannot simply appropriate another’s value system in its entirety, no matter how much some aspects might appeal to us. Ultimately, the decision as to whether or not an idea is right or wrong is a personal one, even if one does not feel that a relative value system is being applied. We can condemn an attitude as wrong, and represent that condemnation as an absolute truth. Can we not, then, also recognize positive values as truth, even if their source is somehow flawed? Indeed, I can only hope that those who might judge my life will be so kind.

RonRisley – 09 May 1991